Midnight In Chernobyl: The Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Adam Higginbotham

Bantam Press, £20

Review by Brian Morton

In the shattered evenings of late April and May 1986, observers and rescuers reported seeing a strange column of pale light rising vertically from the remains of reactor number four at Chernobyl. Though Adam Higginbotham doesn’t make the connection, it surely flickers a disturbing pre-echo of the first attempt to memorialise the dead of the Twin Towers, when it was proposed to point a single searchlight at the skies from cleared space at Ground Zero. There’s an immediate and logical objection to any such link. The WTC attacks were a “terrorist” event. The explosion at Chernobyl was an “accident”. But dig any deeper than headlines and the parallels become more convincing. 9/11 was the result of interagency rivalry that (in every sense) went to the head of government. It was the result of and became the focus of acute paranoia. The meltdown at Chernobyl was the result of acute structural failures not just in reactor design but in the psychology of Sovietism itself. In the second case it led to the final show trials of the Communist regime; its successors seem to have dispensed with judicial process altogether. Likewise the Americans, who drew allies into a meaningless war on the back of the hijackings and then, somewhat later than hoped for, illegally executed their supposed mastermind on the sovereign soil of Pakistan. If you’re looking for an upside to any of this, the casualty figures in both cases were lower than feared, both in the original explosions and from inhaling the dust and aerosols they released.

Higginbotham keeps his focus very firmly on events in Ukraine and Moscow, but American parallels do sometimes surface. Until Chernobyl, the most celebrated nuclear power station accidents were the Windscale fire of October 1957 (it was punished in very Soviet style by having its name quietly changed to Sellafield) and the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, forty years ago next month. Remarkably and counter-intuitively, since it would seem an obvious propaganda coup for the Russians, the American accident was entirely suppressed in Russian media. So strongly invested in nuclear energy was the regime that no hint of weakness could be admitted.

Midnight In Chernobyl is the most frightening book you’ll read this year, or next. The science is boggling and there is a John Carpenterish tinge to the descriptions of radiation behaviour. A little basic science is useful – and a quick watch of Discovery Channel’s Zero Hour would help with the mechanics of the disaster – but even here there has been some cosmetic standardisation. Readers who have a working knowledge of what “curies”, “rads”, “rems” and “roentgens” are will need to adjust to “grays” and “Sieverts”, the current usages. Higginbotham wisely uses the language of the time, which is a nice blend of poetry and euphemistic Newspeak. “Rem” stands for “roentgen equivalent man”. We are talking about the quantities of radiation that a human being can absorb without harm. Suffice it to say that the helicopter crews who hovered near the shattered reactor in the days after April 26 absorbed many times the maximum lifetime dose in seconds. Radiation may be invisible, but it turns out to have a smell, sometimes described as like ozone or sour apples. One survivor told me in 1999, via a Ukrainian translator, that the air smelt of “poisoned brass”.

The truth is that the real story of Midnight In Chernobyl is a human story, or series of biographies, or the story of humanity in both its best and worst iterations. The Soviet mind-set was such that a nuclear accident was considered inconceivable, even to the man who was conducting the fatal test that led to the accident. Success in the nuclear industry could deliver the Order of Lenin; failure could win a trip to Siberia or a pistol shot in a sand-strewn basement. The difference between success and failure could be the flick of a switch or a mis-read dial. The gigantomania of Soviet Communism (and Chernobyl was just the descendant of Stalin’s absurd canal and tree-planting projects) meant that the bigger the reactor the bigger the accident waiting to happen. And yet the technology was run by ordinary, vulnerable people, eager to get on in life, win a bigger flat and the right to wear jeans, people who remained not just cheerful in the face of adversity but willing, in that stoical way that is incomprehensible in the individualistic West, to march into certain death for the motherland. The heroism of the “liquidators” who attempted to clear the sight of graphite shards is as touching as it is astonishing.

The families, who had long settled into the pretty atomgrad of Pripyat, were told they had to leave because of an “unsatisfactory radioactive situation”. We’re inured to this kind of language now. Much more poignant is the way the men they left behind tried to humanise their bizarre work by giving everything light hearted names. Roof areas were named after mothers and sweethearts. Strange excrescences of molten corium – compounds previously unknown to mankind – were nicknamed the “Ant”, the “Icicle” and, most memorably, the “Elephant’s Foot”. When robots were sent in to the most severely contaminated areas, the radiation sent them mad, like mechanical breakdancers. The men replaced the robots with a $10 toy car and went in behind that.

Soviet officials had not long before the accident viewed a decadent bourgeois entertainment called The China Syndrome. Chernobyl came very close to making life copy art. In the event, human bravery prevented any such disaster, though initial attempts to swamp the burning core with sand, chalk and lead proved ineffective. Reactor four was eventually encased in what everyone quickly knew as the Sarcophagus, a temple to the unholy of unholies. That has now been surrounded in turn by the (lovely turn of phrase) New Safe Confinement, the largest moveable structure ever made. It in turn may well have to be encased with an even larger building, which visitors can view – and tourists are now visiting the zone – the way visitors to Barcelona stare at the unfinishable cathedral of the Sagrada Familia. Animals and birds are coming back to Chernobyl. Migrating barn swallows seem to suffer more effects than resident birds. The radiation has killed fewer people than alcohol, cigarettes and motor cars. It’s a topsy-turvy story and Adam Higginbotham has told it with a calm regard for the balance between history and journalism, momentousness and human simplicity. If it’s the most frightening book you’ll read this year, it is also one of the most uplifting.