Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

by Adam Higginbotham
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

by Adam Higginbotham


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A New York Times Best Book of the Year
A Time Best Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
2020 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence Winner

From journalist Adam Higginbotham, the New York Times bestselling “account that reads almost like the script for a movie” (The Wall Street Journal)—a powerful investigation into Chernobyl and how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the history’s worst nuclear disasters.

Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers its citizens and the entire world. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute.

Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a “riveting, deeply reported reconstruction” (Los Angeles Times) and a definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.

“The most complete and compelling history yet” (The Christian Science Monitor), Higginbotham’s “superb, enthralling, and necessarily terrifying...extraordinary” (The New York Times) book is an indelible portrait of the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will—lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats, remain not just vital but necessary.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501134630
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 32,125
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Adam Higginbotham has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, and Smithsonian. The author of Midnight in Chernobyl and Challenger: An American Tragedy, he lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Midnight in Chernobyl
At the slow beat of approaching rotor blades, black birds rose into the sky, scattering over the frozen meadows and the pearly knots of creeks and ponds lacing the Pripyat River basin. Far below, standing knee deep in snow, his breath lingering in heavy clouds, Viktor Brukhanov awaited the arrival of the nomenklatura from Moscow.

When the helicopter touched down, the delegation of ministers and Communist Party officials trudged together over the icy field. The savage cold gnawed at their heavy woolen coats and nipped beneath their tall fur hats. The head of the Ministry of Energy and Electrification of the USSR and senior Party bosses from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine joined Brukhanov at the spot where their audacious new project was to begin. Just thirty-four years old, clever and ambitious, a dedicated Party man, Brukhanov had come to western Ukraine with orders to begin building what—if the Soviet central planners had their way—would become the greatest nuclear power station on earth.

As they gathered near the riverbank, the dozen men toasted their plans with shots of cognac. A state photographer posed them between long-handled shovels and a theodolite, the helicopter waiting, squat and awkward, in the background. They stood in the snow and watched as Minister Neporozhny drove a ceremonial stake, centimeter by centimeter, into the iron ground.

It was February 20, 1970. After months of deliberation, the Soviet authorities had at last settled on a name for the new power plant that would one day make the USSR’s nuclear engineering famous across the globe. They had considered a few options: the North Kiev, or the Western Ukraine, or, perhaps, the Pripyat Atomic Energy Station. But finally, Vladimir Scherbitsky, the formidable leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, signed a decree confirming that the station would take the name of the regional capital: a small but ancient town of two thousand people, fourteen kilometers from where Brukhanov and his bosses stood in the snow-covered field.

The town of Chernobyl had been established in the twelfth century. For the next eight hundred years, it was home to peasants who fished in the rivers, grazed cows in the meadows, and foraged for mushrooms in the dense woods of northwestern Ukraine and southern Belarus. Swept repeatedly by pogrom, purge, famine, and war, by the second half of the twentieth century, Chernobyl was finally at peace. It had evolved into a quiet provincial center, with a handful of factories, a hospital, a library, a Palace of Culture; there was a small shipyard to service the tugs and barges that plied the Pripyat and the Dnieper, the two rivers that met nearby. Water permeated the surrounding countryside, an endlessly flat landscape of peat bogs, marshes, and sodden forests that formed part of the Dnieper River basin, a network of thirty-two thousand rivers and streams that covered almost half of Ukraine. Just fifteen kilometers downstream from the site chosen for the new power station, the rivers joined and flowed onward to the Kiev Sea, a massive hydroelectric reservoir providing fresh water to the two and a half million citizens of the republic’s capital, two hours’ drive away to the southeast.

Viktor Brukhanov had arrived in Chernobyl earlier that winter. He checked into the town’s only hotel: a bleak, single-story building on Sovietskaya Street. Slight but athletic, he had a narrow, anxious face, an olive complexion, and a head of tight, dark curls. The oldest of four children, Brukhanov was born to ethnically Russian parents but raised in Uzbekistan, amid the mountains of Soviet Central Asia. He had an exotic look: when they eventually met, the divisional KGB major thought the young director could be Greek.

