Planet Books


Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

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This is a mammoth book that finally brings to light a colossal disaster. And it will shock you. Higginbotham writes in an engaging narrative style, and the three-page prologue got me straight away. Immediately, the combination of that narrative style and meticulous research puts you there. In 1986, Chernobyl; knowing what will happen, but not exactly when or exactly how.

While the large cast of characters is complicated to keep track of (the glossary at the front helps), the physics is explained clearly. As are the issues inherent in the Soviet command structure. Factors including lack of questioning, cutting corners and costs that permeated the higher orders of Soviet society and inevitably contributed to the disaster are clearly established.

Higginbotham’s ability to create suspense is impressive. Even before he describes the accident itself, the reader can see the numerous problems leading up to it and can almost feel the tension building, much like the participants would have. But hints of what are to come could never detract from the shock when things really do fall apart.

The Soviet reaction, or lack thereof, is equally stunning in its depiction. When people start dying, it becomes harder and harder to read. Although Higginbotham never sensationalises or places blame, it's still very confronting, especially the descriptions of acute radiation poisoning.

The subject matter and the 140 odd pages of detailed notes and bibliography at the end make this seem like a longer book than it really is. In reality you fly through it, and I became slightly obsessed looking up images and further information online. The after effects are extraordinary, especially in terms of increased cancer in exposed areas, but not as severe as first feared. Wild animal populations in the exclusion zone are even recovering without humans to impede them.

So, are the fourth-generation nuclear reactors with thorium cores a solution to our current power problems? Small, cheap and producing no carbon dioxide, we cannot ignore the positives of atomic power. Statistically, nuclear energy has produced fewer deaths than even wind turbines, but are we willing to pay the price for possible fallout? Are we still ruled by our fear of the mighty atom? This eminently readable book asks these questions and provides a tale of caution.