Midnight in Chernobyl author on how a workers' paradise became a nuclear nightmare
In Midnight in Chernobyl (out Feb. 12), author Adam Higginbotham relates the history of the Chernobyl disaster utilizing accounts from people who worked at and lived close to the nuclear power station in Ukraine when it exploded 33 years ago.
“Midnight in Chernobyl tells the entire story of the Chernobyl accident, from the decisions to actually build the first nuclear power plant in Ukraine that were taken in the late ‘60s, right up to the present day,” the writer says. “It follows a handful of protagonists that lived through the experience and tells the story of the accident through their eyes.”
Higginbotham was inspired by an account of a different disaster, Walter Lord’s 1955 book A Night to Remember, which detailed the sinking of the Titanic.
“I thought there were a lot of similarities between the two stories,” he says. “I thought there was a really great opportunity tell a similar story of this disaster, in which you recreate the experience of living through the disaster through the testimony of people who were there, which is what Walter Lord did when he wrote the book.”
Read on for more from Higginbotham about how and why he wrote Midnight in Chernobyl, and whether a similar disaster could happen today.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You grew up in the U.K. Do you remember the Chernobyl accident happening?
ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Oddly, I don’t remember the event itself. I remember the Challenger disaster, which happened [the same year], much more clearly. I remember Chernobyl more in the context of the kind of overall experience of Cold War paranoia which overshadowed my entire childhood, I think. It was just another event, out of many, that seemed to suggest that we were all inevitably going to expire in a mass nuclear conflagration, one day soon.
So, how did you come to write Midnight in Chernobyl?
It goes back a long way. I wanted to write a piece about Chernobyl on the 20th anniversary of the accident, in 2006, and I was sent to Russia for on assignment for the Observer magazine in London. Walter Lord famously said about A Night to Remember that the sinking of the Titanic was like the last night of a small town. As soon as I began talking to eyewitnesses who were there at the time, I realized that was literally true of what happened in the Chernobyl accident.
The workers at the plant lived in this town called Pripyat, which was specifically constructed to house them and their families. It was only 3 kilometers from the plant. In order to attract people to work at the plant, it was extremely well-resourced: The shops were better stocked than the ones in Kiev and Minsk, and you could buy hard-to-find delicacies, like cucumbers and fresh tomatoes. There was a yacht club, and a disco at the weekend, and a scuba diving club. It was full of kids — the average age of the population of the town was just 26 — and the people I spoke to made it clear that, particularly in the Soviet Union, it was a wonderful place to live. It was like a real workers’ paradise.
When I began talking to these people back in 2006, I realized there was a whole side of the story that had never been told. So much that had been written about the disaster was either technical or concentrated on the horror movie aspects of the explosion itself. The story I was interested in telling was one that was set in its broader context, that would show you how much these people had lost by explaining what it was really like to live in a town like that in the Soviet Union before the accident.
How many of the people with whom you wanted to speak were still alive?
When I first started reporting on the story back in 2006, that was one of the things that I was surprised by. Not only were several people who were in the building at the moment of the explosion still alive, but some of them still work in the nuclear industry now.
How close did you get to the site of the accident?
The site of the explosion? [laughs] Much too close. Frighteningly close. About 50 meters away. There were actually four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl plant. [Reactor 4] exploded, and the other three were repaired and brought back online. The last one wasn’t shut down until 2000. So, I actually went inside the plant itself. They were built in a line, so at the extreme end, you’ve got Reactor 1, and then Reactor 2 was next to it, and then 3 and 4 were built in the same building, back to back. You can still go and visit the Reactor 3 building, which is immediately adjacent to the one they had to entomb in concrete and steel.
Did you take a Geiger counter when you visited the area?
On the first trip I took into the exclusion zone in 2006, I went with a professional guide that the Ukrainian government obliges you to take with you wherever you go, so you don’t do anything dangerous or go anywhere you shouldn’t. Me and the people I was with — the photographer and the translator — set off in a minibus with this guide at 7 in the morning. We were already inside the exclusion zone when one of us thought to ask whether or not he had a Geiger counter. He handed it to me and I said, “Well, this isn’t working.” So he said, “Oh, well, the batteries don’t work, we’ll have to get some new batteries.”
We took a detour to the supermarket, and we bought a packet of batteries, got back in the minibus, and started heading back the way we’d come, back into the exclusion zone. As we were driving, I started putting the batteries into the Geiger counter, and the batteries didn’t work. So the first trip, I didn’t have a Geiger counter and I had no idea how much radiation there was in any place we went. That was when I began to realize that part of the reason radiation can seem so terrifying is it’s odorless, tasteless, and invisible, and if you don’t know when you’re being exposed to it, your mind plays terrible tricks on you. You just think that you could be terribly poisoned just by walking down the middle of the street. When I began work on the book, I made sure that I went out and bought my own dosimeter, and then I took that wherever I went inside the exclusion zone. Although I wasn’t allowed to take it with me when I went into the plant itself.
I wasn’t allowed to take any electronic devices with me, and the dosimeter counted as such. What I should say is, it’s been 30 years since the explosion, and the process of radioactive decay has meant that the radionuclides that are present in the exclusion zone and around the plant have lessened considerably, and there’s also been a lot of decontamination work. What the guides to the exclusion zone like to tell you now is that you get a higher dose of cosmic radiation from taking the plane flight from New York to Kiev than you do from spending a day in the exclusion zone. Most of the places are extremely safe and there’s nothing really dangerous there at all, apart from the dust. You don’t want to be inhaling heavily in some of these places, or playing soccer, or kicking up a load of dust and then breathing it in. But you’re not going to get big dose of external radiation from anything on the ground in most of the places that you go to, because it’s pretty safe.
How worried should we be about Russian nuclear power plants? Or nuclear power plants anywhere?
The fact is that this was a unique historical event. The proximate cause of the accident was this safety test that went wrong in Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl plant, and what caused the accident during the safety test was a series of design faults and miscalculations on the part of the plant staff. But really the cause of the accident lay in the culture and political nature of the Soviet Union. It would have been impossible really for it to have happened anywhere else. The Chernobyl accident was the result of a culture of secrecy and lies. So, that accident is extremely unlikely to happen again. But the nuclear industry worldwide still suffers from similar, if lesser problems, as was demonstrated with the Fukushima accident, which happened in 2011.