He sat down on his hotel bed and unpacked the contents of his briefcase: a notebook, a set of blueprints, and a wooden slide rule. Although now the director and, as yet, sole employee of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station, Brukhanov knew little about nuclear power. Back at the Polytechnic Institute in Tashkent, he had studied electrical engineering. He had risen quickly from lowly jobs in the turbine shop of an Uzbek hydroelectric power plant to overseeing the launch of Ukraine’s largest coal-fired station in Slavyansk, in the industrial east of the republic. But at the Ministry of Energy in Moscow, knowledge and experience were regarded as less important qualifications for top management than loyalty and an ability to get things done. Technical matters could be left to the experts.

At the dawn of the 1970s, in a bid to meet its surging need for electricity and to catch up with the West, the USSR embarked upon a crash program of reactor building. Soviet scientists had once claimed to lead the world in nuclear engineering and astonished their capitalist counterparts in 1954 by completing the first reactor to generate commercial electricity. But since then, they had fallen hopelessly behind. In July 1969, as US astronauts made their final preparations to land on the moon, the Soviet minister of energy and electrification called for an aggressive expansion of nuclear construction. He set ambitious targets for a network of new plants across the European part of the Soviet Union, with giant, mass-produced reactors that would be built from the Gulf of Finland to the Caspian Sea.

That winter, as the 1960s came to a close, the energy minister summoned Brukhanov to Moscow and offered him his new assignment. It was a project of enormous prestige. Not only would it be the first atomic power plant in Ukraine, but it was also new territory for the Ministry of Energy and Electrification, which had never before built a nuclear station from scratch. Until this point, every reactor in the USSR had been constructed by the Ministry of Medium Machine Building: the clandestine organization behind the Soviet atom weapons program, so secret that its very name was a cipher, designed to discourage further curiosity. But whatever the challenges, Brukhanov, a true believer, gladly enlisted to carry the banner of the Red Atom.

Sitting alone on his hotel bed, the young engineer confronted his responsibility for conjuring from an empty field a project expected to cost almost 400 million rubles. He drew up lists of the materials to begin building and, using his slide rule, calculated their attendant costs. Then he delivered his estimates to the state bank in Kiev. He traveled to the city almost every day by bus; when there wasn’t a bus, he thumbed a ride. As the project had no accountant, there was no payroll, so he received no wages.

Before Brukhanov could start building the station itself, he had to create the infrastructure he’d need to bring materials and equipment to the site: a rail spur from the station in nearby Yanov; a new dock on the river to receive gravel and reinforced concrete. He hired construction workers, and soon a growing army of men and women at the controls of caterpillar-tracked excavators and massive BelAZ dump trucks began to tear pathways through the forest and scrape a plateau from the dun landscape. To house himself, a newly hired bookkeeper, and the handful of workers who lived on the site, Brukhanov organized a temporary village in a forest clearing nearby. A cluster of wooden huts on wheels, each equipped with a small kitchen and a log-burning stove, the settlement was named simply Lesnoy—“of the woods”—by its new inhabitants. As the weather warmed, Brukhanov had a schoolhouse built where children could be educated up to fourth grade. In August 1970 he was joined in Lesnoy by his young family: his wife, Valentina, their six-year-old daughter, Lilia, and infant son, Oleg.

Valentina and Viktor Brukhanov had spent the first decade of their lives together helping fulfill the dream of Socialist electrification. Chernobyl was the family’s third power plant start-up in six years; Valentina and Viktor had met as young specialists working on the building of the Angren hydroelectric project, a hundred kilometers from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Valentina had been the assistant to a turbine engineer, and Viktor, fresh from university, had been a trainee. He was still planning to return to university to finish his master’s degree when the head of his department at the plant encouraged him to stay: “Wait,” he told him, “you’ll meet your future wife here!” Mutual friends introduced Viktor and Valentina in the winter of 1959: “You’ll drown in her eyes,” they promised. The couple had been dating for barely a year when, in December 1960, they were married in Tashkent; Lilia was born in 1964.

To Valentina, Lesnoy seemed a magical place, with fewer than a dozen families gathered in the huddle of makeshift cottages; at night, when the roar of the bulldozers and excavators subsided, a velvet silence fell on the glade, the darkness pierced by a single lantern and the screeching of owls. Every once in a while, to inspire the workers to help them achieve their construction targets, Moscow sent down Soviet celebrities, including the Gypsy superstar Nikolai Slichenko and his troupe, to perform shows and concerts. The family remained in the forest settlement for another two years, as shock-work brigades excavated the first reactor pit and carved a giant reservoir—an artificial lake 11 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide that would provide the millions of cubic meters of cooling water crucial to operating four massive reactors—from the sandy soil.

