Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
Chernobyl is one of those post-WWII events that I knew very little about.
1) Pripyat was a town built to support the Chernobyl nuclear reactors and was just 3km away.
Planned cities are always fascinating, especially when they’re called atomgrads.
2) A nuclear reactor requires a moderator, a coolant, and control rods. The RBMK reactors, unlike its Western counterparts at the time, used graphite as moderator and water as coolant.
I finally learned the basics of how nuclear reactors work.
3) During the extended powering down of the nuclear reactor, it became poisoned with xenon. Then when the graphite-tipped control rods were reinserted into the unstable reactor, it exploded.
To think that it all came down to the graphite tips on the boron control rods. Science.
4) The first report by Brukhanov stated that the radiation levels near Unit Four were at 3.6 roentgens, but that was the maximum reading on the device.
You can only measure what your tools can measure. Dosimeters are the nasal swab tests of Chernobyl.
5) By the next morning, the town of Pripyat had been sealed off.
This lockdown hit too close to home. I await the Covid disaster books. There are so many parallels.
6) The initial approach to stop additional nuclear explosions was to drop 5000 tons of sand and clay from helicopters.
This is when it really hit me that humanity had created a problem that it couldn’t really control.
7) The China Syndrome is a movie about a nuclear reactor melting all the way through the ground to China.
When the helicopter bombardments failed, the scientists realized that the radioactive lava could flow downwards into the water tanks. On contact, the water would instantly turn into steam and blow up. Even if this didn’t happen, the radioactive lava could seep into the water table and pollute the river.
8) Most of the patients who received bone marrow operations at Hospital Six still died.
Toptunov and Akimov, the two engineers working the controls that resulted in the explosion, both died of acute radiation syndrome within days.
9) The Liquidation was the giant cleanup effort that called up hundreds of thousands of military reservists.
The efforts included killing animals who’d been exposed to radiation. This got a brief mention in the book but took up a lot of time in the TV series.
10) In order to build the Sarcophagus, they had to remove nuclear debris from the roof. When all the robots failed, humans (bio-robots) did the job.
Thousands of men were needed because they could only stay on the roof for minutes before accumulating a lethal dose of radiation.
Wow. The Chernobyl disaster reads like fiction, but I trust that the author did extensive research to report the facts. I’m shocked that this event isn’t a bigger part of our consciousness (or maybe just mine). Was the human race that close to an absolute disaster? Or does this show how resourceful and resilient humans are? The scariest takeaway is that no single cause was not that outrageous. Secrets, deadlines, cost-cutting, human error – we are just waiting for history to repeat itself.
After reading the book, I got interested in the topic and decided to watch, and naturally binged, the HBO series. One complaint I had about the book was that it was very difficult to follow the characters. There were so many people, institutions, and titles. It also didn’t help that Russian names don’t register as well. The TV show helped a ton to put faces to names. In the book, Legasov was hardly the main man, and I barely remembered his suicide. The producers’ choice to tell the story from his perspective made everything much clearer.