A disaster that could have been so much worse

Chernobyl was the world’s worst nuclear disaster, happening in Ukraine in 1986 when it was still part of the Soviet Union. It was not a time of openness between the East and West and many of the facts were hidden at the time and myths have grown up since about what happened. Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham tells the story of what happened in chronological order and in a straightforward way. He is clear about where assumptions were made, where safety was compromised but also about when people risked their lives for the sake of others.

Although I am interested in social history and in recent disasters I have limited scientific knowledge, especially in physics. This book explains the processes involved in nuclear fission and exactly what went wrong at Chernobyl. This was told in a simple enough way for me to grasp the details and understand the issues – the author frequently revisited the physics when necessary but this book is not dominated by the science.

There are really three aspects to this disaster. The first is that the Soviet system encouraged corruption, cutting corners and hiding facts. Had those in charge at the plant at the time of the disaster known information which had been learned from other facilities they might have been able to prevent what happened. The second aspect was the hierarchy of the operators and managers and their desire always to reach targets, often at the expense of safety. The third, major, problem was that there were few other sources of help when things did go wrong and the Soviet rulers were disinclined to ask for help from abroad or to reveal the true scale of the disaster.

The author concentrates on human stories and the impact of the disaster on the area as well as what was done to stop matters escalating and to prevent future problems. I found it a fascinating story with so many elements common to other disasters including the cover up attempts and the blaming of scapegoats. It is frightening to realise what could have happened and good to read of those who did so much to make sure that things weren’t worse.

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