Meanwhile, Viktor oversaw the genesis of an entirely new settlement—an atomgrad, or “atomic city”—beside the river. The planners designed the settlement, eventually named Pripyat, to house the thousands of staff who would one day run the nuclear complex, along with their families. A handful of dormitories and apartment buildings reached completion in 1972. The new town went up so quickly that at first there were no paved roads and no municipal heating plant to serve the apartment buildings. But its citizens were young and enthusiastic. The first group of specialists to arrive on the site were idealists, pioneers of the nuclear future, keen to transform their homeland with new technology. To them, these problems were trifles: to keep warm at night, they slept with their coats on.

Valentina and Viktor were among the first to move in, taking a three-bedroom apartment in 6 Lenina Prospekt, right at the entrance to the new town, in the winter of 1972. While they waited for the city’s first school to be completed, every day their daughter, Lilia, hitched a ride in a truck or car back to Lesnoy, where she attended lessons in the forest schoolhouse.

According to Soviet planning regulations, Pripyat was separated from the plant itself by a “sanitary zone” in which building was prohibited, to ensure that the population would not be exposed to fields of low-level ionizing radiation. But Pripyat remained close enough to the plant to be reached by road in less than ten minutes—just three kilometers as the crow flies. And as the city grew, its residents began to build summer houses in the sanitary zone, each happy to disregard the rules in exchange for a makeshift dacha and a small vegetable garden.

Viktor Brukhanov’s initial instructions for the Chernobyl plant called for the construction of a pair of nuclear reactors—a new model known by the acronym RBMK, for reaktor bolshoy moschnosti kanalnyy, or high-power channel-type reactor. In keeping with the Soviet weakness for gigantomania, the RBMK was both physically larger and more powerful than almost any reactor yet built in the West, each one theoretically capable of generating 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve at least a million modern homes. The deadlines set by his bosses in Moscow and Kiev required Brukhanov to work with superhuman dispatch: according to the details of the Ninth Five-Year Plan, the first was due to come online in December 1975, with the second to follow before the end of 1979. Brukhanov quickly realized that this timetable was impossible.

By the time the young director began work in Chernobyl in 1970, the Socialist economic experiment was going into reverse. The USSR was buckling under the strain of decades of central planning, fatuous bureaucracy, massive military spending, and endemic corruption—the start of what would come to be called the Era of Stagnation. Shortages and bottlenecks, theft and embezzlement blighted almost every industry. Nuclear engineering was no exception. From the beginning, Brukhanov lacked construction equipment. Key mechanical parts and building materials often turned up late, or not at all, and those that did were often defective. Steel and zirconium—essential for the miles of tubing and hundreds of fuel assemblies that would be plumbed through the heart of the giant reactors—were both in short supply; pipework and reinforced concrete intended for nuclear use often turned out to be so poorly made it had to be thrown away. The quality of workmanship at all levels of Soviet manufacturing was so poor that building projects throughout the nation’s power industry were forced to incorporate an extra stage known as “preinstallation overhaul.” Upon delivery from the factory, each piece of new equipment—transformers, turbines, switching gear—was stripped down to the last nut and bolt, checked for faults, repaired, and then reassembled according to the original specifications, as it should have been in the first place. Only then could it be safely installed. Such wasteful duplication of labor added months of delays and millions of rubles in costs to any construction project.

Throughout late 1971 and early 1972, Brukhanov struggled with labor disputes and infighting among his construction managers and faced steady reprimands from his Communist Party bosses in Kiev. The workers complained about food shortages and the lines at the site canteen; he had failed to provide cost estimates and design documents; he missed deadlines and fell pathetically short of the monthly work quotas dictated by Moscow. And still there was more: the new citizens of Pripyat required a bakery, a hospital, a palace of culture, a shopping center. There were hundreds of apartments to be built.

Finally, in July 1972, exhausted and disillusioned, Viktor Brukhanov drove to Kiev for an appointment with his boss from the Ministry of Energy and Electrification. He had been director of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station for less than three years, and the plant had not yet emerged from the ground. But now he planned to resign.

