In my quest to read more non-fiction; buoyed by last year’s acclaim for the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, I took a recommendation to read Midnight in Chernobyl.
I had previously attempted a non-fiction book about the Chernobyl disaster, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy – however I’d stalled on that one, and thus I found Midnight in Chernobyl a bit of a daunting proposition. History seemed to have a slightly dry, disconnected prose style that didn’t quite resonate – even now I struggle to quite put my finger on why that book hadn’t struck home.
However, Midnight proved considerably more engaging. It is a visceral, technical and compelling account not just of the disaster that took place on April 26th 1986 at 1:23:45AM but the moves that made disaster seem inevitable – missteps and mistakes that combined to create the nuclear disaster of 1986, but also the monumental, and initially misguided efforts to mitigate the disaster.
Midnight in Chernobyl, for me, succeeds because it reads much more like a story than an account. There’s a compendium of characters – including Reactor 4 itself – that all combine to make the chilling effects of the disaster what they proved to be. And the prose is chilling, intense and compelling – I found it difficult to stop reading, wanting to read on to find out what happened next.
Midnight in Chernobyl is clearly assiduously researched; but it also reaches from the late 1980s as the Soviet state begins to implode to today, with some punchy references to characters we’d come to know throughout the story reflecting back. The book is technical, which I liked, but it’s also not unapproachable. It seems to apportion the bulk of the responsibility for the accident primarily, not to the reactor operators (who made some reckless, crazy decisions) or necessarily the deficiencies of the RBMK reactor design that made it inherently dangerous, especially in the wrong hands, but on the Soviet system that pushed all these elements together.
Take for instance, ludicrous, imposed timescales and deadlines: not just to get Reactor 4 running “before the end of 1983” or to complete the botched test that caused the explosion but even to lay the first cubic feet of concrete for the whole plant. These deadlines, politically motivated for some misguided sense of prestige led to construction faults and operator errors that ultimately led to accidents.
This same system placed individuals ill-qualified but for their party affiliations in prominent positions of management, regardless of their skills – the chief engineer of the plant being a factory worker who took a correspondent’s course by mail on nuclear physics, who seemed to be in post more for his buttering-up of the local Communist Party than perhaps due to his competence; indeed, he was asleep at the time of the test. The system’s rigid expectations from its staff – reduced, essentially, to automatons to simply fulfil the Party and State’s will – led to reckless corner-cutting from construction to the fateful test itself.
But the most grievous trait laid bare is a system mired in paranoid secrecy – from whether to evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat to even understanding the true nature of the accident. But the worst example of this broken system is that the accident was completely preventable: the power excursions that came about from the design flaw in the control rods in the RBMK reactor – a fault that would make the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl “a detonator”. Even the “official” inquiries tried to bury the truth with the reactor under tons of lead, boron, cement and lies.
The chronic mismanagement of the entire Communist system comes out as the biggest villain – not only did it lead to the disaster through a tragic series of isolated events that combined, it made the initial management of the accident ineffective, and hampered the international response in the misguided pursuit of “prestige”. Ultimately the disaster, one the Soviet economy was ill-prepared to cope with, played a major contributory role to the eventual collapse of the USSR.
I was discussing the book with the friend who recommended it, and he summed it up ina way I couldn’t put any more eloquently: “You start off feeling it’s inevitable and come out amazed it wasn’t worse.”
Indeed, Midnight in Chernobyl is not just a visceral, assiduously researched account of the disaster but a prism through which to observe a regime in chaos. It’s a gripping story that doesn’t overwhelm, and I’d highly recommend it!