Author Adam Higginbotham has done a masterful job of blowing the lid off of the sarcophagus of obfuscation under which the Soviet Union attempted to bury the truths about what happened at Chernobyl in April of 1986. He dug deep into archives, personal papers, professional journals, and hundreds of hours of interviews to piece together the puzzle of the events that led up to the explosion that destroyed Reactor Number Four at Chernobyl.
The author offers, as well, background into the flaws in the design of the RBMK graphite-moderated boiler water reactor. He examines the corrupt and labyrinthine system of managing nuclear power in the USSR. While this is a superb work of journalism, it also holds the intrigue of a murder mystery. Who really was responsible? What really happened? Was it design error or operator error? The author makes this a very enlightening journey inside the minds of Soviet and Ukrainian leaders and scientists, as well as inside the broken lives of the workers who operated the plant and lived in nearby Pripyat.
Mr. Higginbotham makes a credible case for the fact that the Chernobyl disaster and its lingering aftershocks were the catalysts that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Glasnost and Perestroika were not able to overcome the inertia of a Soviet machine that did not know how to tell the truth to its people or to the world at large. That lack of candor became as toxic for the Soviet state as the radioactive debris from Chernobyl became for those in the path of the fallout.
I had a very personal;interest in this story. In 1992, I was part of a UN group that toured the Chernobyl complex, the village of Pripyat, and several hospitals in Kiev that were treating hundreds of victims of chronic radiation poisoning. Many of them were suffering from leukemia, thyroid cancer, and a host of other diseases. When we arrived at Chernobyl, we were taken to a visitors' center where we were show a 1:6 scale model of the Chernobyl complex. The official guide proceeded to give this UN group a speech about the wonderful safety history of Soviet nuclear power. "Of course, there was this one small incident that the world tries to blow out of proportion," At that time, one of the remaining reactors was still functioning, ,and we were taken to the control room, mere yards from the notorious sarcophagus that had been built to bury the debris of the core of Reactor Number Four. The engineers operating the plant were smoking, and ashes from their cigarettes fell onto the dials of the instruments that told them the status of the reactor and the turbines. It was clear that not many safety lessons had been learned from the worst nuclear accident in history.
This is a story with many villains and some remarkable heroes. Add to the list of heroes Mr. Higginbotham, whose yeoman work in uncovering facts and truths about Chernobyl will help the world to make more informed choices about the future of nuclear energy. This is a book that should be read by anyone with an interest in energy, the history of the Soviet Union, and the forces that shape history.