Behind all the catastrophic failures of the USSR during the Era of Stagnation—beneath the kleptocratic bungling, the nepotism, the surly inefficiencies, and the ruinous waste of the planned economy—lay the monolithic power of the Communist Party. The Party had originated as a single faction among those grappling for power in Russia following the Revolution of 1917, ostensibly to represent the will of the workers, but quickly establishing control of a single-party state—intended to lead the proletariat toward “True Communism.”

Distinct from mere Socialism, True Communism was the Marxist utopia: “a classless society that contains limitless possibilities for human achievement,” an egalitarian dream of self-government by the people. As revolution was supplanted by political repression, the deadline for realizing this meritocratic Shangri-la was pushed repeatedly off into the future. Yet the Party clung to its role enforcing the dictates of Marxism-Leninism, ossifying into an ideological apparatus of full-time paid officials—the apparat—nominally separate from the government but that in reality controlled decision-making at every level of society.

Decades later, the Party had established its own rigid hierarchy of personal patronage and held the power of appointment over an entire class of influential positions, known collectively as the nomenklatura. There were also Party managers to oversee every workshop, civil or military enterprise, industry, and ministry: the apparatchiks, who formed a shadow bureaucracy of political functionaries throughout the Soviet empire. While officially every one of the fifteen republics of the USSR was run by its own Ministerial Council, led by a prime minister, in practice it was the national leader of each republican Communist Party—the first secretary—who was in control. Above them all, handing down directives from Moscow, sat Leonid Brezhnev, granite-faced general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, chairman of the Politburo, and de facto ruler of 242 million people. This institutionalized meddling proved confusing and counterproductive to the smooth running of a modern state, but the Party always had the final word.

Party membership was not open to everyone. It required an exhaustive process of candidacy and approval, the support of existing members, and the payment of regular dues. By 1970, fewer than one in fifteen Soviet citizens had been admitted. But membership brought perks and advantages available only to the elite, including access to restricted stores and foreign journals, a separate class of medical care, and the possibility of travel abroad. Above all, professional advancement in any kind of senior role was difficult without a Party card, and exceptions were rare. By the time Viktor Brukhanov joined in 1966, the Party was everywhere. In the workplace, he answered to two masters: both his immediate managers and the committee of the local Communist Party. When he became director of a nuclear power station, it was no different. He received directives from the Ministry of Energy in Moscow but was also tyrannized by the demands of the regional Party committee in Kiev.

Although by the early seventies many in the Party still believed in the principles of Marxism–Leninism, under the baleful gaze of Brezhnev and his claque of geriatric cronies, ideology had become little more than window dressing. The mass purges and the random executions of the three decades under Stalin were over, but across the USSR, Party leaders and the heads of large enterprises—collective farms and tank factories, power stations and hospitals—governed their staff by bullying and intimidation. These were the thuggish bureaucrats who, according to the novelist and historian Piers Paul Read, “had the face of a truck driver but the hands of a pianist.” The humiliation of enduring an expletive-spattered dressing-down delivered at screaming pitch was a ritual repeated daily in offices everywhere. It engendered a top-down culture of toadying yes-men who learned to anticipate the whims of their superiors and agree with whatever they said, while threatening their own underlings. When the boss put his own proposals to the vote, he could reasonably expect them to be carried unanimously every time, a triumph of brute force over reason.

Advancement in many political, economic, and scientific careers was granted only to those who repressed their personal opinions, avoided conflict, and displayed unquestioning obedience to those above them. By the midseventies, this blind conformism had smothered individual decision-making at all levels of the state and Party machine, infecting not just the bureaucracy but technical and economic disciplines, too. Lies and deception were endemic to the system, trafficked in both directions along the chain of management: those lower down passed up reports to their superiors packed with falsified statistics and inflated estimates, of unmet goals triumphantly reached, unfulfilled quotas heroically exceeded. To protect his own position, at every stage, each manager relayed the lies upward or compounded them.

Seated at the top of a teetering pyramid of falsehood, poring over reams of figures that had little basis in reality, were the economic mandarins of the State General Planning Committee—Gosplan—in Moscow. The brain of the “command economy,” Gosplan managed the centralized distribution of resources throughout the USSR, from toothbrushes to tractors, reinforced concrete to platform boots. Yet the economists in Moscow had no reliable index of what was going on in the vast empire they notionally maintained; the false accounting was so endemic that at one point the KGB resorted to turning the cameras of its spy satellites onto Soviet Uzbekistan in an attempt to gather accurate information about the state’s own cotton harvest.

