Reviews for Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the Worlds Greatest Nuclear Disaster

by Adam Higginbotham

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.

The April 26, 1986, explosion of the fourth reactor at Chernobyl was the first major catastrophic release of radioactivity from a nuclear power plant. Its human toll is still unclear; officially 31 people died, several hundred were sickened by radiation, more than 100,000 were displaced, and more than 17 million were to reside in a highly contaminated region. The disaster was long in the making, and Higginbotham journalistically recounts the history—the run-up, the emergency phase, the aftermath, and long-term consequences. From the conceited overconfidence of technocrats to interference by Communist Party leadership in the safe operation of the plant and responses to the silence, denials, and coverups by politburo officials, Higginbotham traces the pandemonium and details the Herculean efforts made to reign in the chaos, entomb the exposed fissile materials, and put the lid back on Pandora’s box. He follows the trials of the half-dozen people deemed responsible and the long-term implications that this accident had on the Soviet Union; on the populations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia; and on the public’s perceptions of nuclear power. Summing Up: Recommended. All readers. --John P. Tiefenbacher, Texas State University

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The full story of the Chernobyl catastrophe.In April 1986, a massive accident destroyed a reactor at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station near the town of Pripyat, now a ghost-town tourist destination, in Ukraine. The disaster sent a radioactive cloud across the Soviet Union and Europe, triggered pandemonium and coverups, involved thousands of cleanup workers, and played out at a cost of $128 billion against the secrecy and paranoia of Soviet life at the time. In this vivid and exhaustive account, Higginbotham (A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite, 2014), a contributor to the New Yorker, Wired, GQ, and other publications, masterfully re-creates the emotions, intrigue, and denials and disbelief of Communist Party officials, workers, engineers, and others at every stage. He takes readers directly to the scene: the radioactive blaze, the delayed evacuation of residents from the apartment buildings in "workers' paradise" Pripyat, the treatment of the injured, and the subsequent investigation and "show trial" of scapegoats in a tragedy caused by both reactor failings and operator errors. Drawing on interviews, reports, and once-classified archives, the author shows how the crash program of Soviet reactor building involved design defects, shoddy workmanship, and safety flawsbut made "sanctified icons" of arrogant nuclear scientists. Higginbotham offers incisive snapshots of those caught up in the nightmare, including politicians ignorant of nuclear physics, scientists "paralyzed by indecision," doctors treating radiation sickness, and refugees shunned by countrymen. We experience the "bewildered stupor" of the self-assured power plant director, who asked repeatedly, "What happened? What happened?" and watch incredulously as uninformed citizens hold a parade under a radioactive cloud in Kiev. At every turn, Higginbotham unveils revealing aspects of Communist life, from the lack of proscribed photocopiers to make maps for responders to the threats (shooting, relief of Party card) for failure to obey orders.Written with authority, this superb book reads like a classic disaster story and reveals a Soviet empire on the brink. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

*Starred Review* Midnight in Chernobyl is top-notch historical narrative: a tense, fast-paced, engrossing, and revelatory product of more than a decade of research. Higginbotham interviewed most of the surviving central participants in the disaster, examined volumes of newly declassified Soviet documents, and surveyed previous research and reportage. The result is a stunningly detailed account of the explosion of Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant on April 26, 1986. It offers a brief history of the development of the Soviet nuclear-power program leading up to the construction of the plant at Chernobyl, a second-by-second account of the night of the accident, the confluence of causes, the evacuation of the surrounding countryside, the containment and cleanup efforts, and a deep dive into the aftermath: the medical and environmental consequences, the political machinations and missteps, the role Chernobyl played in the downfall of the USSR, and the effect it had on the pursuit of nuclear power worldwide. For all its wealth of information, the work never becomes overwhelming or difficult to follow. Higginbotham humanizes the tale, maintaining a focus on the people involved and the choices, both heroic and not, they made in unimaginable circumstances. This is an essential human tale with global consequences.--John Keogh Copyright 2019 Booklist

Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

In 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in modern-day Ukraine made headlines around the world. Journalist Higginbotham writes a detailed account of the disaster, complete with firsthand interviews and an extensive bibliography of secondary and primary sources. The narrative tension builds as the author documents what led up to the accident, ­describing the technology involved in running the plant and how the Soviet Union cut corners when it came to nuclear safety. The heroics of the story are revealed through the actions of ordinary Soviet citizens who fought the resulting fires and cleaned up the radiation sites, which leaves a profound impression on readers. While Chernobyl often gets portrayed as a small piece within the larger collapse of the USSR, this work aims to reset that notion by pointing out that the disaster solidified mistrust toward the Communist Party and Soviet system and that the recovery costs bankrupted the Soviet economy. ­VERDICT This gripping nonfiction account is highly recommended for Russophiles and fans of real-life dystopias.—Jacob Sherman, John Peace Lib., Univ. of Texas at San Antonio © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Journalist Higginbotham offers a crash course on the Soviet "Era of Stagnation" and the development of the U.S.S.R. nuclear complex in this busy account of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. Struggling to unravel the complex story behind the tragedy, Higginbotham piles detail upon detail: the amount of champagne one worker consumed that critical April night; insights into the cultural cravings of Soviet Man ("Dyatlov had fulfilled every autodidactic expectation of the Soviet Man, dedicating himself to his work by day and steeping himself in culture by night") and other tidbits. The result is an exhaustive history that is neither definitive nor harrowing, and repeats much of the mass of information already published on the subject (for example, that Soviet engineers knew of the weaknesses of the reactor model used in Chernobyl and that authorities tried to downplay, even deny, the disaster). Packing in 10-plus years of research and interviews, the author zigzags between cities, countries, and time zones in a disjointed attempt to recreate the doomed reactor's last hours. He devotes dense chapters to the West's reaction, the elaborate cleanup, and the even more complex Soviet cover-up, but fails to provide a deep and clear understanding of the human error and heroism that are at the heart of this story. Readers looking for a definitive account of this disaster may want to look elsewhere. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.