Book of the Month: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

This book is a gripping account of the world’s worst nuclear accident which occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Ukrainian town of Pripyat.

It is difficult to imagine now that the staggering scale of the accident was hushed up until radiation detectors in Sweden went off two days later, forcing the Soviets to admit that “an accident had taken place”. Few other details were revealed, fuelling rumours and speculation in the Western media.

Author Adam Higginbotham expertly deconstructs the disaster into the prelude, the main events and the aftermath. He begins by delving into the secretive world of the Soviet nuclear industry, where adherence to party hierarchy trumped technical expertise and bureaucratic malaise infected all levels. The construction of Chernobyl itself was beset by equipment malfunctions and fatal design flaws.

The sequence of events on April 26 are described in chilling detail, from the panic in the control room as the reactor exceeded operating limits to the initial response by a shell shocked Soviet apparatus that could not cope with the scale of the clean-up required. The aftermath is a narration of the Soviet Union’s last stand, weakened by the strain of disaster mitigation and growing public disaffection with the stagnant and crumbling socialist system.

Higginbotham masterfully guides the reader through the complicated operations of the nuclear reactor without softening the horrors that engulfed Pripyat’s inhabitants and disaster crews. Relying on archival records and witness accounts that he acknowledges may be unreliable due to Soviet-era obfuscation, Higginbotham nevertheless weaves a compelling narrative that is actually a joy to read. This book is a perfect companion to HBO’s acclaimed Chernobyl miniseries and will delight armchair historians of the Cold War.

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