Shortages and apparently inexplicable gluts of goods and materials were part of the grim routine of daily life, and shopping became a game of chance played with a string avoska, or “what-if” bag, carried in the hope of stumbling upon a store recently stocked with anything useful—whether sugar, toilet paper, or canned ratatouille from Czechoslovakia. Eventually the supply problems of the centrally planned economy became so chronic that crops rotted in the fields, and Soviet fishermen watched catches putrefy in their nets, yet the shelves of the Union’s grocery stores remained bare.

Soft spoken but sure of himself, Viktor Brukhanov was not like most Soviet managers. He was mild mannered and well liked by many of those beneath him. With his prodigious memory and shrewd financial sense, his excellent grasp of many technical aspects of his job—including chemistry and physics—he impressed his superiors. And at first, he was confident enough in his opinions to openly disagree with them. So when the pressures of the mammoth task he faced in Chernobyl became too much for him, he simply decided to quit.

Yet when Brukhanov arrived in Kiev that day in July 1972, his Party-appointed supervisor from the Energy Ministry took his letter of resignation, tore it up in front of him, and told him to get back to work. After that, the young director recognized that there was no escape. Whatever else his job might require, his most important task was simply to obey the Party—and to implement their plan by any means he could. The next month, construction workers poured the first cubic meter of concrete into the foundations of the plant.

Thirteen years later, on November 7, 1985, Brukhanov stood silently on the reviewing stand in front of the new Pripyat Palace of Culture, where the windows had been hung with hand-painted portraits of state and Party leaders. Power station and construction workers paraded through the square below, carrying banners and placards. And in speeches marking the anniversary of the Great October Revolution, the director was hailed for his illustrious achievements: his successful fulfillment of the Party’s plans, his benevolent leadership of the city, and the power plant it served.

Brukhanov had now dedicated the prime of his life to the creation of an empire in white reinforced concrete, encompassing a town of nearly fifty thousand people and four giant 1,000-megawatt reactors. Construction was also well under way on two more reactors, which were scheduled for completion within two years. When Units Five and Six of the Chernobyl station came online in 1988, Brukhanov would preside over the largest nuclear power complex on earth.

Under his direction, the Chernobyl plant—by then formally known as the V. I. Lenin Nuclear power station—had become a prize posting for nuclear specialists from all over the Soviet Union. Many of them came straight from MEPhI–the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, the Soviet counterpart to MIT. The USSR, hopelessly backward in developing computer technology, lacked simulators with which to train its nuclear engineers, so the young engineers’ work at Chernobyl would be their first practical experience in atomic power.

To trumpet the wonders of the atomic town of Pripyat, the city council—the ispolkom—had prepared a glossy book, filled with vivid color photographs of its happy citizens at play. The average age of the population was twenty-six, and more than a third of them were children. The young families had access to five schools, three swimming pools, thirty-five playgrounds, and beaches on the sandy banks of the river. The town planners had taken care to preserve the city’s sylvan environment, and each new apartment block was surrounded by trees. The buildings and open spaces were decorated with sculptures and spectacular mosaics celebrating science and technology. For all its modernity and sophistication, the city remained encircled by wilderness, offering a sometimes enchanting proximity to nature. One summer day, Brukhanov’s wife, Valentina, watched as a pair of elk swam out of the Pripyat and slouched up the beach before disappearing into the forest, apparently heedless of the bathers gawping from the sand.

As an atomgrad, the city and everything in it—from the hospital to the fifteen kindergartens—was considered an extension of the nuclear plant it served, financed directly from Moscow by the Ministry of Energy. It existed in an economic bubble; an oasis of plenty in a desert of shortages and deprivation. The food stores were better stocked than those even in Kiev, with pork and veal, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, and more than five different types of sausage. In the Raduga—or Rainbow—department store, Austrian-made dining sets and even French perfume were available to shoppers, all without having to spend years on a waiting list. There was a cinema, a music school, a beauty parlor, and a yacht club.

