When the book arrives at the early hours of April 26, 1986, the accident unfurls with a horrible inevitability. Weaving together the experiences of those who were there that night, Higginbotham marshals the details so meticulously that every step feels spring-loaded with tension. What started as a long overdue safety test of Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 slipped quickly into a full-scale meltdown. An attempted shutdown using the graphite-tipped control rods of course had the opposite effect; the core grew hotter and hotter, and the reactor started to destroy itself.
Higginbotham describes an excruciating aftermath, as Pripyat’s residents were coaxed into a “temporary” evacuation and middle-aged reservists were drafted into a haphazard cleanup process — though “cleanup” doesn’t convey the perilous, Sisyphean ordeal they faced. Soviet officials referred to the process as “liquidation,” which sounded more effective and definitive than it was.
“Radionuclides,” Higginbotham writes, “could be neither broken down nor destroyed — only relocated, entombed or interred.” The protective gloves given to the reservists turned out to be so cumbersome that some of the men cleared radioactive debris with their bare hands. Robots, deployed in an attempt to protect vulnerable humans with supposedly hardy machines, were rendered useless, as radiation scrambled their circuitry.
The Soviet strategy of secrecy compounded with denial only made rumor-mongering worse, as some Western newspapers resorted to “unconfirmed reports” of 15,000 dead a week after the accident. Five months later, the official death toll of those directly killed by the event stood at 31, a figure that doesn’t include those who died from the effects of radiation exposure in the years that followed.
Amid so much rich reporting and scrupulous analysis, some major themes emerge. One has to do with how Chernobyl exposed the untenable fissures in the Soviet system and hastened its collapse; the accident also encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue drastic reforms with even more zeal.
Higginbotham observes that the plant was run like the Soviet state writ large — with individuals expected to carry out commands from on high with an automaton’s acquiescence. At the same time, when it came time to assess responsibility for the disaster, any collectivist fellow feeling evaporated, as the ensuing show trials insistently scapegoated a few individuals (some of them already dead) in a desperate attempt to keep a crumbling system intact.
The accident also decimated international confidence in nuclear power, and a number of countries halted their own programs — for a time, that is. Global warming has made the awesome potential of the atom a source of hope again and, according to some advocates, an urgent necessity; besides, as Higginbotham points out, nuclear power, from a statistical standpoint, is safer than the competing alternatives, including wind.
As for the remains of Chernobyl itself, they’re now situated within an “exclusion zone” of 1,000 square miles, where wildlife flourishes in what Higginbotham calls “a radioactive Eden.” Soviet obfuscation combined with the unpredictable course of radioactivity means that the true extent of the disaster may never be fully known. Joining a body of Chernobyl literature that includes work by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich and the historian Serhii Plokhy, Higginbotham’s extraordinary book is another advance in the long struggle to fill in some of the gaps, bringing much of what was hidden into the light.