Midnight in Chernobyl | Adam Higginbotham

Summary of: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster
By: Adam Higginbotham


Delve into the dark history of the world’s most devastating nuclear catastrophe with ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’ by Adam Higginbotham. In an ambitious quest to meet electricity needs and compete with the West, the Soviet Union launched an ambitious nuclear reactor program in the 1970s, culminating in the construction of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in Ukraine. Uncover the secretive and hazardous development process of the RBMK reactor, the initial success of the nuclear industry, followed by a shocking shift to cost-cutting and cover-ups. The book reveals the tragic events leading up to the explosion of Reactor Number Four and the ensuing political and ecological fallout.

Soviet Nuclear Dreams

In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union launched an ambitious program of building nuclear reactors to meet its electricity needs and compete with Western countries. Despite being world leaders in nuclear engineering, they fell behind the United States during the “Era of Stagnation.” Their new project aimed to establish them as the dominant force in nuclear power, with plans to build the “greatest nuclear power station on Earth” in Chernobyl, Ukraine. However, behind all the failures of the USSR was the monolithic power of the Communist Party, breeding inefficiencies and waste throughout the planned economy.

Chernobyl’s Nuclear Ambition

The Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station was Ukraine’s first nuclear power plant, designed with an ambitious schedule to meet the country’s energy demands. Viktor Brukhanov, the plant’s sole employee, worked tirelessly to create the infrastructure and install the new and powerful RBMK reactor model. The plant’s success was crucial, but the deadlines set by Moscow and Kyiv were impossible to meet. Despite the pressure, the first reactor was scheduled to go online at the end of 1975, in time to fuel the country’s growing energy needs.

The Nuclear Ambition of USSR

The Soviet Union’s nuclear work was led by an “atomic politburo” under the supervision of Lavrenty Beria. In 1949, they detonated the first atomic bomb, using a plutonium core created in the reactor “Annushka”. By 1952, they inaugurated the Scientific Research and Design Institute of Energy Technology to create civilian reactors. Physicist Igor Kurchatov headed an ambitious program of experimental reactor technology, aiming for nuclear reactors, cheap electricity, and nuclear-powered transportation. After Kurchatov’s death in 1960, reactors became more cheaply made, and the Soviet regime became more secretive. The USSR never reported nuclear accidents despite their participation in the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 1957, a major explosion occurred in a reactor in the southern Urals, and the truth about the severity of the accident remained hidden for decades, as it was the worst nuclear accident in history for many years.

The Soviet Union’s nuclear misstep

The RBMK reactor was a symbol of Soviet engineering’s ambition, but it was also its Achilles heel. Created without a prototype, the reactor design was riddled with errors, making it prone to explosions. Despite alarming warnings from dissenting scientists, the government approved its construction. The core, made of 1,700 tons of graphite blocks, was surrounded by a tank of water capped with iron shot and the mineral serpentine. Boron carbide rods controlled the reactor’s nuclear chain reaction. Serious design flaws became apparent as soon as construction began, but engineers pushed the reactor into mass production without a successful prototype. This misstep would lead to one of the world’s most catastrophic nuclear accidents, Chernobyl.

The Chernobyl Disaster

In 1986, a poorly-executed safety test resulted in the explosion of reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The staff attempted to revive the contaminated reactor using manual control rods, which caused a sudden and uncontrollable spike in reactivity. The reactor exploded with the force of over 50 tons of dynamite, completely destroying it. Tons of uranium fuel and graphite blocks were scattered into the air in a radioactive cloud, and 1,300 tons of radioactive rubble caught fire. The disaster was a tragic reminder of the importance of following nuclear safety protocols and effectively managing emergencies.

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