Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

Causes and effects…

😀 😀 😀 😀

On 26 April 1986 the no.4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded. In this book, Plokhy sets out to explain why and how this disaster occurred, and to look at the fallout, both actual and political, that followed. Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. The book begins with him visiting the present-day Chernobyl site, now a kind of macabre tourist venue, with the destroyed reactor buried in its own specially designed sarcophagus.

He then takes us back in time, to the Soviet Congress of 1986, when the newly elected Mikhail Gorbachev set out to change the direction of the USSR from military might through the long-standing arms race to becoming an economic powerhouse. This led to dramatic increases in targets for the building of nuclear power plants and for the amount of energy to be produced, all on ridiculously short time-frames. Plokhy goes even further back to show the early slipshod development of nuclear power plants in the USSR. While some people already had safety concerns, they were living under a regime that didn’t welcome dissent, and so mostly these were not passed up the line or were ignored when they were.

Having set the technical and political background, Plokhy then recounts in detail the events that led up to the disaster – a series of technical and management failures, mostly caused by the time pressures and targets forced on the plant. He gives a vivid account of the immediate aftermath, when it was unclear how devastating the accident had been, and when men were sent in to investigate without adequate equipment to protect themselves or even to accurately measure the radiation. Denial became a feature of the whole thing – both official denials by the government, trying to hide the scale of the accident from their own people and from international governments; and the more human denial, of people caught up in the disaster, unable or unwilling to believe that they couldn’t somehow put the genie back in the bottle – that things had spiralled beyond their control. Plokhy shows clearly how the regime’s culture of holding individuals culpable as scapegoats for systemic failures led to a lack of openness, which in turn delayed necessary actions like evacuation which would have saved at least some lives.

The sarcophagus built over the destroyed reactor

Plokhy goes on to show the political aftermath, suggesting that the disaster played a major role in the break-up of the Soviet Union a few years later. And he finishes with a heartfelt plea to the international community to act to prevent such disasters in the future by monitoring and rigorously inspecting nuclear facilities, especially in countries with authoritarian governments where there is a culture of blame that prevents people expressing safety concerns.

I found this an interesting and informative read, and felt Plokhy handled the technical side of the story well. He simplified it enough for my non-technical brain to grasp the main points, but there are plenty of facts and figures in there for those with a greater understanding of the science of nuclear power. In terms of style, he tries to get a balance between the politics, the technological aspects and the individual people caught up in the events, and to a large degree he manages this well. However, I did find the book occasionally got bogged down in giving too much biographical detail about some individuals – more than I felt was necessary for the purpose of the book. In contrast, I found as the book went on there was a tendency to deal in numbers rather than people, so that the book didn’t have quite the emotional punch I was expecting. Regulars will know I’m not one for a lot of emoting in factual books, but I did feel with this one that I began to view the outcomes as statistical rather than as a tragedy with a human face.

Serhii Plokhy

And I found the somewhat polemical chapters at the end rather simplistic, in truth. While I wouldn’t at all argue with the need for monitoring, I’m not convinced that, firstly, authoritarian states would welcome international interference and, secondly, that we in the oh-so-superior democratic west have a much better record in either safety or encouraging openness. Seems to me we do a pretty good line in “blame culture” ourselves. However, I agree with Plokhy’s basic argument – that this technology with such vast potential for disaster should be subject to international scrutiny, since radiation respects no borders.

Overall then, despite a few criticisms, I found this a well-presented and worthwhile read that shows clearly the links between policy and technology and the dangers when the two are not working in synch. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane, via Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

30 thoughts on “Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

  1. There’s another book on the subject you might like – Chernobyl Diaries by Svetlana Alexeivich. My book group read it last year and it was fascinating. Made me feel old, though, because I was the only one who remembered the disaster actually happening!

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  2. This does sound really interesting, FictionFan. And it’s nice when the author gets the balance right when it comes to tone and style. But I agree with you that Chernobyl is, as much as anything else, a human story. And that side of the story is worth telling, too. That said, though, it sounds like a fascinating look at the context and the set of decisions that led to what happened.

