4 out of 5 stars
I can still vividly remember the time we in the West first heard about a nuclear accident behind the Iron Curtain. Reports were appearing about a massive rise in radiation with denials from European states and a collective finger pointing to an accidental release somewhere in the USSR. At the height of the cold war, very little was confirmed on denied by the Soviets, but pressure built on the Kremlin and they began to reveal details of just what had happened in the Ukraine. It wasn’t an accidental release of a small amount of radiation that flowed across northern Europe, rather it was the aftermath of a reactor exploding at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
And it could have been so much worse.
What exactly happened on that fateful night of 26 April 1986 when at 1.23am the reactor exploded has never been fully known. The Soviets didn’t even release any details for a few days until pressure from around the world with the overwhelming evidence meant that they couldn’t do anything else but reveal the problem. Even then details were still sketchy and cold hard facts were very rare, not helped by the endemic secrecy and paranoia of the USSR. Slowly though, the facts surfaced and it was realised just how close we were to a European wide environmental catastrophe.
What actually happened all those years ago though? Thankfully Serhii Plokhy has been trawling the recently opened archives in search of the truth, finding out who was blamed and who actually was a fault for the disaster. He covers the flaws in the design or the reactor and the powerplay between the Kremlin and KGB as some scientists tried to tell the truth to the world. We hear the stories of those who gave their lives to stop it getting any worse and about the families who had almost no notice before they were told to leave the rapidly created exclusion zone.
At times it reads like a thriller, in particular, the event of that night and the schemes that they were using to contain the radiation and stop further explosions. Other time the narrative slows as you follow the convoluted and inept officials who seem more concerned with ensuring their arses were covered. He takes a wider look at the history of the region too, linking the events here to the eventual collapse of the Soviet state and the splintering into separate Eastern block countries and how the Ukrainians have been behind the eco movement in the former block. Occasionally I got a little bogged down with all the people involved but apart from that this is an excellent modern history of a nuclear disaster.