Tag: Chernobyl

chernobylThe Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plan was supposed to be the pinnacle of Soviet innovation and a testament to the drive inspired by the spirit of Lenin & Stalin.   Its very construction was intended to be a statement that the western powers were no match for their Soviet counterparts.  But on April 26, 1986, a meltdown at the Number Four reactor changed all of that and the course of world history.  Moscow moved quick to suppress any information coming out of the Soviet Union.  Initially the damage control was somewhat successful but before long, nuclear engineers in neighboring countries and across Europe realized that something was terribly wrong and all indicators pointed towards the Soviet Union.   Officials were forced to issue a public admission regarding the incident, setting off alarm bells across the globe.  I remember watching the news of the disaster with my parents and being in complete shock.  My father could only watch and shake his head in disbelief.  No one knew what would happen next but it was clear that this accident was unlike any that the world had ever seen before.

All hands were on deck as Soviet troops, doctors, engineers and plant workers scrambled to contain the damage.   Massive amounts of gamma rays were escaping by the minute and those in the immediate vicinity of the reactor absorbed lethal dosages of radiation that would later wreak havoc on their bodies and decimate the number of relief workers.  Years would pass before doctors and scientists fully understood the lasting effects of exposure to radiation at the plant.  However, even today there is still much about Chernobyl that remains hidden.  The second sarcophagus that covers the reactor opened on July 3, 2019 and time will tell if it is a permanent fix to contain the deadly amounts of radiation found within the buried reactor.

I have always wondered what happened to ordinary people that lived in Pripyat and surrounding areas.   We know that those who worked in the plant or were assigned cleanup and rescue jobs close to it, developed numerous health conditions that often resulted in death.  Author Adam Higginbotham captured the plight of workers at the plant in his phenomenal book, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster.  Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine and raised in Belarus, one of the many former Soviet Social Republics.  In 2015 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and is known for her criticisms of the Soviet Union.  In this eye opening collection of personal accounts of life post-Chernobyl, she allows ordinary men and women to tell their stories of how Chernobyl changed their lives.  The filter is off and the people interviewed here are frank and unapologetic.  I caution the reader that the subject matter is graphic and the stories may send a chill down your spine.  But they are not here to make people feel good, they are telling the truth about life following the worst nuclear disaster in modern history.   Importantly, the author does not coach any of the people, she gives the green light and lets them tell us what they know and feel.

I believe that it goes without saying that any reader who decides to choose to this book should have an overall knowledge of the Chernobyl story.   While it is not necessary to read any prior material on the disaster, doing so would give the reader an even greater sense of how misinformed people were regarding the plant and the effects of radiation.   As I read through the book, I found the stories to be tragic and at other times surreal.  There is without a doubt a genuine disconnect between what the people believe and the danger that actually existed.  I found it hard to reconcile and can only surmise that the source of the disconnect was the Soviet way of life which relied on the tight control of information and the use of propaganda.  But did this control of information cause more deaths than necessary?

The stories paint a dark picture in which millions of citizens are largely unaware of the danger posed by the reactor’s meltdown.   Some go on as if nothing has changed, oblivious to the mortal danger around them.  The true danger of the exposure to radiation would later manifest itself not just in those with direct contact but even unborn children.   The births defects that plague the babies of Chernobyl are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the story.  The mothers are conflicted by anger, sadness and regret.  They believed in the Soviet system and that everything would be okay.  It is what they were told by those they trusted and by Moscow.  And the inability to actually see radiation undoubtedly made it harder for many to believe that where they were living was contaminated.   Their ignorance is perhaps a glaring defect of the Soviet system:  a population drive by innovation was also hindered by the suppression of  information and a strict chain of command that did not permit freedom of speech.  The inability of lower level party members to sound alarms and take measures that could have changed things is yet another tragedy in the Chernobyl story.   And it is discussed here in several of the interviews.

Sadly, as time continues to move forward, more individuals that are known as “Chernobylites”, will succumb to the long lasting effects from their time near the reactor and living in the areas in and around Pripyat.  Children born to that generation will continue to live with their birth defects and struggle to understand the unfair hand that they have been dealt in life.  The Soviet Union is long gone and it is believed by some that Chernobyl helped to bring about its demise.  The disaster did damage the Soviet reputation and spread mistrusts across the republics but there were other factors involved that lead to the Soviet Union’s dissolution in December, 1991.  Chernobyl will continue to haunt Russia and Ukraine, serving as a reminder of a dark time in Soviet history.  The recent HBO show of the same name has renewed interest in the disaster but to accurately capture what really happened, in particular to those that lived through it, the voices here are invaluable.