Pripyat was a small place: few of the buildings reached higher than ten stories, and one could cross the whole city in twenty minutes. Everyone knew everyone else, and there was little trade for the militsia—the policemen of the Ministry of Internal Affairs—or the city’s resident KGB chief, who had an office on the fifth floor of the ispolkom. Trouble was confined mostly to petty vandalism and public drunkenness. Each spring, the river gave up another grim harvest, as the thaw revealed the bodies of drunks who had blundered through the ice and drowned in midwinter.

A Western eye may have been drawn to Pripyat’s limitations: the yellowing grass bristling between concrete paving slabs or the bleak uniformity of the multistory buildings. But to men and women born in the sour hinterlands of the USSR’s factory cities, raised on the parched steppes of Kazakhstan, or among the penal colonies of Siberia, the new atomgrad was a true workers’ paradise. In home movies and snapshots, the citizens of Pripyat captured one another not as drab victims of the Socialist experiment but as carefree young people: kayaking, sailing, dancing, or posing in new outfits; their children playing on a great steel elephant or a brightly painted toy truck; cheerful optimists in the city of the future.

By the end of December 1985, Viktor and Valentina Brukhanov could look back on a year of triumphs and milestones at home and at work. In August they saw their daughter married and Lilia and her new husband resume their studies at the medical institute in Kiev; soon after, Lilia became pregnant with their first child. In December, the couple celebrated Viktor’s fiftieth birthday and their own silver wedding anniversary, with parties in their big corner apartment overlooking Pripyat’s main square.

At the same time, Viktor was honored with an invitation to Moscow to join the delegation attending the impending 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, an important stamp of political approval from above. The Congress promised, too, to be a significant event for the USSR as a whole. It would be the first over which the new general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, would preside as leader of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev had assumed power in March 1985, ending the long succession of zombie apparatchiks whose declining health, drunkenness, and senility had been concealed from the public by squadrons of increasingly desperate minders. At fifty-four, Gorbachev seemed young and dynamic and found an enthusiastic audience in the West. With political opinions formed during the 1960s, he was also the first general secretary to exploit the power of television. Speaking unselfconsciously in his southern accent, plunging into crowds on apparently spontaneous walkabouts finely orchestrated by the KGB, Gorbachev appeared constantly on the nation’s flagship TV news show, Vremya, watched every night by nearly two hundred million people. He announced plans for economic reorganization—perestroika—and, at the climax of the Party congress in March 1986, talked of the need for glasnost, or open government. A dedicated Socialist, Gorbachev believed that the USSR had lost its way but could be led to the utopia of True Communism by returning to the founding principles of Lenin. It would be a long road. The economy was staggering under the financial burden of the Cold War. Soviet troops were mired in Afghanistan, and in 1983 US president Ronald Reagan had extended the battle into space with the Strategic Defense Initiative, the “Star Wars” program. Annihilation in a nuclear strike seemed as close as ever. And at home, the monolithic old ways—the strangling bureaucracy and corruption of the Era of Stagnation—lingered on.

In the sixteen years that he’d spent building four nuclear reactors and an entire city on an isolated stretch of marshland, Viktor Brukhanov had received a long education in the realities of the system. Hammered on the anvil of the Party, made pliant by the privileges of rank, the well-informed and opinionated young specialist had been transformed into an obedient tool of the nomenklatura. He had met his targets and fulfilled the plan and won himself and his men orders of merit and pay bonuses for beating deadlines and exceeding labor quotas. But, like all successful Soviet managers, to do so, Brukhanov had learned how to be expedient and bend limited resources to meet an endless list of unrealistic goals. He had to cut corners, cook the books, and fudge regulations.

When the building materials specified by the architects of the Chernobyl station had proved unavailable, Brukhanov was forced to improvise: the plans called for fireproof cables, but when none could be found, the builders simply did the best they could.

When the Ministry of Energy in Moscow learned that the roof of the plant’s turbine hall had been covered with highly flammable bitumen, they ordered him to replace it. But the flame-retardant material specified for reroofing the structure—fifty meters wide and almost a kilometer long—was not even being manufactured in the USSR, so the Ministry granted him an exception, and the bitumen remained. When the district Party secretary instructed him to build an Olympic-length swimming pool in Pripyat, Brukhanov tried to object: such facilities were common only in Soviet cities of more than a million inhabitants. But the secretary insisted: “Go build it!” he said, and Brukhanov obeyed. He found the extra funds to do so by fiddling the city expenses to hoodwink the state bank.

