Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disasterby Adam Higginbotham; Simon & Schuster (560 pages, $30).

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Published in 2019, Midnight in Chernobyl is a thoroughly researched account of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster by Journalist Adam Higginbotham. Drawing on twenty years of research, Higginbotham’s award-winning book exposes how propaganda, secrets, and myth not only lead to the Chernobyl Disaster, but have also created additional dangers by obscuring important truths about one of mankind’s greatest disasters.

The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred a little after midnight on April 26th, 1986 at the Number Four reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the northern portion of Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at that point in history. What took place at Chernobyl is considered history’s worst nuclear disaster both in cost and casualties. It is one of only two nuclear energy accidents rated at seven—the maximum severity—on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The initial emergency response combined with later decontamination efforts involved between 500,000-600,000 personnel and cost an estimated $68 billion, adjusted for inflation.

Higginbotham has dug deep into archives, personal papers, professional journals, and hundreds of hours of interviews to piece together the puzzle of the events that led up to the explosion that destroyed Reactor Number Four at Chernobyl in order to lay them out for us in his book, step by step. The author also shares several personal stories from people involved, in sometimes heroic and sometimes gory detail. Along the way, readers are made aware of the terrible fact that key members of the Soviet Union’s government, prominent Communist Party figures, and the USSR’s KGB security service went through great lengths to destroy evidence, silence experts, and ensure the government’s role in causing this accident was kept from public knowledge.

Higginbotham has weaved together a cohesive narrative involving all of the above, granting the reader a veritable front row seat to the unfolding radioactive mysteries, political intrigue, and deeply disturbing horrors of the Chernobyl Disaster, what led up to it, and what came after. The passages within Midnight in Chernobyl are easy to follow and profoundly written. Though the author does have to delve into the technical processes of radioactive material and nuclear power plants, he does a wonderful job of breaking down the concepts into layman’s terms and makes use of clever analogies along the way.

For better or worse, Higginbotham also has a knack for describing the real-life horror experienced by those most effected by the nuclear disaster, going by the eyewitness reports from the brave first responders, soldiers, hospital staff, and other civilians whom were often doomed to death by radiation poisoning and cancer for their proximity to the Chernobyl power plant, which remains one of the most radioactive places on Earth to this day. Perhaps the author felt that sharing the grisly truths about those who suffered as a consequence of the disaster could help instill a raw sense of injustice in the reader, as he goes on to detail the cowardly and shameless tactics powerful men used to wash their hands of all responsibility and shift all of the blame onto a few scapegoats.

While they came at a terribly steep price that nobody should’ve payed, the world at large has learned many, many lessons from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster, and just as many of these lessons were about nuclear physics, they were also about the dangerous game of cutting corners in safety and regulation for the sake of government secrets, propaganda, saving money, and appeasing bureaucracy. This book does a fantastic job of covering the accident, the victims, the culprits, and these painfully learned lessons with aid of well-researched information new and old. This book was years in the making, and received the 2020 William E. Colby Award for Military and Intelligence Writing, the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Non-Fiction, and was selected one of the 10 Best Books of 2019 by The New York Times.

Adam Higginbotham (born 1968 in Somerset) is a British journalist who is the former U.S. correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph Magazine and former editor-in-chief of The Face. He has also served as a contributing writer for The New Yorker, Wired, and The New York Times. To see other books we have concerning the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, you can click here.

Donavon Anderson is a Library Assistant in Reference at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at danderson@alamancelibraries.org.