The human drama of Chernobyl

By Dawn Stover | May 5, 2019

Author Adam Higginbotham. Credit: Peter EavisAuthor Adam Higginbotham. Credit: Peter Eavis

On the night of April 28, 1986, Radio Moscow broadcast a terse announcement that an accident had taken place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant: “One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Aid is being given to those affected. A government commission has been set up.”

It was almost three days since the accident began, but the announcement didn’t mention that. By then, Sweden had already detected high levels of radioactive contamination from the toxic vapor pouring out of the exploded reactor. Graphite and nuclear fuel were burning—the kind of fire too hot to fight with water or foam, which would only make things worse. The citizens of Pripyat, the “atomic city” a short distance from Chernobyl, had been “temporarily” evacuated. It was the world’s most terrifying nuclear accident.

Chernobyl, an HBO television miniseries (co-produced with the British television network Sky) premiering on Monday, will introduce a new generation to the horrors of 33 years ago. HBO bills it as the “untold true story” of Chernobyl, but a New York Times review notes “the show’s propensity toward Hollywood inflation—to show us things that didn’t happen.”

That isn’t the case with journalist Adam Higginbotham’s book Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, published in February by Simon & Schuster. Higginbotham spent more than a decade interviewing eyewitnesses and reviewing documents from the disaster, including recently declassified archives, in his effort to tell the full stories of the men and women involved. Backed up by more than 100 pages of footnotes, his narrative is a riveting account of the accident and its aftermath.

In a phone interview last week, Higginbotham talked with me about the misconceptions and myths surrounding Chernobyl, the pitfalls of technological hubris, and why he still views nuclear energy as a potential weapon against climate change.

Dawn Stover: What attracted you to the Chernobyl story?

Adam Higginbotham: I started looking into it in 2005, before the 20th anniversary of the accident. I was initially attracted to writing about it simply because it was this huge historical event, one of the biggest events of the second half of the 20th century, but it had never really been explored in this narrative way before. It was as if the Titanic had sunk and there had been a lot of newspaper stories written about it, and then a lot of technical reports had come out, but nobody had written A Night to Remember—which indeed was the case, because A Night to Remember didn’t come out until 1953 [41 years after the sinking].

The Chernobyl story got buried in the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. So I began looking into it, but when I started talking to eyewitnesses, I realized there were large parts of the story that had either been misreported or misrepresented, or had just never really been disclosed at all, certainly in the West. At that point I realized that each of these people had a fascinating and amazing story. Sometimes I was astonished by the fact that they were still alive, given the things they’d witnessed. I couldn’t believe they were still sitting there talking to me 20 years after it happened. I realized there was an even larger, much more epic story to be written.

DS: Both your book and the TV miniseries are claiming to tell the “untold story” of Chernobyl. What part of the story have we been missing all these years?

AH:The reason my book is the untold story is because this is the first English-language account that we can say is true. Other accounts were published about what happened, in the early 90s. Two of the principal ones were translated from Russian, and another really impressive account was written by Piers Paul Read, who wrote Alive, the story of the Andes survivors. But these books had barely a single footnote between them. There’s no indication of the source material, over and above what the authors said at the time. And nobody has ever really bothered going back since then, to actually check any of this material, or talk to any of the individuals involved. As we know, there was a colossal amount of information issued by the Soviet government deliberately, in order to conceal and obfuscate the truth about what really happened, in the weeks and months after the accident. Western media was starved of information, [so] they went to press with things that were based on rumor and hearsay. All the misconceptions to this day, in the West, about what happened, have their sources in all of those compounded inaccuracies.

DS: What particular things about the accident have been misunderstood or mythologized?

