REVIEW: Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by Serhii Plokhy
From a preeminent historian of Eastern Europe, the definitive history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster
On the morning of April 26, 1986, Europe witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history: the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine. Dozens died of radiation poisoning, fallout contaminated half the continent, and thousands fell ill.
In Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy draws on new sources to tell the dramatic stories of the firefighters, scientists, and soldiers who heroically extinguished the nuclear inferno. He lays bare the flaws of the Soviet nuclear industry, tracing the disaster to the authoritarian character of Communist party rule, the regime’s control of scientific information, and its emphasis on economic development over all else.
Today, the risk of another Chernobyl looms in the mismanagement of nuclear power in the developing world. A moving and definitive account, Chernobyl is also an urgent call to action.
DISCLOSURE: I wrote a brief review of this book on GR several months ago. I had no inclination of posting it here, because I fully realized that this is more about my reaction than the book itself. However the book stuck with me and recently Sunita (whom I told about the book right after I read it) mentioned that it won a non – fiction prize. I think I felt that somebody else confirmed that the writing was very good and I can feel more at ease about recommending the book myself . I just think that if you are interested in reading about the history of this event, this book deserves a lot of exposure.
Dear Serhii Plokhy,
It just so happened that I grabbed several ARCs on Amazon vine in short succession one after another. Your book was one of them. It was a little weird to realize that people are now writing comprehensive histories of the event I lived through, but hey, 32 years passed, so I guess it *is* history by now.
First and foremost, it is a superbly researched and yes, quite comprehensive history of the catastrophe including what led to it and how it affected the situation in the Soviet Union and eventually led to the dissolution of such.
I fully expected that it would be hard for me to get through the book. What I did not expect was that for most of the book blind rage was the main emotion that I felt.
See, while I knew a lot of the events the author describes and remembered some of them (I am from Kiev and lived there for over the decade after Chernobyl happened.) I did not know the extent of the incompetence which Communist party leadership demonstrated while dealing with the fallout. Neither did I know how many defective materials were used while building the reactors for the decade before the catastrophe even took place . In fact it was shocking that nothing happened earlier than 1986.
I agree with the author that overall the economic regime in the Soviet Union vastly contributed to what happened as well. Instead of paying more attention to safety, let’s build more reactors and faster, FASTER.
And when disaster hit, all these young guys sacrificed in incompetent attempts to stop, to do something. As horrible as it sounds, first responders at least went to stop the fire. It sounded as if throwing sand on the reactor was unnecessary and even harmful. So the pilots who did it, were badly hurt, and those who managed to survive and those who died, pretty much died for nothing.
And then the managers on-site who tried to contain the aftermath, for better or worse they at least tried and they were the ones whom the regime convicted – already physically sick from radiation, and emotionally unstable.
And Jesus, the May 1 parade in Kiev – of course I remembered that day, of course once we were told that the explosion took place. Our parents understood pretty fast that it is dangerous and we left the city for summer. Thank goodness that we had the place to go to. But they decided to have that freaking parade, and people were told almost nothing till several days after. And this book lists the radiation on the main street in Kiev as 2500 microrentgen per hour. Yep, rage was all that I managed to feel indeed and this is 32 years later.
So many people dead, so many people still ill (apparently one in six Ukrainians who lived there) still complain of poor health. So many kiddos born with birth defects. Thousands cases of thyroid cancer.
It is a very well-written book, and I am glad I soldiered through but I know I won’t be able to reread it ever. I know it is an emotional and incoherent vent about the event itself, but here you go. Sorry guys.