“Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster” by Adam Higginbotham, Simon & Shuster, 538 pages, $29.95.
“Midnight in Chernobyl” by Adam Higginbotham may be the most frightening book readers will pick up in 2019. A more disturbing fact is that the book is nonfiction and not the product of Stephen King’s imagination.
Author Higginbotham spent 10 years investigating the 1986 meltdown of a reactor at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in Ukraine. The horror of that accident and its environmental aftermath will continue to reverberate for generations. The author’s diligent research was eventually able to penetrate the layers of bureaucratic misinformation used by the former Soviet Union to conceal the extent of the mishap, which resulted in the mass evacuation and permanent resettlement of 116,000 citizens. A quarantine was placed upon 4,700 square kilometers of previously occupied land because of radiation contamination. Regions of Europe as remote as Poland and Sweden were affected by the fallout.
Exactly 40 years ago, in 1979, a partial uncovering of the core of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania caused public support for nuclear energy development in the United States to wane. Because of additional safeguards mandated at that time, the cost of building nuclear reactors became prohibitive, and no new plants have been constructed in the U.S. since then. Now the “New Green Deal” may renew interest in using atomic energy to generate power and avoid the use of fossil fuels.
Higginbotham’s skill in building minute-by-minute suspense during the accident itself and his characterizations of both survivors and victims make the book a page-turner despite its weighty topic. Fortunately, the book is generously supplied with maps, photos and a glossary of unfamiliar Russian names and acronyms which are handy references.
The author outlines enough basic physics to help uninformed readers understand how nuclear reactors work and the devastation which ensues when control of the nuclear core is lost. He also makes a cogent case for the Chernobyl meltdown and the resulting coverup being primary factors in initiating the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Readers who may believe nuclear events occurring three decades ago and halfway around the globe have little relevance for Nebraskans should know the active Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville, owned by the NPPD, was placed in low-level emergency status last month because of potential flooding which could have caused a loss of power and subsequent control of its core. The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station near Blair was shut down in 2016 following problems from flooding and a fire.
The Hallam Nuclear Power Facility, 25 miles southwest of Lincoln, was closed in 1964 and the core removed in 1969 due to design flaws. Contaminated items were entombed nearby, and the U.S. Department of Energy will monitor the site until 2090. Fortunately, the entombment site was not disturbed by the F-4 level tornado which struck Hallam in 2004.