AH: It ranges from very large aspects of what happened, to the most minor details. On one hand, you’ve got the Politburo attempting to squash information about what had happened from the outset. They rather reluctantly issued a statement that said an accident has taken place, and measures are being taken to deal with the consequences. And at the same time, all Western correspondents in the Soviet Union were being sequestered in Moscow. They weren’t permitted to go anywhere near Ukraine, and the KGB took active measures to limit the amount of information that they could even get out of Moscow to their offices in the West. These reporters who were stuck in Moscow tried to get information from whatever sources they could. In the week after the explosion, the New York Post ran a story where they reported that 15,000 people had been killed, and that the bodies had been buried as nuclear waste in a massive pit somewhere in Ukraine. Stories like that—exaggerated, crazy science fiction—combined with people’s innate fear of radiation to make people think to this day that thousands of people were killed in the explosion. There’s all this stuff that was the result of deliberate misinformation and a lack of access to reporting at the beginning. But subsequently, other accounts have been published, and they contain a lot of horrifying myths and folk tales that appeal to people’s worst expectations and conceptions of what might happen in an accident like this.

DS: Like what?

AH: So, there’s two really good examples. People talk about the “bridge of death,” about the idea that a load of residents of Pripyat went out to stand on this railway bridge, which stood at the top of Lenina Prospekt, the main boulevard into the city, and watched the burning reactor from that standpoint. And that, in the subsequent years, every person who stood on that bridge died. I could find no evidence of that. Indeed, I spoke to a guy who was seven or eight at the time, who did indeed cycle over to the bridge to see what he could see at the reactor, which was only three kilometers away. But he’s not dead. He’s apparently perfectly healthy.

There’s a lot of these assertions made, because they’re conveniently horrifying. People also say the Soviet Air Force sent in all of these helicopters to bomb the burning reactor with sand and lead and loads of boron—and all those helicopter pilots who flew over the reactor are dead now. But that’s not true either. One of the first things I did was to see if I could find some of those helicopter pilots, so I found them and interviewed them about their experience, and their friends’ experiences, and they’re not all dead. Don’t get me wrong: Terrible, astonishing things that sound like they spring from science fiction did take place as a result of the Chernobyl accident, but these things that are often repeated did not happen. Now I wonder whether I should have put this stuff in the footnotes, because people sometimes ask me about some of these incidents.

DS: You wish you had inoculated readers against these myths?

AH: Exactly. A thing I was asked about the other day was, “I was disappointed to see that you didn’t report about the helicopter that crashed during the bombing operation.” You’ve seen the film on YouTube. Well, that film was shot of a helicopter crashing beside a reactor on October 6, 1986, months after the fire had gone out, months after this operation had finished. It did not happen in association with that operation. These seem like small things, but there’s this accretion of all these small things that are constantly repeated, that creates this mythological version of the Chernobyl accident. Which in some ways does a disservice to all the people who did amazing things, and whose lives were changed, and some of whose lives were destroyed by what happened, whose stories are lost as a result of that. So much nonsense has been written over the years, that I really wanted to make sure [my book] would be a definitive account, or as accurate as it’s possible to make it. It’s what Bob Woodward calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

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DS: Is there anything about the accident that is still a mystery?

AH: I think the number of people who ultimately will die and sicken as a result of the radiation released remains something of a mystery. And it remains deeply contentious, obviously.

DS: After all this research that you’ve done, what’s your best guess about how many people died?

AH: All I can tell you is what the parameters are. If you look at the studies that have been done by these respected epidemiologists, like Elisabeth Cardis, the figure in her studies for the total number of fatal cancers attributable directly to radiation received as a result of the explosion ranged from around 9,000 to 15,000. At the other end of the scale, you’ve got organizations like Greenpeace with estimates of deaths ranging up to 200,000, and from what the epidemiologists and the radiation specialists I’ve spoken to have suggested, there’s no scientific basis for that at all.

DS: A lot of people today weren’t even born when Chernobyl happened. What would you like them to know about Chernobyl, and why should it matter to them?

AH: I’d like them to know that this was a nuclear accident that happened under extremely specific circumstances: a Soviet-designed reactor of a kind that was not built anywhere outside the USSR; and political, financial, and industrial circumstances that are not repeated elsewhere.

