Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster Paperback – February 4, 2020
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"A compelling, panoramic account."—The Christian Science Monitor
“An account that reads almost like the script for a movie . . . Mr. Higginbotham has captured the terrible drama.” —The Wall Street Journal
"Midnight in Chernobyl is top-notch historical narrative: a tense, fast-paced, engrossing, and revelatory product of more than a decade of research. . . . A stunningly detailed account . . . For all its wealth of information, the work never becomes overwhelming or difficult to follow. Higginbotham humanizes the tale, maintaining a focus on the people involved and the choices, both heroic and not, they made in unimaginable circumstances. This is an essential human tale with global consequences."—Booklist, Starred Review
"Written with authority, this superb book reads like a classic disaster story and reveals a Soviet empire on the brink. . . . [A] vivid and exhaustive account.”—Kirkus, Starred Review
"This is a highly detailed, carefully documented, beautifully narrated telling of this breathtakingly complex accident and its mitigation. Higginbotham’s handling of the sociopolitical context is also deft." —Nature
"In fascinating detail, Higginbotham chronicles how the drama played out, showing that Soviet hubris in part led to the accident and Soviet secrecy compounded it." —Newsday
"Midnight in Chernobyl is wonderful and chilling. . . . Adam Higginbotham tells the story of the disaster and its gruesome aftermath with thriller-like flair. . . . It is a tale of hubris and doomed ambition, featuring Communist party bosses and hapless engineers, victims and villains, confusion and cover-up." —The Guardian
"More harrowing than any horror movie and more gripping than any thriller. . . Higginbotham creates a history book with the headlong pacing of fiction. . . . Read it to be scared. Read it to be angry. Read it because Higginbotham is a great writer in total control of his material. Just read it. This book will haunt you forever." —The Oklahoman
"Highly readable . . . Higginbotham [is] a skilled science writer. . . . Mr. Higginbotham’s book reflects extensive on-the-scene research. . . . Disaster was inevitable, and Mr. Higginbotham vividly describes the futile attempts of engineers to bring a runaway reactor under control." —The Washington Times
“The book reads like an adventure novel, but it’s a richly researched non-fiction work by a brilliant storyteller. . . . Get and read this gripping account to understand why people are still so afraid of nuclear power.” —Skeptic Magazine's Science Salon
About the Author
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The author offers, as well, background into the flaws in the design of the RBMK graphite-moderated boiler water reactor. He examines the corrupt and labyrinthine system of managing nuclear power in the USSR. While this is a superb work of journalism, it also holds the intrigue of a murder mystery. Who really was responsible? What really happened? Was it design error or operator error? The author makes this a very enlightening journey inside the minds of Soviet and Ukrainian leaders and scientists, as well as inside the broken lives of the workers who operated the plant and lived in nearby Pripyat.
Mr. Higginbotham makes a credible case for the fact that the Chernobyl disaster and its lingering aftershocks were the catalysts that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Glasnost and Perestroika were not able to overcome the inertia of a Soviet machine that did not know how to tell the truth to its people or to the world at large. That lack of candor became as toxic for the Soviet state as the radioactive debris from Chernobyl became for those in the path of the fallout.
I had a very personal;interest in this story. In 1992, I was part of a UN group that toured the Chernobyl complex, the village of Pripyat, and several hospitals in Kiev that were treating hundreds of victims of chronic radiation poisoning. Many of them were suffering from leukemia, thyroid cancer, and a host of other diseases. When we arrived at Chernobyl, we were taken to a visitors' center where we were show a 1:6 scale model of the Chernobyl complex. The official guide proceeded to give this UN group a speech about the wonderful safety history of Soviet nuclear power. "Of course, there was this one small incident that the world tries to blow out of proportion," At that time, one of the remaining reactors was still functioning, ,and we were taken to the control room, mere yards from the notorious sarcophagus that had been built to bury the debris of the core of Reactor Number Four. The engineers operating the plant were smoking, and ashes from their cigarettes fell onto the dials of the instruments that told them the status of the reactor and the turbines. It was clear that not many safety lessons had been learned from the worst nuclear accident in history.
This is a story with many villains and some remarkable heroes. Add to the list of heroes Mr. Higginbotham, whose yeoman work in uncovering facts and truths about Chernobyl will help the world to make more informed choices about the future of nuclear energy. This is a book that should be read by anyone with an interest in energy, the history of the Soviet Union, and the forces that shape history.
