‘Midnight in Chernobyl’


Adam Higginbotham, Simon & Schuster, 560 pages, $29.95. At the entrance to the “Zone of Alienation” around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine stand two kiosks, painted a radioactive shade of yellow. Chernobyl-themed merchandise is sold. Next to a vat of mulled wine is a stack of mugs decorated with pictures of the frozen Ferris wheel in Pripyat (a town built to house the plant’s employees), and of the infamous reactor No. 4, which melted down on the morning of April 26, 1986. The weather was unseasonably warm on that fateful Saturday, and Pripyat was in a festive mood. Then the safety test scheduled for that morning went tragically wrong. While monitors in Sweden picked up radiation just hours after the explosion, it took the Soviet government three days to confirm the accident. Soviet leaders saw nuclear power as a technological prowess, and the RBMK, or “high power channel reactor,” was central to their plans. Yet as officials at the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, the secretive outfit in charge of the Soviet nuclear industry, knew all too well, the RBMK had fatal flaws. As Adam Higginbotham writes in “Midnight in Chernobyl,” it was as if “the pedals of a car had been wired in reverse, so that hitting the brakes made it accelerate instead of slowing down.” The inefficiencies, shortages and dysfunction of the Soviet system accentuated the risks. A blasé attitude since has been encouraged by the systematic minimization of the disaster’s impact. In that way, Chernobyl was a crisis not only of the Soviet Union but of modern civilization.