One weird feature of the little-understood phenomenon of radiation poisoning is that after the initial acute nausea, there is a latency period when many people feel OK. The Soviet soldiers under Captain “Moose” Zborovsky, for example, were able to slosh around for an hour in potentially lethal, gamma-emitting water while they desperately repaired the ruptured drainage under the melting core of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four, and at the time merely felt “exhausted, with an odd taste of sour apples in their mouths.”
Were these men heroic, servile, foolhardy or ignorant? This is one of many questions that will swirl in the minds of readers of Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, Adam Higginbotham’s spellbinding book about the April 1986 nuclear explosion at Chernobyl. Based on nearly 80 interviews with survivors and a deep dive into declassified Soviet documents, this account pulses with the human dramas that unfolded as people, including more than half a million conscripts, contended with the deadly explosion and its aftermath.
Midnight in Chernobyl also offers profound insights into the failing Soviet system as Mikhail Gorbachev tried to save it with “a new openness.” Despite the new policy, there was much the aging bureaucracy could not readily admit. In a competition with the West, the Soviets had supersized their reactors and, it turns out, deployed a flawed design. A push for speedy construction led to shortcuts and substandard materials. Yet, in what would be the last show-trial of the flagging regime, the explosion was blamed on operator error, and the plant director, knowing the script, went to prison without protest. The Soviets also failed to track the effects of radiation on the many people who worked in the contaminated zone, so to this date, the lethal legacy of the blast is not fully known. Growing public awareness of the cover-up contributed to distrust and the eventual collapse of the regime.
This is an excellent, enthralling account of the disaster and its fallout.