Reviewed in the United States on May 16, 2019
I'll admit I haven't thought much about the subject since my second-grade classmates talked about it in hushed tones back in the early 90s, but the hype surrounding the new HBO/Sky miniseries has sent me down a Chernobyl rabbit hole over the last two weeks. It's been a rewarding, fascinating, and occasionally disturbing experience, and I'm glad I read this early on.
Being the first full-length book I've ever read on Chernobyl, I'm happy to say this is a fairly easy read, and gripping for the most part. Adam Higginbotham has managed to cram in a huge number of viewpoints into less than 400 pages, including the perspectives of the plant workers, scientists, doctors, first responders, liquidators, ordinary civilians in Pripyat and the surrounding areas, and the Soviet elite making a godawful mess of everything from above. He's dug deep into obscure and recently declassified materials, revealing the true extent of the bad decision making that went on, and the institutional rot inherent in the Soviet system. He keeps things moving at a brisk pace and considering that I'm a slower reader than I used to be, I'm amazed I burned through it in only five days. I swear my heart was racing when Unit Four exploded, and I audibly groaned on a couple of occasions when a bad situation somehow managed to get worse. It's a case study in why dictatorships rarely last more than a few decades, or in the case of Russia, end up getting replaced with a different form of dictatorship. Gorbachev is one of the few figures who comes across as being even mildly sympathetic, if painfully naive, leaving the reader wondering exactly HOW he planned on "reforming" what essentially amounted to an 8.6 million square mile dumpster fire by that point.
I'm surprised that some have criticized the level of technical detail in this book. The author has done a pretty good job explaining the history of nuclear power in the Soviet Union, how nuclear power plants operate, the many flaws inherent in the RBMK design, and what happened inside Unit Four the night of the fateful safety test. On a more frustrating level, he's also done an excellent job explaining how the decrepit, hidebound, ideologically rigid, and corrupt Soviet government turned a tragic industrial accident into a traumatic nightmare.
This book also includes a large amount of supporting material not usually found in most popular histories. These include a list of the major players, maps of Pripyat and the surrounding area, diagrams of the plant and Unit Four, a lengthy bibliography, a glossary of terms, and a massive (130-page) section of footnotes. The Kindle version is generally well done, although there is the occasional typo and there are no links between the main text and the footnotes. On the negative side, the writing is sometimes rather clumsy, and while the Soviet bureaucracy deserves all the criticism it gets here, the amount of space the author devotes to criticizing an inhuman system has the ironic effect of sometimes distancing the reader from a tragedy that affected a lot of scared, confused, and yes, heroic, human beings.
If you can stomach a few disturbing accounts of what radiation does to the human body, and some mildly technical descriptions of how nuclear power plants operate, this is a book that deserves to be read. It's not a flawless read, nor is it an anti-nuclear or anti-communist screed, but it's a darn good read nonetheless.