And as the fourth and most advanced reactor of the Chernobyl plant approached completion, a time-consuming safety test on the unit turbines remained outstanding. Brukhanov quietly postponed it, and so met Moscow’s deadline for completion on the last day of December 1983.

But, like a spoiled lover, the Soviet Ministry of Energy and Electrification would not be satisfied. At the beginning of the 1980s, the USSR’s punishing schedule of nuclear construction had been accelerated further, with breathtaking plans for more and increasingly gigantic stations throughout the western territories of the Union. By the end of the century, Moscow intended Chernobyl to be one part of a dense network of atomic power megacomplexes, each one home to up to a dozen reactors. In 1984, the deadline for completing the fifth reactor was brought forward by a year. Labor and supply problems remained endemic: the concrete was defective; the men lacked power tools. A team of dedicated KGB agents and their network of informants at the plant reported a continuing series of alarming building faults.

In 1985 Brukhanov received instructions for the construction of Chernobyl Two, a separate station of four more RBMK reactors, using a new model fresh from the drawing board and even more Brobdingnagian than the last. This station would be built a few hundred meters away from the existing one, on the other side of the river, along with a new residential area of Pripyat to accommodate the plant workers. A bridge would be required to reach it, and a new ten-story administration building, with an office at the top from which the director could survey his sprawling nuclear fiefdom.

Brukhanov worked around the clock. His superiors could usually expect to find him somewhere in the station at almost any time of the day or night. If something went wrong at the plant—as it often did—the director often forgot to eat, and would subsist for a full twenty-four hours on coffee and cigarettes. In meetings, he withdrew into inscrutable silence, never offering two words when one would do. Isolated and exhausted, he had few friends and confided little, even to his wife.

Brukhanov’s staff, too, had changed. The spirited team of young specialists who had first colonized the freezing settlement in the woods all those years ago, and then worked to bring the first reactors online, had moved on. In their place were thousands of new employees, and Brukhanov found maintaining discipline difficult: despite his technical gifts, he lacked the force of personality necessary for management on the Soviet scale. The plant construction chief, a domineering and well-connected Party man whose authority rivaled that of the director, derided him as a “marshmallow.”

The Era of Stagnation had fomented a moral decay in the Soviet workplace and a sullen indifference to individual responsibility, even in the nuclear industry. The USSR’s economic utopianism did not recognize the existence of unemployment, and overstaffing and absenteeism were chronic problems. As the director of the plant and its company town, Brukhanov was responsible for providing jobs for everyone in Pripyat. The inexorable construction work took care of twenty-five thousand of them, and he had already arranged for the establishment of the Jupiter electronics plant to provide work for more of the women in town. But that wasn’t enough. Each shift at the Chernobyl plant now brought hundreds of men and women to the plant by bus from Pripyat, and many of them then sat around with nothing to do. Some were trainee nuclear engineers—aspiring to become a part of the highly qualified technical elite known as atomshchiki—who came to watch the experts at work. But others were mechanics and electricians who came from elsewhere in the energy industry—the “power men,” or energetiki—who harbored complacent assumptions about nuclear plants. They had been told that radiation was so harmless “you could spread it on bread,” or that a reactor was “like a samovar . . . more simple than a thermal power plant.” At home, some drank from glassware colored with iridescent patterns that, they boasted, were created by having been steeped in the radioactive waters of the plant’s used fuel coolant pond. Others listlessly filled out their shifts reading novels and playing cards. Those who actually had important work to do were known—with a bureaucratic frankness that hinted at satire—as the Group of Effective Control. Yet the dead weight of unwanted manpower tugged even at those with urgent responsibilities and infected the plant with inefficiency and a dangerous sense of inertia.

At the top, the experienced team of independent-minded nuclear engineering experts who had overseen the start-up of the station’s first four reactors had all left, and senior specialists were in short supply. The chief engineer—Brukhanov’s principal deputy, responsible for the day-to-day technical operation of the station—was Nikolai Fomin, the former plant Party secretary and an arrogant, blustering apparatchik of the old school. Balding, barrel chested, with a dazzling smile and a confident baritone voice that rose steeply in pitch when he became excited, Fomin had all the overbearing Soviet charisma Brukhanov lacked. An electrical engineer, his appointment had been pushed through by the Party in Moscow over the objections of the Ministry of Energy. He had no previous experience in atomic power but was ideologically beyond reproach—and did his best to learn nuclear physics through a correspondence course.

