Sunday, January 5, 2020

Midnight In Chernobyl: Adam Higginbotham's Explosive Story About What Really Happened

There's nothing quite like the exhilaration of a good read. The last time I couldn't put a book down was in the late 60s when I stayed up all night reading Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Friday night I was sorely tempted to stay up all night once more because of a book I almost couldn't put down, Adam Higginbotham's Midnight In Chernobyl.

It's a remarkable account of the Chernobyl disaster. It's quite apparent that a lot of work went into researching this story. The author, drawing from new sources, gives what is surely the most complete account of what really happened. What's compelling is the writing itself. These are real people who were in the middle of a real situation.

The incident took place in the spring of 1986, April 26 to be precise, just days before the May 1 celebrations designed to show off the Soviet Union's mighty power.

The book opens by setting the story within a context, that context being the Soviet Union after decades of communist party leadership.

"Behind all the catastrophic failures of the USSR during the Era of Stagnation —beneath the kleptocratic bungling, the nepotism, the surly inefficiencies, and the ruinous waste of the planned economy – lay the monolithic power of the communist party."  (page 13)

"Advancement in many political, economic, and scientific careers was granted only to those who repressed their personal opinions, avoided conflict, and displayed unquestioning obedience to those above them. By the mid-70s this blind conformism had smothered individual decision making at all levels of the state and party machine, infecting not just the bureaucracy but technical and economic disciplines, too. Lies and deception were endemic to the system, trafficked in both directions along with chain of management: those lower down passed up reports to their superiors packed with falsified statistics and inflated estimates, of unmet goals triumphantly reached, unfulfilled quarters heroically exceeded. To protect its own position at every stage, each manager relayed the lies upward or compounded them." (page 15)

In other words it was a system that rewarded Yes-men, a system that rewarded those who played the game, not those who told the truth.

Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, a younger more astute politicians that "the long succession of the zombie apparatchiks whose declining health, drunkenness, and senility had been concealed from the public by squadrons of increasingly desperate minders."

The man responsible for building the Chernobyl complex--four nuclear reactors in operation and two more in the works-- was Victor Brukhanov. The entire city of Pripyat where the workers and their families lived, was similarly a showcase achievement.  But Brukhanov was a product of his culture, as Higginbotham details here:

"In the 16 years that he’d spent building four nuclear reactors and an entire city on an isolated stretch of marshland, Victor Brukhanov had received a long education in the realities of the system. Hammered on the anvil of the party, made pliant by the privileges of rank, the well-informed and opinionated young specialist had been transformed into an obedient tool of the nomenklatura. Like all successful Soviet managers, to do so Brukhanov had learned how to be expedient and bend limited resources to meet the endless list of unrealistic goals. He had to cut corners, cook the books, and fudge regulations."  (Italics mine)

For all his achievements Brukhanov would be rewarded. And in the spring of 1986 because of the success of Chernobyl would be honored at the May One holiday with a decree of the presidium of the supreme Soviet.

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Photo by Javier García on Unsplash
One of the features of the story is the great pains the author has made to understand and explain the science behind nuclear power. This is from a a section about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

"At 8:16 AM on August 6, 1945 a fission weapon containing 64 kg of uranium detonated 580 meters above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and Einstein‘s equation proved mercilessly accurate. The bomb itself was extremely inefficient: just 1 kg of the uranium underwent fission, only 700 mg of mass—the weight of a butterfly – was converted into energy but it was enough to obliterate an entire city in a fraction of a second. Some 78,000 people died instantly, or immediately afterward – vaporized, crushed, or incinerated in the fire storm followed the blast wave. By the end of the year, another 25,000 men, women and children were also sick and died from their exposure to the radiation liberated by the world’s first Atom bomb attack."

The explosion that destroyed this Japanese city came from unleashing the power within a remarkable small amount of material, about the weight of a butterfly. By way of contrast, this is how energy is created in a nuclear power plant.

"Unlike a nuclear weapon, in which a vast number of uranium atoms fission in a fraction of a second, releasing all their energy in and annihilating flash of heat and light, and a reactor the process must be regulated and delicately sustained for weeks, months or even years. This requires three components: a moderator, control rods and a coolant."

"To generate power steadily inside a nuclear reactor, the behavior of the neutrons must be artificially controlled, to ensure that the chain reaction stays constant and the heat of fission can be harnessed to create electricity. Ideally every single fission reaction should trigger just one more fission in the neighboring atom, so that each successive generation of neutrons contains exactly the same number as the one before, and the reactor remains in the same critical state."

"Should each fission fail to create as many neutrons as the one before the reactor becomes subcritical, the chain reaction slows and eventually ceases, and the reactor shuts down. But if each generation produces more than one fission, the chain reaction could begin to grow too quickly toward potentially uncontrollable supercriticality in a sudden massive release of energy similar to that in a nuclear weapon. To maintain a steady state between these two extremes is a delicate task. The first nuclear engineers had to develop tools to master forces perilously close to the limits of man’s ability to control."

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Midnight In Chernobyl is divided into two parts. Part One is called The Birth of a City. It describes the life of those who lived in this advanced and growing community of 50,000 people. It was envisioned that Pripyat would grow to be a city of 200,000 once the full nuclear energy complex was rolled out. The disaster interfered with this vision. How the Soviet leadership responded is the rest of the story, Part Two, is titled The Death of an Empire.

The book is important on many levels. Was the Chernobyl disaster a warning about nuclear power? Or was this more a lesson about what happens when you create a culture built on a lack of transparency? This became the first real test of Gorbachev's idealistic aim to create a new, open society. Ideals, however, are easier to proclaim than to put into practice.

Adam Higginbotham has produced an important book. More to come.

Related Links
Three Mile Island and Two Personal Anecdotes
Throwback: Anniversary of the Three Mile Island Incident

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