The nuclear accident on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, the worst the world has known, was rooted in human ingenuity, blindness and error and resulted in a disaster that seems other-worldly in its strangeness.
As Adam Higginbotham details in his Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, the radiation released by the meltdown and explosion of Unit Four attacked living organisms, including human beings, in ways that were all but invisible.
Some workers at the nuclear station in Ukraine, then a constituent republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, were immediately infected and died soon after. Many other workers as well as residents of the nearby city of Pripyat and the surrounding farmlands spent the rest of their lives dealing with breakdown of their bodies due to radiation sickness.
Clouds of steam rose out of the crater of the destroyed reactor and drifted over northern USSR as well Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium and other areas of Europe, raising radiation levels far beyond normal and inflicting unknown physical damage on the hundreds of thousands of people who lived there. The exact numbers will never be known because of the secrecy with which the Soviet Union dealt with the catastrophe.
Higginbotham’s book, published in 2020, is intense, comprehensive and gripping as it lays out in great detail and with strong feeling the complicated factors that led up to the disaster, the disaster itself (described in a moment-by-moment fashion) and everything that came after.
It is an overwhelming story of a larger-than-life event that was, nonetheless, rooted deeply in the nature of human beings, in the human tendency to reach for great power — on the cheap.
“His accelerated tan”
Indeed, Higginbotham’s book is so astonishing and stunning in dealing with a tragedy that, at its radioactive heart, is so mysterious that I found myself gravitating to the homey details and imagery of his narrative — to those moments when the magnitude of the event was reduced to human scale.
For instance, just a few hours after the explosion at the station, with rumors swirling around Pripyat of what had happened, many people went about their lives as usual, such as those who went to the beach or chose something else as Higginbotham writes:
The technician’s next-door neighbor, an electrical assembly man, spurned the beach that morning in favor of the roof of his apartment building, where he lay down on a rubber mat to sunbathe. Almost immediately, his skin gave off a burning smell. At one point, he came down for a break, and his neighbor found him oddly excited and good humored, as if he’d been drinking. When no one else seemed interested in joining him up on the roof, the man returned there alone and continued to work on his accelerated tan.
Somehow, for me, that “accelerated tan” summed up so much of Midnight in Chernobyl.
The electrical assembly man, ignoring what had happened, was whistling while walking past the graveyard. He was, in this, a metaphor for all of the politicians, bureaucrats and scientists who had constructed the Soviet reactors in a slipshod, rough-and-ready manner.
And perhaps a metaphor for the fingers-crossed way in which nations today still depend on nuclear energy for power — and as an alternative to the climate change damage done by other sorts of power plants.
“Intoxicated by radiation”
The helicopter pilots who were sent on hundreds of missions to drop sand, iron and other materials in an effort to put out the fire that remained in Unit Four after the meltdown had to undergo high levels of radiation. So did their aircraft. And Higginbotham notes:
But it proved almost impossible to entirely remove the radiation from the helicopters, and when they returned each morning to begin a new mission, the airmen found the grass beneath their parked aircraft had turned yellow overnight.
Whatever those pilots were or weren’t feeling in their bodies from their high doses of radiation, they could see what the radiation was doing to the grass.
One Soviet colonel and his radio operator were alone in a Pripyat hotel, giving orders from the roof to those pilots about where and when to drop their loads.
Exploring the banquet hall downstairs, the two men had discovered a mysterious black carpet stretching from wall to wall, and it was only when the radioman had begun to cross it, sweltering in his rubber chemical protection suit, his boots crunching beneath him, that they realized the floor was covered with thousands of dozing flies, apparently intoxicated by radiation.
Higginbotham gives many accounts of the effects of radio sickness on the people in the plant — the vomiting and weakness that it caused, the burns, the internal wounds. Yet, the image of thousands of flies “intoxicated by radiation” says something above and beyond the facts.
Later in the book comes another image in which the animal world mirrors what is happening to the people coping with the catastrophe:
Only the fate of the crows that had come to scavenge from the debris but stayed too long — and whose irradiated carcasses now littered the area around the plant — provided any visible warning of the costs of ignorance.
“A shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light”
Higginbotham’s imagery throughout the book is vivid and often startling. For instance, he writes that the reactor was animal-like as it writhed right after the accident occurred:
The walls of the control room had begun to shake, the oscillations slow but growing in force. At his post on the pump desk, Boris Stolyarchuk heard a rising moan, the protest of a giant beast in anguish. There was a loud bang.
He also finds words to describe a sight never before seen of something that had never before been created — the remains of a reactor that had melted down:
From somewhere in the heart of the tangled mass of rebar and shattered concrete — from deep inside the ruins of Unit Four, where the reactor was supposed to be — Alexander Yuvchenko could see something more frightening still: a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity.
Like a great work of art, the sight Yuvchenko saw was a burst of something new and amazing, alluring and astonishing. It was also deeply dangerous.
Delicate and strange and encircled by a flickering spectrum of colors conjured by flames from within the burning building and superheated chunks of metal and machinery, the beautiful phosphorescence transfixed Yuvchenko for a few seconds.
A hideous beauty.
“Still and ominous”
One of the major tasks that had to be carried out over the months after the meltdown was to encase Unit Four in its own huge building, like a casket, to keep it from flaring again. This casket was called the Sarcophagus, a reference to the burial containers of ancient rich Egyptians and Romans. Higginbotham writes:
When Slavsky arrived to survey the project once more, on November 13, the Sarcophagus was all but complete — a terrible edifice of black angles, still and ominous, which perfectly fit its purpose, like a medieval fantasy of a prison to hold Satan himself.
This image — a prison to hold Satan himself — hints at the dark compact that humans have made with nuclear energy. By splitting the atom and finding ways to channel that energy to generating power, humans have put Satan to work.
Satan is chained in strong chains, but, as Chernobyl showed, those chains aren’t always enough to keep him from escaping.
It’s a scary thought.
Patrick T. Reardon