By the spring of 1986, Chernobyl was, officially, one of the best-performing nuclear stations in the Soviet Union, and the word was that Brukhanov’s loyalty to the Party would soon be rewarded. According to the results of the latest Five-Year Plan, the plant was due to receive the state’s highest honor: the Order of Lenin. The staff would win a financial bonus, and Brukhanov would be awarded the star of the Hero of Socialist Labor. At the Ministry of Energy, the decision had already been taken to promote Brukhanov to Moscow, and Fomin would take his place as plant director. The news would be announced on the May 1 holiday, with a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

Brukhanov had also raised Pripyat from nothing, creating a beautiful model town cherished by its citizens. And despite the appointment of a city council, almost every decision about the atomgrad—no matter how trivial—remained subject to his approval. From the outset, the architects had called for the city to be populated with a lush variety of trees and shrubs—birch, elm, and horse chestnut; jasmine, lilac, and barberry. But Brukhanov was especially fond of flowers and ordered them planted everywhere. At a meeting of the ispolkom in 1985, he announced a grand gesture. It was his wish that the streets would blossom with fifty thousand rosebushes: one for every man, woman, and child in the city. There were objections, of course. How could they possibly find so many flowers? Yet, by the following spring, thirty thousand good Baltic rosebushes had already been purchased at great expense from Lithuania and Latvia and planted in the long, raised beds beneath the poplar trees on Lenina Prospekt and everywhere around the central square.

Here, on the elevated concrete plaza along Kurchatov Street, at the end of the picturesque promenade into the city, the plans called for Pripyat to have its own statue of Lenin, an architectural necessity for every major town in the USSR. But a permanent monument had not yet been built. The city council had announced a competition for a design, and the plinth where it would stand was occupied by a triangular wooden box, painted with an inspiring portrait, a hammer and sickle, and a slogan: “The name and mission of Lenin will live forever!”

In the meantime, Viktor Brukhanov had given his blessing to a memorial to more ancient gods: a massive realist statue, in front of the city’s cinema, six meters tall and cast in bronze. It depicted a Titan, naked beneath the swooping folds of his cloak, holding aloft leaping tongues of flame. This was Prometheus, who had descended from Olympus with the stolen gift of fire. With it, he brought light, warmth, and civilization to mankind—just as the torchbearers of the Red Atom had illuminated the benighted households of the USSR.

But the ancient Greek myth had a dark side: Zeus was so enraged by the theft of the gods’ most powerful secret that he chained Prometheus to a rock, where a giant eagle descended to peck out his liver every day for eternity.

Nor did mortal man escape retribution for accepting Prometheus’s gift. To him, Zeus sent Pandora, the first woman, bearing a box that, once opened, unleashed evils that could never again be contained.

Table of Contents

Note on Translation and Transliteration ix

Maps x

Cast of Characters xvii

Prologue 1

Part 1 Birth of a City

1 The Soviet Prometheus 7

2 Alpha, Beta, and Gamma 25

3 Friday, April 25, 5:00 p.m., Pripyat 46

4 Secrets of the Peaceful Atom 60

5 Friday, April 25, 11:55 p.m., Unit Control Room Number Four 75

6 Saturday, April 26, 1:28 a.m., Paramilitary Fire Station Number Two 91

7 Saturday, 1:30a.m., Kiev 111

8 Saturday, 6:15 a.m., Pripyat 132

9 Sunday, April 27, Pripyat 152

Part 2 Death of an Empire

10 The Cloud 169

11 The China Syndrome 187

12 The Battle of Chernobyl 200

13 Inside Hospital Number Six 217

14 The Liquidators 239

15 The Investigation 261

16 The Sarcophagus 278

17 The Forbidden Zone 299

18 The Trial 314

19 The Elephant's Foot 336

20 A Tomb for Valery Khodemchuk 350

Epilogue 367

Acknowledgments 373

Author's Note 377

Glossary 381

Units of Radiation 385

Notes 387

Bibliography 491

Photo Credits 519

Index 521

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