DS: Are you saying it couldn’t happen here?

AH: Yeah.

I think Chernobyl has become an anti-nuclear talisman. Of course I completely understand that, and the devastation caused by the accident is appalling, but at the same time I don’t think that’s an entirely accurate view of the situation. One thing I really wanted to do with the book is to reclaim the experience and the sacrifice of the people who lived through the disaster, from this slightly stereotypical view of denizens of the Soviet Union as an empire of victims of the socialist system.

When I first began reporting on it in 2006, what I wanted to do was just to write a deeply reported, long magazine piece that reconstructed the night of the accident. Just that night of April the 26th. But when I began talking to those initial eyewitnesses, I realized that my conception of what those people were like had been as badly colored by Western propaganda, from growing up during the Cold War, as probably their views of the West had been colored by Soviet propaganda. I realized they weren’t these sort of gray automatons marching into a doomed future in the Evil Empire, but that at the time of the accident they’d been young people with hopes and aspirations and expectations that were much like mine had been. And that, most importantly, they had agency in what happened. They went out to rescue their friends; they were determined to save this power station that they were very proud of working at; or they were wives who set off with no information, to travel halfway across the Soviet Union to find out what had happened to their husbands.

I think that the depiction of people involved in the disaster too often has played to these very familiar tropes of Slavic victimhood. And above all has concentrated just on the most gruesome and terrible aspects of the night of the accident, of people dying of radiation poisoning in hospital. What I wanted to do with the book was to show what these people’s lives were like in full, to paint a picture of what life was like in Pripyat before the accident, so that you got a sense of what these people were like as real human beings who had real lives and families and a place that they loved living in. Their experience stretched back long before the accident and then continued long after it.

DS: It seems like you did that with the place as well. Maybe some of us in our minds have a stereotype of Pripyat as this grim place, but you paint a picture of a kind of idyllic, prosperous, optimistic city.

AH: Yes, exactly. I mean we should say that it’s all relative. I don’t think that if you had been living in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1985 and you went to visit Pripyat, you’d have thought of it necessarily as an idyllic place. But by comparison with other places in the Soviet Union, it was a wonderful place to live. If you go there now, particularly in the summer, you can appreciate how great it must have been, because it’s surrounded by open countryside, and the flora and fauna of the place are very beautiful. Even now, when it’s in the middle of this kind of terrible exclusion zone, you can see what the natural environment would have been like back in 1986.

DS: There’s also a tendency maybe to create heroes from the story, and obviously there were people who did very heroic acts.

AH: My aim in writing the book was to create an accurate depiction of these people as real human beings. And of course nobody is that black and white—nobody is a pure hero, nobody is a pure villain. I hope I did sufficient reporting to show how these people were complex and flawed. Even the people we would regard as unalloyed heroes, who did amazing selfless things—like this one young fireman named Alexander Petrovsky, who is given orders to go and rescue his friends from the top of the rooftop, which is covered in blazing nuclear material at that point. He unquestioningly takes a group of men and heads up the fire-escape ladders to the roof. But once up there, he’s overcome by the radiation and suddenly loses his eyesight, at which point he just becomes absolutely terrified, and says, “Fuck this, let’s get out of here.” And that’s something a real person would do. But that’s not what was reported in Pravda at the time. The cast given to these men’s behavior, in the reports of Pravda, was uncomplex and informed by their propaganda aim, but that’s been integrated into the popular understanding of the Chernobyl accident. Those people are now always represented as selfless heroes, and so what I wanted to do was to meet the people who survived, and to try and understand what they were really like.

DS: Why did the government wait so long to tell its own people about the accident? They had to know it was going to come out eventually, right?