The author brilliantly details the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident that started out to be a safety check intended to simulate a blackout power-failure. Through a combination of reactor design flaws and operators not complying with a test checklist, uncontrolled nuclear reactions caused several steam explosions and an open-air graphite fire. Airborne plumes of radioactive fission products were distributed into parts of the USSR and other European countries for many days.
Two deaths occurred at the facility during the accident, 28 firefighters and other employees died of acute radiation sickness shortly afterward, and fourteen cancer deaths of 134 hospitalized survivors followed in the next ten years. It is estimated that, over the long term, several thousand additional cancer deaths will be attributed to the incident’s byproducts. Billions of dollars will be expended to mitigate the damage that has occurred, both to humans and the environment.
Secrecy and falsehoods by the USSR are evident throughout the account. It is also apparent that accidents at nuclear plants occur frequently, most of which are relatively innocuous considering the potential. Because nations will never want to admit being the cause of any worldwide disaster, secrecy will probably continue to accompany nuclear mishaps by any government, a scary thought.
Higginbottham’s research is immaculate, his comments and conclusions are well founded, and his writing is impeccable. The author has skillfully avoided fustian sentimentality, the scourge of investigative reporting, but still presents crackling prose that was a magnetic attraction for this reader.
The official Politburo verdict blames the disaster on gross breaches of regulations by operators whose “irresponsibility, negligence, and indiscipline led to grave consequences.” The report lists the ministers who were dismissed and/or expelled from the Communist Party and states that court proceedings will follow. However, the author goes on to reveal that there’s much more to the incident.
Higginbotham has uncovered the reality of the nightmare of nuclear disaster and makes it obvious that more tragedies might be expected. The potential is so real that every proposal for dangerous enterprises, regardless of purpose or stated invulnerability, must be carefully vetted and reviewed by knowledgeable and unbiased sources. A thoughtful study of “Midnight in Chernobyl” is certainly a prudent exercise in gaining such awareness.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES
Top international reviews
The main aspects of the story of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and meltdown are the history of the USSR nuclear industry; the society and environment within which the civilian (electricity-generation) arm of the industry operated; the technical aspects of the disaster itself; the enormous Soviet recovery effort; the medical, health and environmental effects; and the long-term consequences and aftermath. No author can be a specialist at them all, but Mr Higginbotham nevertheless handles than all with equal facility, thoroughness and clarity. It's a tour de force.
One of my other reviews is of 'Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy' by the Ukrainian writer Serhii Plokhy. It's good but is simply outshone by 'Midnight...'. Mr Higginbotham's work is superior in its technical exposition of the disaster; in its use of numbers and radiation metrics; in its description of the immediate Soviet response; on the construction of the sarcophagus; on what happened inside the entombed reactor in subsequent years; and, critically, in its assessment and identification of the underlying causes. In an unsentimental way, 'Midnight...' also expresses compassion for the victims as well as the poignancy of the consequences affecting individuals. Lastly, and in contrast to Mr Plokhy, 'Midnight...' seems to me to remain at all times politically disinterested and impartial.
For identification of underlying cause -- as opposed to the immediate technical triggers of the accident -- I can do no better than quote from page 347: '...the origins of the Chernobyl disaster lay in a combination of "scientific, technological, socioeconomic, and human factors" unique to the USSR. The Soviet nuclear industry, lacking even rudimentary safety practices, had relied upon its operators to behave with robotic precision night after night, despite constant pressure to beat deadlines and "exceed the plan" that made disregard for the letter of the regulations almost inevitable.' Case rests.
The gripe? Yes. Mr Higginbotham's technical account of how fission reactors operate (pp35-38) doesn't maintain a continuous logical thread. Reading and re-reading didn't clarify for me the inherent design flaw of the Soviet RBMK reactor. One sentence on p38 threw me and left me guessing: "In reactors that use water as both coolant and moderator, as the volume of steam increases, fewer neutrons are slowed, so reactivity falls.". This seems counterintuitive: surely, if *fewer* neutrons are slowed, reactivity would tend *not* to fall? Explanation came from a high-school physics text that I paraphrase and summarise thus:
Natural uranium comes in two isotopes: Uranium238 (99.3%) and Uranium235 (0.7%).
Fission is caused by neutrons striking uranium atoms.
Fast neutrons are caused by fission of U235 atoms.
Fast neutrons striking U238 do not cause fission.
Fast neutrons striking U235 cause negligible fission.
Slow neutrons are only slightly absorbed by U238, and cause negligible fission.
