Midnight in Chernobyl: Electrifying account of 1986 nuclear disaster examining the build-up and fallout via Independent

History: Midnight in Chernobyl

Adam Higginbotham

Bantam Press, 560 pages, hardback, €24

I remember it well. I was sitting on a rush-hour bus in Dublin when a fellow student held up the front of the Evening Herald. “What do you think of this?”he asked grimly. It was the dramatic headline about the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in then Soviet-controlled Ukraine. “Don’t go on your holidays to eastern Europe any time soon!” he warned me. I didn’t.


Fifty tonnes of uranium fuel from a reactor core vaporised instantly and were blasted into the atmosphere. Another 70 tonnes of uranium and 900 tonnes of highly radioactive graphite were dispersed round the reactor area, starting more than 30 fires. The 800 tonnes of graphite that remained in the reactor core caught fire at once, creating a radiological inferno that would burn for 10 days, sending lethal fumes into the sky.

The Soviet regime waited nearly three days before admitting that an accident had taken place, and did so only after the fumes had set off alarms in a nuclear plant in Sweden. The contaminants would soon travel around the globe, depositing radioactive material as far away as Japan and the farms of north Wales.

The power of Higginbotham’s book is its layered detail and driving narrative, but also in the context: he describes the planning of the Chernobyl plant, in the technological optimism of the 1970s, and the defiant pride that the Soviet system could also produce a globally inspiring feat of nuclear engineering like the West. The reality, of course, was that the Soviet system was creaking and needed new energy supplies urgently.

Dangerous shortcuts were thus taken at Chernobyl, and people were promoted beyond their qualification. Serious risks were taken with the treatment of radiation to speed up the plant’s nuclear production.

Higginbotham vividly describes the aftermath as army reservists cleared radioactive debris with their bare hands, and the denials still continued. The death toll is much disputed, from a few thousand killed immediately after the meltdown to the many tens of thousands who got cancers and other diseases, often some distance away.

The whole area around the reactor was devastated, and Irish charities still travel there to do Trojan work, especially with children.

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