AH: Not necessarily. You only have to look back at the way they reacted to the explosion at the Mayak facility in 1957, which until 1986 was the world’s worst nuclear accident but was kept entirely secret. So they knew it was possible to conceal these massive radiological accidents. It just so happens the Kyshtym disaster [at Mayak] took place much further inside the interior of the Soviet Union. And the wind carried the plume of radiation east instead of west. The Chernobyl plant had, from the Politburo standpoint, the misfortune of being on the extreme western end of the Soviet Union. And the plume of radiation from the explosion and the fire was carried north toward Western Europe, and ultimately toward Scandinavia, where it was first detected. But had it not been on this scale, and if it had taken place somewhere else, they could perhaps have concealed it.

DS: If something like this were to happen in Russia today, how would you expect it to be handled?

AH: Well, you know about this mysterious cloud of ruthenium radiation that was detected over Europe, was it two years ago?

DS: Yeah.

AH: I think the French traced it back to Mayak. Moscow continued to deny it ever happened. I think you’ve got your answer right there.

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DS: About the upcoming TV miniseries on Chernobyl: What are you hoping to see? Or maybe hoping not to see?

AH: They’ve talked a lot about the enormous efforts they went to, to make it accurate. If they’ve done the appropriate level of primary research, then I look forward to it being an accurate representation of what happened.

DS: There’s always a bit of artistic license.

AH: I know from the little that I’ve read about it, that one of the central characters is entirely fictitious. They call it a composite character, but it’s a woman who is sent from Minsk to unravel the mystery of what happened.

DS: Nobody was sent from Minsk to do that?

AH: Not that I’m aware of. Scientists came from the Institute of Atomic Energy to break down the sequence of the problems that led to the explosion. But they had a pretty good idea of what they were looking for, because they knew that the reactor had numerous design faults. It wasn’t really much of a detective story; it was more a case of them figuring out which version of the truth was going to be presented to the Politburo, and ultimately released to the public.

DS: I saw a tweet from the screenwriter saying, “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism is dangerous.” Is that the main lesson?

AH: I guess that’s one lesson. I think that’s a convenient talking point, because it obviously has a lot of contemporary resonance for a US audience in particular, right? I think the broader lessons are about technological hubris. In the Soviet Union, the risks of overconfidence and hubris went hand-in-hand with a culture of secrecy and dishonesty.

DS:  Did Chernobyl help prepare anyone for Fukushima?

AH: I have not done a lot of research about Fukushima, so I don’t want to speak out of turn. But what I do remember about the [International Atomic Energy Agency] meeting that they had [in Vienna] in August 1986, where the Soviet delegation presented their report about what had happened is that Valery Legasov, the leader of the commission, who’s a character in the TV show, famously delivered a speech that went on for five hours, uninterrupted. What I remember about that is the Japanese didn’t even bother sending a delegation to that meeting.

DS: Wow.

AH: I’m not certain that’s true, but that’s what I remember reading during my research for the book. I do know that the Japanese began working on robots that could be used in extremely radioactive environments, to help deal with the consequences of a radioactive disaster like Chernobyl. But in the end they killed the program because they just didn’t think it would be necessary. With the result that when the Fukushima accident happened, they were forced to do exactly the same thing the Soviet government had done: The Soviets sent in robots to try and move radioactive debris off the roof of Unit Three, but the robots failed because of the high radiation fields. So they had to send in men instead, and that’s exactly what the Japanese ended up doing in 2011.

Some of the specialists who worked on Chernobyl were subsequently retained by [Fukushima plant operator] TEPCO as experts and advisors; some of them still work there now. They’re quite open about saying nobody learned the lessons that could be learned from Chernobyl. Partly because the other members of the IAEA conveniently convinced themselves that not only could an accident exactly like [Chernobyl] never happen again, but also that an accident even remotely like it could never happen again. That’s why most of the delegate nations left the Vienna conference happy with what they’d heard, because it meant that they could remain confident that their industries were never in danger of suffering a level seven [highest-severity] nuclear accident.