ASIN: B016QMCBKM

Soviet Union

ChernobylIn the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, engineers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, began the process of conducting a test of Reactor No. 4.  Unwilling to postpone the test another year, engineers pushed forward under questionable circumstances that proved to have deadly consequences.  Within minutes, disaster struck as a thunderous roar and cataclysmic explosion were felt and heard throughout the facility.  The eruption of the reactor resulted in a complete implosion and the propulsion of a radioactive dust cloud into the atmosphere.   Instantly, Soviet officials set in motion an official coverup of the disaster in an attempt to keep the news of the reactor’s meltdown from reaching western news outlets. On the surface,  the Politburo maintained the image of business as usual, but behind the scenes it was pandemonium. In the days and weeks that followed, the people of Pripyat looked death in the face as the reality of the nuclear fallout become terrifyingly clear.   Within days, cross-winds moving across Europe carried the dust cloud across several countries, setting off alarm bells as radiation dosimeters showed readings that were literally off the charts.  Before long, it became clear that a nuclear disaster had occurred and the most likely source was somewhere in the Soviet Union.   Soviet authorities pulled out all the stops in denying anything was amiss but the truth began to leak out and forced Moscow to make troubling admissions.   These events an those that followed have become known as the Chernobyl disaster and that story is told here again by author Adam Higginbotham who tells what is perhaps, the full story behind the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

More than thirty years have passed since the tragedy at Chernobyl and the names of those who responded to the emergency have faded over time.  Some of them are still alive but many others are no longer here, having joined the long list of victims who lost their lives from exposure to radiation in the wake of the meltdown.   Their stories are told here, showing the many sides of a tragedy that shocked the world.  And by the end of the book, their names will become seared into the reader’s memory as the key figures that are forever tied to the legacy of Chernobyl.  The author has done a great service in keeping their memories alive and in the process ensures that they are never forgotten as time passes and the world continues to move forward.

The amount of research that went into this book is staggering and Higginbotham was able to personally interview several individuals including the former director of Chernobyl, Viktor Brukhanov, who has publicly stated that officials covered-up the disaster for twenty years.   Brukhanov was not there the night of the test but his position as director resulted in his conviction for negligence and a ten-year prison sentence of which he served five. His conviction was one of several obtained by officials as scapegoats became the focus of Moscow.  The reality is that the meltdown was the result of a series of events that Higginbotham explores in detail leading up to that fateful night.  And the true story is simply astounding.

Undoubtedly, the disaster itself is the focus of the story but the book is also a step back into the closed-door mindset of the USSR and its iron grip over the Soviet Republics.  The policies of Mikhail Gorbachev were put to the test as old-school hardliners battled younger party members who saw the world through a different lens.  Communism, the Cold War, deception and gross negligence all play a role in the story and will cause readers to stare in disbelief.   Those of us who are old enough to remember the events as they played out will recall the events that transpired as news of the meltdown trickled out of the USSR.   But as Higginbotham shows, the information that became known to western nations was only part of the story.  And even former International Atomic Energy Agency director Hans Blix, did not know the full extent of the damage.  Figures put forward by Moscow were often intentionally skewed in an effort to downplay the severity of the reactor’s destruction.   The Politburo was determined to restrict as much information as possible and the fierce battles between party members highlights the system of dysfunction that existed, partly based on the belief in Soviet superiority over its U.S. counterpart.

From start to finish, I found myself glued to the book as the story continued to unfold.  And although I vividly remember the story as it broke in 1986, I learned a significant amount of new information in the book.  To help the reader, Higginbotham provides detailed explanations regarding radiation exposure which are crucial to understanding the severity of the recovery effort and the physical deterioration of those who directly participated in saving the plant.  None of the workers and responders were able to completely recover and struggled in later years with failing health and painfully slow deaths.  Thousands of men, women and children were exposed to radiation but the full number is probably far higher than Soviet officials were ever willing to admit.  Incredibly, officials resisted calls to evacuate Pripyat, believing such an act would be an admission that the situation was grave.  But as the truth became clear, officials were left with no choice and forced to evacuate the city which remains abandoned to this day.

Chernobyl has become the poster child for disasters involving nuclear disasters with its Ferris wheel and main building become bone-chilling landmarks from the city that is uninhabitable.  Pripyat has become so embedded in pop culture that it served as the setting for one of the chapters in the hit game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Today, there are those who visit Pripyat as explorers curious to see the fallout of a nuclear disaster in person.   And while the fourth reactor has been encased since 1986 in a protective shell to contain radiation, the surrounding areas still contains various amounts of contamination. Images and videos from visitors, show the  dark and desolate landscape of a once thriving city.   The sadness with which residents left Pripyat is captured by the author showing the multiple effects of the fallout, even to those who had not been exposed to lethal dosages of radiation.

Engineers have made significant advancements in safety procedures used to secure nuclear facilities.   Nuclear power, when used correctly, is considered a clean technology. It emits no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but a meltdown as shown here, would have devastating consequences.   The average person has little reason to think about nuclear power, but less than forty years ago,  the horror of a nuclear meltdown became frighteningly real and forced every nation that uses nuclear power to rethink its course going forward.  The danger of another Chernobyl has not left us and a meltdown could once again happen at some point in the future.  But I believe that if we remember the story of Chernobyl, re-told beautifully in this excellent compendium by Higginbotham, then we do have a high chance of preventing another Chernobyl before it has a chance to happen.

Towards the end of the book, the author also shows how the effects of Chernobyl played a role in the disintegration of the USSR as the Soviet Republics moved for independence.  Ukraine’s struggle is well-known and to this day, Russia has continually tried to exert its influence over its smaller-sized neighbor.  Chernobyl revealed a significant crack in the official facade of Soviet invincibility and changed the way the world viewed nuclear power.  Those who want to know what really happened on the night of April 25, 1986, and in the months that followed, will find the answers they seek and more here in this well-written and highly informative account of an event that should never be forgotten.

ASIN: B07GNV7PNH

Soviet Union