**Slow neutrons striking U235 cause fission**.
For U235 fission to happen such that a self-sustaining chain reaction may occur, there needs to be sufficient mass of U235 (at least 2-3% enriched) in the total (U238+U235) mass of uranium.
Then, a good neutron moderator -- water or graphite -- is needed to **slow down enough fast neutrons** to sustain a chain reaction in U235.
If the moderator is water (most Western reactors), and if the water boils and turns to steam, steam is far less effective as moderator than water, *fewer* neutrons are slowed and the continuing U235 reaction stops spontaneously.
If the moderator is graphite (Chernobyl RBMK) and if surrounding coolant water boils and turns to steam, neutron moderation by the graphite is unchanged (the chain reaction continues) but the neutron absorbtion function of the coolant water reduces.
Moderation by the graphite as a consequence increases; reactivity increases; heat increases; more coolant water turns to steam and the escalation (expressed as the *positive void*) continues.
The unchecked result is fire in the graphite.
To control and reduce moderation by the graphite, the control rods must be inserted in the graphite core, and they **must work**.
A layman's sequencing, perhaps, which I am sure experts will fault. But it is logically joined-up and is superior to the explanations given by either Messrs. Higginbotham or Plokhy.
Gripe allowed for, Midnight in Chernobyl is a fabulous book that I recommend unreservedly.
It contains a number of technical inaccuracies which make me wonder if the author actually understood what happened that day.
"The truth about Chernobyl" by Grigory Medvedev and "Atomic accidents" by James Mahaffey are both more accurate,the first giving a full account and the second a brief overview.
A series of avoidable problems (at least they would have been if not for the curious mirror world of Soviet politics) meant that a hastily designed, badly built and poorly maintained nuclear reactor (or to you and me a horrific world threatening disaster waiting to happen) had it's predictable explosive melt-down.
Because the Soviet system could not admit that their technology was not the world-leading miracle that their government proclaimed - they couldn't tell anyone that a huge and deadly poisonous cloud of god knows what was heading out of Chernobyl and about to cross into Europe.
And so for several weeks, whilst they fumbled about trying to fix it (which mostly meant sending untrained and unprotected men to try and cover the deadly nuclear core with a variety of things - some of which only made it worse), the world was unaware of the imminent radioactive menace bearing down on them.
Read this and be VERY VERY afraid.
Some of my family with young children at that moment in time were living in one of the places in the UK most affected by the radio-active fallout. It is curious (and unproven) but three out of four of them (including my young niece) all ended up with cancer of some form...
In 2019, I watched the phenomenal HBO Chernobyl miniseries. After that, I read Voices from Chernobyl - an oral history from the people affected. So going into this chunky book, I knew a bit.
But this has been an incredible read. It goes back to the start of the Russian nuclear programme, and provides a richer, fuller story of what happened - what happened inside the reactor itself, what happened inside the Institutes and the Party. What happened to the evacuees. What happened to the Soviet Union.
It's comprehensive, fascinating and terrifying. As we seek to tackle climate change, nuclear is clearly going to be a growing part of the story for all us. But this is a salutary reminder of the care we need to take.
The author clearly knows his stuff and I like his descriptions of the characters involved. There's a list of them at the beginning which is useful. The author also knows his science, which goes way over my normal fiction reading head, but nonetheless, I'm impressed.
I remember when it happened. I was a child with my family by the sea at Hayling island in the UK. People were talking about this huge toxic cloud floating over us and causing prolific damage. Luckily it didn't but I bet it's still in the minds of men, women and children who were affected. Books like this are good because they bring the disaster close to life.
I guess the series on Sky which I'm yet to watch has spurred some interest and people are buying this. Well I say go for it.
This book is constructed out of interviews with key figures and a good knowledge of the chemistry/physics of it all - it made me feel like I understood what the many technical problems were and some of the cultural attitudes that got in the way - a lack of health-n-safety culture and an over reliance on individual heroism/self-sacrifice. The story itself is very dramatic and the account of the response showed how much individual talent and heroism there was to go around. This was a page turner, keeping the human element to the fore.
This great book provides this detail but does so in a gripping way. The amount of research undertaken by the author is extraordinary and the size of the Notes section is testament to this effort.
The narrative is perfectly ordered and gives the reader a vivid picture of the interaction of the massive USSR state apparatus with the human beings who were involved in the pre accident development of the RBMK and the post accident efforts to deal with probably the worst human made industrial disaster!
The lasting impression provided by the story is one of incredible stoicism and bravery of the Russian population.
A must read book! Brilliant!