DS: With all you’ve seen in your reporting on Chernobyl, how do you feel about whether nuclear energy should be expanded to help with the climate problem?

AH:  I think it should, yeah.

DS: Chernobyl hasn’t turned you off to nuclear energy?

AH: With any of these things, you’re talking about tolerance for risk, right? I think I can understand people’s objections to the use of nuclear energy, but too often it’s an emotional and not a scientific argument. If you look at the potential of fourth-generation nuclear reactors, which in principle at least are a lot safer and cleaner than any of the nuclear reactors currently in use, and then you consider the catastrophe that we’re already in the middle of, the scale of the problems posed by climate change need addressing immediately.

Certainly by the time I finished reporting on the book, the energy analysts that I spoke to made it clear that we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels; address the exploding desire for electricity in the developing world, which at the moment is being met by the use of fossil fuels; and make up the gap that there is in renewable technology at the moment, because renewables are not yet ready to replace all of that fossil fuel generating capacity. So that would lead you to, at the very least, seriously investigate the potential of nuclear power to bridge that gap, until it becomes possible to use other technologies to eliminate these fossil fuels.

DS: But in countries that may not have the same resources and regulations as the United States, can nuclear power be scaled up quickly and safely enough to really make a difference?

AH:  Implicit in what I’m saying is that you wouldn’t do it without ensuring that it was as safe as it possibly can be. I just think that the possible consequences of not seriously investigating all the alternatives are so terrible that we can’t afford to take this emotional response to nuclear energy.

DS: When was the last time you visited Chernobyl?

AH: I was there at the end of 2016, when they had the ceremony for closing up the New Safe Confinement building.

DS: What’s it like to be there?

AH: Well, I think it’s changed a lot even in the time since I was last there, because I facetiously said to my agent when I first began working on this book, that if I wrote a successful, definitive account of what happened, it would be the book they sold in the souvenir shop in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, little suspecting that one day there would actually be a souvenir shop. Apparently there’s more than one there. Tourism has really expanded in the last couple of years; 70,000 people visited last year.

For years and years, I only ever went there in the winter, and it’s an extremely forbidding place, as one might imagine, in the winter. You’re in what looks quite unequivocally like a post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland. There are rusting electricity pylons marching off to the horizon, with downed lines sagging to the ground between each one. It really does look like the world without us, after something catastrophic has happened.

But then on the 30th anniversary of the accident, I was in Pripyat and—just like April 25th, 1986—it was unseasonably hot, and it was like a summer day: beautiful clear sky; poplar dander was being loosed from the trees and dancing in the air down Lenina Prospekt. There were butterflies and birds singing; flowers were blooming. In the central squares and all of these overgrown areas in Pripyat, it was really quite beautiful, a bewitching environment.

I was there with my translator and an official guide, which you’re obliged to have wherever you go inside the Exclusion Zone. The three of us were just walking through the city for a few hours, but at one point we went into one of the courtyards that were built between the apartment blocks, and my two companions—I turned around and they’d just disappeared. They’d turned the corner and left me. And suddenly I was on my own in this otherwise totally deserted city, and it was completely silent except for birdsong, and just for a fraction of a second, I got an incredibly powerful sense of what it would be like to be the last remaining person on Earth. Suddenly, I filled with terror all over again. I couldn’t find them fast enough.

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Larry Menkes CSBA
Larry Menkes CSBA
5 years ago

The story is only half told because there will be a phase two when exponential sea level rise, which could happen as early as a decade or so, will flood the entire site. It will also flood thousands of toxic waste dumps, other reactors located on low ground, and petrochemical facilities, etc. located slightly above sea level. There are so many unknowns in this runaway global greenhouse gas dilemma that creating a worst case disaster scenario to backtrack from is beyond human ability. The human toll of a species with six billion (plus) souls in overshoot mode is beyond comprehension.… Read more »

Ken B
Ken B
5 years ago

God doesn’t have anything to do with it. We do.