Fortunately, "Chernobyl" is indeed a cracking read, and could almost pass as a ripping yarn of fiction, but it is the Baillie Gifford award that stands out. This is acclaimed as the UK’s premier prize for non-fiction, and up until 2016 it was named after Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784, the revered English critic, biographer, essayist, poet and lexicographer, remembered as a towering figure of 18th-century life and letters. Baillie Gifford sounds like a less cultural and more corporate name, but nonetheless the independent investment partnership runs a sponsorship programme that supports the arts, academia and local good citizenship, including 12 UK literary festivals.

The kudos around Serhii Plokhy’s book arise because although the events of April 26, 1986 are well remembered by most people in bare outline, his account has been greeted as the most comprehensive and convincing history in English of the worst nuclear disaster in history: the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine.

Plokhy is Professor of History at Harvard University, Massachusetts, and an authority on Eastern Europe. At the time of the catastrophe he lived behind the Iron Curtain less than 500 kilometres downstream of the destroyed reactor. His previous books include "Lost Kingdom", which is a history of Russian imperialism, "The Gates of Europe", an authoritative history of Ukraine and its people, and "The Last Empire", examining the final days of the Soviet Union.

One of the strengths of "Chernobyl" is because, 32 years after the event, Plokhy was able to draw on new sources to tell the dramatic stories of the "liquidators", the firefighters, scientists, soldiers, helicopter pilots, plant managers, employees and others who heroically risked, and gave, their lives to extinguish the nuclear inferno. More government archives became available, particularly documents from the Communist Party and its agencies. The Maidan uprising and the Revolution of Dignity of 2014 in Ukraine also produced an archival revolution that allowed unprecedented access to previously closed KGB files.

Chernobyl sits today in a circular 30-kilometre exclusion zone that contains a more restricted 10-kilometre one and the abandoned towns of Prypiat and Chernobyl and many villages. Altogether, 50 million curies of radiation were released by the explosion at reactor No. 4, the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs. If the other three reactors had been damaged by the explosion at the first, then hardly any living and breathing organisms would have been left on the planet, Plokhy tells.

For weeks after the accident, scientists and engineers did not know if the disaster would get even worse. If the reactor had melted down to the water table, contaminated water would have flowed into the Prypiat River, then into the Dnieper River, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. As it was, the winds carried a radioactive cloud northwest over Belarus, the Baltic States and as far as Sweden. For a while it looked as if the Ukraine capital, Kyiv, to the south of Chernobyl, and its two million residents would have to be evacuated.

Plokhy lays bare the flaws of the Soviet nuclear industry, tracing the disaster to the authoritarian character of Communist Party rule, the regime's control of scientific information, and its emphasis on economic development over all else. He says his book is the first comprehensive account of the disaster from the explosion in 1986 to the closing of the plant in December 2000 and the completion of the new shelter, or sarcophagus, over the reactor in May 2018.

Most importantly, Plokhy looks beyond Chernobyl itself to tell how the accident helped precipitate the end of the Soviet Union, sharply increasing discontent with Moscow and its policies across ethnic and social lines. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s embracing of glasnost, or openness, that gave the media and citizens the right to discuss political and social problems and criticise the authorities, had its origins in the post-Chernobyl days.

This was Cold War time. The Soviet economy was in tatters and cheese and sausage were almost impossible to find but the appetite for nuclear power was immense. As the population demanded more and more information from the government about the tragedy, the official culture of secrecy slowly yielded. The disaster also brought ecological concerns to the forefront in the Soviet Union.

But, as is known, the Soviets remained silent for some time after the accident. Apparatchiks shifted the blame around. The safer VVER reactors had been passed over for RBMK reactors, which were more powerful but also cheaper to build and operate. However, they had not been fully tested. Suppliers failed to meet deadlines and comply with quality standards. Higher-ups wanted to lessen regular system checks and repairs as much as possible so as not to adversely affect energy production figures.

The immediate cause of the explosion was a turbine test that went wrong. But the deeper cause was the major flaws in both the Soviet political system and in the nuclear industry. As Plokhy recalls, there had already been an accident at the Leningrad nuclear power plant in 1975 when a dramatic rise in radioactivity and destabilisation almost destroyed the reactor, but details were withheld from personnel of other nuclear plants, in standard Soviet fashion.

Here is the minute-by-minute detailed story of what went wrong on that night in 1986, what had been going wrong long before the explosion and what continued to go wrong in the days, weeks and years that followed. The author is strong on both the human and the technical sides of the doomsday disaster.

Today, the increasing world population presents a growing demographic, economic and ecological crisis. Many new nuclear power plants are being built around the world. As Plokhy asks: "Are we sure that all these reactors are sound, that safety procedures will be followed to the letter, and that the autocratic regimes running most of these countries will not sacrifice the safety of their people and the world as a whole to get extra energy and cash to build up their military, ensure rapid economic development, and try to head off public discontent? That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union back in 1986."


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