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Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster Paperback – 31 Oct. 2019
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THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
'Superb, enthralling and necessarily terrifying . . . every step feels spring-loaded with tension... extraordinary.' The New York Times
The story of Chernobyl is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth. Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the 1986 disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it first-hand. Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, this book makes for a masterful non-fiction thriller.
Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers not only its own citizens, but all of humanity. It is a story that has long remained in dispute, clouded from the beginning in secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation.
Midnight In Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of history's worst nuclear disaster, of human resilience and ingenuity and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will - lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats - remain not just vital but necessary.
Now, Higginbotham brings us closer to the truth behind this colossal tragedy.
'Tells the story of the disaster and its gruesome aftermath with thriller-like flair . . . wonderful and chilling ... written with skill and passion.' The Observer
'An invaluable contribution to history.' Serhii Plokhy, Evening Standard
LONGLISTED FOR THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF LITERATURE ONDAATJE PRIZE 2020
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From the Publisher
Adam Higginbotham writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Businessweek, Smithsonian, Men’s Journal, and The Atavist. He began his career in magazines and newspapers in London, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Face and a contributing editor at The Sunday Telegraph. The author of Midnight in Chernobyl, he lives in New York City.
An invaluable contribution to history... tells a compelling story exceptionally well. -- Serhii Plokhy ― Evening Standard
Reads like a thriller: forensic, compelling and utterly terrifying. ― Mail on Sunday
Higginbotham tells the story of the disaster and its gruesome aftermath with thriller-like flair. Midnight in Chernobyl is wonderful and chilling ... written with skill and passion. A tale of hubris and doomed ambition. ― The Observer
Adam Higginbotham uses all of the techniques of the top-notch longform journalist to full effect. He swoops us into the heart of the catastrophe. ― The Guardian
About the Author
- Publisher : Corgi; 1st edition (31 Oct. 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 560 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0552172898
- ISBN-13 : 978-0552172899
- Dimensions : 12.7 x 3.4 x 19.8 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 21,304 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from United Kingdom
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The main aspects of the story of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and meltdown are the history of the USSR nuclear industry; the society and environment within which the civilian (electricity-generation) arm of the industry operated; the technical aspects of the disaster itself; the enormous Soviet recovery effort; the medical, health and environmental effects; and the long-term consequences and aftermath. No author can be a specialist at them all, but Mr Higginbotham nevertheless handles than all with equal facility, thoroughness and clarity. It's a tour de force.
One of my other reviews is of 'Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy' by the Ukrainian writer Serhii Plokhy. It's good but is simply outshone by 'Midnight...'. Mr Higginbotham's work is superior in its technical exposition of the disaster; in its use of numbers and radiation metrics; in its description of the immediate Soviet response; on the construction of the sarcophagus; on what happened inside the entombed reactor in subsequent years; and, critically, in its assessment and identification of the underlying causes. In an unsentimental way, 'Midnight...' also expresses compassion for the victims as well as the poignancy of the consequences affecting individuals. Lastly, and in contrast to Mr Plokhy, 'Midnight...' seems to me to remain at all times politically disinterested and impartial.
For identification of underlying cause -- as opposed to the immediate technical triggers of the accident -- I can do no better than quote from page 347: '...the origins of the Chernobyl disaster lay in a combination of "scientific, technological, socioeconomic, and human factors" unique to the USSR. The Soviet nuclear industry, lacking even rudimentary safety practices, had relied upon its operators to behave with robotic precision night after night, despite constant pressure to beat deadlines and "exceed the plan" that made disregard for the letter of the regulations almost inevitable.' Case rests.
The gripe? Yes. Mr Higginbotham's technical account of how fission reactors operate (pp35-38) doesn't maintain a continuous logical thread. Reading and re-reading didn't clarify for me the inherent design flaw of the Soviet RBMK reactor. One sentence on p38 threw me and left me guessing: "In reactors that use water as both coolant and moderator, as the volume of steam increases, fewer neutrons are slowed, so reactivity falls.". This seems counterintuitive: surely, if *fewer* neutrons are slowed, reactivity would tend *not* to fall? Explanation came from a high-school physics text that I paraphrase and summarise thus:
-Natural uranium comes in two isotopes: Uranium238 (99.3%) and Uranium235 (0.7%).
-Fission is caused by neutrons striking uranium atoms.
-Fast neutrons are caused by fission of U235 atoms.
-Fast neutrons striking U238 do not cause fission.
-Fast neutrons striking U235 cause negligible fission.
-Slow neutrons are only slightly absorbed by U238, and cause negligible fission.
-**Slow neutrons striking U235 cause fission**.
-For U235 fission to happen such that a self-sustaining chain reaction may occur, there needs to be sufficient mass of U235 (at least 2-3% enriched) in the total (U238+U235) mass of uranium.
-Then, a good neutron moderator -- water or graphite -- is needed to **slow down enough fast neutrons** to sustain a chain reaction in U235.
-If the moderator is water (most Western reactors), and if the water boils and turns to steam, steam is far less effective as moderator than water, *fewer* neutrons are slowed and the continuing U235 reaction stops spontaneously.
-If the moderator is graphite (Chernobyl RBMK) and if surrounding coolant water boils and turns to steam, neutron moderation by the graphite is unchanged (the chain reaction continues) but the neutron absorbtion function of the coolant water reduces.
-Moderation by the graphite as a consequence increases; reactivity increases; heat increases; more coolant water turns to steam and the escalation (expressed as the *positive void*) continues.
-The unchecked result is fire in the graphite.
-To control and reduce moderation by the graphite, the control rods must be inserted in the graphite core, and they **must work**.
A layman's sequencing, perhaps, which I am sure experts will fault. But it is logically joined-up and is superior to the explanations given by either Messrs. Higginbotham or Plokhy.
Gripe allowed for, Midnight in Chernobyl is a fabulous book that I recommend unreservedly.
It contains a number of technical inaccuracies which make me wonder if the author actually understood what happened that day.
"The truth about Chernobyl" by Grigory Medvedev and "Atomic accidents" by James Mahaffey are both more accurate,the first giving a full account and the second a brief overview.
A series of avoidable problems (at least they would have been if not for the curious mirror world of Soviet politics) meant that a hastily designed, badly built and poorly maintained nuclear reactor (or to you and me a horrific world threatening disaster waiting to happen) had it's predictable explosive melt-down.
Because the Soviet system could not admit that their technology was not the world-leading miracle that their government proclaimed - they couldn't tell anyone that a huge and deadly poisonous cloud of god knows what was heading out of Chernobyl and about to cross into Europe.
And so for several weeks, whilst they fumbled about trying to fix it (which mostly meant sending untrained and unprotected men to try and cover the deadly nuclear core with a variety of things - some of which only made it worse), the world was unaware of the imminent radioactive menace bearing down on them.
Read this and be VERY VERY afraid.
Some of my family with young children at that moment in time were living in one of the places in the UK most affected by the radio-active fallout. It is curious (and unproven) but three out of four of them (including my young niece) all ended up with cancer of some form...