Winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year, ‘Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy’ by Serhii Plokhy is a comprehensive account of the worst nuclear accident in history. The small Ukrainian city will forever be associated with the explosion which occurred on 26th April 1986 after a failed safety test. It is now a key destination for “disaster tourism”, despite the 30-mile exclusion zone which is still in place around the site of the reactor which will remain unfit for human habitation for 20,000 years. The technical statistics are staggering – the radiation released by the explosion was equivalent to 500 Hiroshima bombs spreading rapidly across Europe – and the human cost of those affected by radiation sickness is incalculable.
Plokhy’s account is very comprehensive and based primarily on interviews and newly released archive material. It takes in the political context, the social impact, the bureaucratic maze of the Soviet management system and the far-reaching consequences of the disaster, with Plokhy making a convincing case that it contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of the scientific detail about nuclear energy and what actually caused the explosion went a bit over my head, but the stories of those who were at the reactor during that fateful shift and those involved in the commissioning of the reactor and the clean-up operation afterwards are very compelling. I was also initially sceptical by a comment on the blurb which suggests that the book reads like a thriller – however, I agree that the account of the explosion itself and the subsequent evacuation is gripping to read. The fact that the presence of radiation and its deadly effects are invisible without a Geiger counter until it is too late is one of the most chilling aspects.
The book outlines the multiple failures leading up to the accident as well as the painfully slow response of the authorities in the days, weeks, months and years following the disaster. It wasn’t until radioactive fallout was recorded in the atmosphere across Scandinavia two days later that the world learned about the accident with Soviet propaganda continuing to claim nothing serious had happened. The systemic failures in the Communist system are shown to be rooted in a culture of covering up mistakes and cutting corners amid the pressure of meeting targets. More worryingly, Plokhy concludes that it is not clear if lessons have really been learned and international scrutiny of nuclear energy remains limited. ‘Chernobyl’ is a very thorough yet readable book about a complex chain of events with Plokhy making the technical details accessible and giving the human stories the attention they deserve.