What I Read in 2019: Chernobyl – History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

chernobyl

I was eight when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on April 25/26th 1986. I don’t really remember it, if I’m honest. It must have been on the news, at some point, but it passed me by. As I grew up I became aware of myself in a world setting, especially in the form of environmental awareness – the ozone layer, ice caps, greenhouse gasses, sea levels and yes, nuclear power and the dangers of it, which was always referenced with the Chernobyl disaster. To a fourteen or fifteen year old, the disaster must have seemed a long tome ago, something in the past from which, one assumed, lessons had been learned.

I picked up Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy on the recommendation of my husband who had heard about it on the radio. As I stood in Waterstone’s choosing what to read, I was impressed by the weight of it; by the massive amount of references in the back. The scientist in me recognised the work that had gone into it and I was interested in a world history event which had happened within my life time but about which I knew very little. I finished reading it last week, it took me two months to read. It took me so long because I am so very swamped with work right now and only get short spaces of time to read for pleasure, but partly because the book is so incredibly dense in factual information. How could it not be? For a start the average person in the street doesn’t really know how nuclear fission works in detail, I had a vague understanding about it, but couldn’t have told you how the energy is ‘managed’.  To understand how the accident happened one needs to know how nuclear power plants work. The book explains this without expecting you to be a physicist, which is good, as I was (still am I guess? ) a microbiologist. This is irrelevant, anyone would understand it, science background not necessary, but by god I spent four years at uni studying for my BSC and thirteen years as a microbiologist so I like to drop it in where I can and get my money’s worth.

It would also be really easy to present the disaster from a modern, western perspective, but examination in hindsight, from a completely different set of experiences never fully addresses the issues, so the book places the events in the context of the soviet union, it’s history and the lives of every day people living and working in the state. It goes into incredible detail about the soviet union, the style of leadership and the economic situation at that time. It’s another area that I had a very vague knowledge of, and it’s been a real eye opener.

It turns out the disaster did not just occur in April 1986. On the fateful night there was the explosion, the worst nuclear disaster ever,  but what followed was a thirty year long failure to manage the disaster, and a massive cover up which has caused thousands and thousands of innocent people to die and to suffer from cancer. This is a disaster that will continue to occur for another 24,000 years. I’ve never really been sure why Nuclear power is hailed as a clean energy when there isn’t an effective way to get rid of nuclear waste at the best of times, but in the event of a disaster like this the whole planet could be wiped out, and so very very nearly was. Even with all the safety precautions in the world, and the highest level of expertise in managing what is, effectively, an incredibly unstable source of power, we cannot predict everything. Just look at Fukushima. 

Reactor four was not the only reactor on the Chernobyl site. One of the reasons for the disaster was poor construction due to the intense pressure to produce energy. So I was shocked to read that the last unit at the Chernobyl site was finally shut down and decommissioned in the year 2000. It won’t be possible to dismantle the reactors themselves until 2064. I might just see it in my lifetime. That’s what I find truly terrifying. The steel cover that covers the original concrete cover was only finished and in place in 2017. It will need to be replaced in 100 years. Chernobyl is an ongoing process of management, and will be forever. It frightens me that in a world that feels so unstable, we have to trust that this management will continue to happen. And still, and still, nuclear power plants are being constructed around the world.

I won’t bore you with anymore details, you should read the book, it should be taught in schools, we should all be aware of this event and the implications of nuclear energy. They are still regularly testing the soil in Europe (inc. Britain) to determine the nuclear contamination from the fall out cloud of Chernobyl. As an indication of how Europe affected, here’s a link to a video on youtube which shows how the cloud moved: Cloud Movement . I can’t verify how accurate it is, but it is one of many produced by environmental agencies. My friend got thyroid cancer a few years ago, and thankfully survived it, she was born in the eighties. I remember having conversations with doctors at the time of her diagnosis, when I was working in the NHS,  about the prevalence of thyroid cancer on the east coast and I can see why there is such a prevelence now, looking at that video.

For those interested, and I know a fair few people who have read the book too, and are enjoying (is enjoying the right word?) the Chernobyl series on Sky (it’s brilliant) this is another video which is really helpful as the to scale reconstruction of the plant in its post explosion state is incredible. I couldn’t quite visualise how the lid of the reactor had blown off, and then fallen back in place, until I watched this: Video. It also has some facts about the contamination and the massive explosion.

Back to the book. It is intense, dense in facts, often quite dry, but also compassionate and pulls no punches, it exposes the very inner workings of the soviet union to show exactly how this happened, but more than that, it explains the very very real danger of something like this happening again. Go read it.

 

 

 

 

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