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    • It’s always hard, I assume, for an author to know how much of the human element to put in a factual book, and I’d probably prefer too little than too much, on the whole. But he was very good at putting the accident into the context of the political system. And the description of the actual event itself was fascinating.

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  3. This book does sound interesting. But I think I’d have the same reaction. I want the human drama. The Chernobyl Diaries that Plantstef mentioned sounds really good to me.

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    • I’m in the middle, really – I felt the book could have done with more human stories about the long-term aftermath, but I wouldn’t have wanted that to be the main focus, either. No pleasing us picky readers, I fear! 😉

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  4. I’m glad you pointed out that the West isn’t innocent, either. I immediately thought about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m not sure if it makes much of a difference, but I’ve only purchased gas at a BP one time since that happened–and in that case, I was running on fumes with no other options.

    I hope the author really put a human face on the situation, because the images after the disaster are haunting. Have you seen them? https://www.politico.eu/interactive/in-pictures-chernobyl-30-years-later/

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    • I know there are occasional cases where some person really is responsible for these major accidents by doing something clearly illegal, but in general I hate the way we all look for someone to blame rather than allowing people to tell the truth without fear they’ll go to jail. Mostly these things are caused by a mistake or incompetence, and we all make mistakes and are incompetent sometimes. It’s just that most of us are in jobs where it doesn’t matter so much.

      This book was definitely more about the politics and technology than the human stories, though there were some. But yes, I saw a lot of images when I was looking for a pic to include. Horrific.

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  5. Another great review, though I don’t think this is one I’ll add to my reading list. I browsed through the photos in the link Grab the Lapels mentioned, and they are indeed disturbing. We might “forget” such an incident, but our bodies and our planet most certainly do not.

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    • Thanks, Debbie! Yes, that’s what makes nuclear accidents – or war – so scary. The effects go on long after the incident itself begins to fade from public memory. Though hopefully we’ve learned some lessons from this one… hopefully!

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  6. Great review of what sounds a really interesting book. We are one of the cities that hosts “Chernobyl children” every year for respite care – the children and grandchildren of actual survivors, and it is quite obvious from the exotic ailments, birth defects, etc., that the damage is still working itself out. I get so angry about these tragedies that are caused by avoidable human error, and the tendency of those in power to try to lump them in with natural disasters makes my boil bleed.

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    • Yes, it’s not so much the accidents that anger me – accidents happen – but the cover-up by governments or corporations. With this one, the evacuation was so slow because of official denial. Who knows how many fewer people might have been affected over the years if only they’d had a proper plan for getting people away quickly. And of course, the refusal to accept that such a thing could happen meant that no-one had prepared any kind of contingency plan for when it did…

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      • Yes, it’s like the convoys carrying nuclear missiles through central Scotland – did you know that there is no local government plan to deal with the aftermath of an accident, because there isn’t going to be one – guaranteed!

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        • Ridiculous, isn’t it? That’s why I didn’t think his suggestion that only authoritarian regimes presented a danger was realistic – our ‘open’ societies are just as ostrich-like.

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  7. So sad. I’m probably more interested in the people rather than the stats too. There is some extraordinary drone footage of the area on YouTube showing the abandoned city and some beautiful old homes in the countryside that have been poisoned for thousands of years to come.

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    • I’m probably more interested in the political angle than the human one, in truth, in terms of reading about it anyway. But I did feel there should have been a bit more of a human face about the aftermath, to bring the horror home. Yes, I saw lots of pics while googling for an image to add to the post – some sad, some horrific.

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  8. And what a timely review! North Korea, hello????? God knows what kind of disaster would happen there with their nuclear weapons, and or what has happened that we don’t even know about!

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  9. Interesting! I read an article somewhere not too long ago about the old woman (“babushkas”) who still live within the exclusion zone, semi-illegally but they’re like, “You’re gonna have to kill me to get me out of here.” Such a sad tale all around. I agree, I don’t think these kinds of horrific accidents and cover-ups are just about the authoritarian regimes shushing up dissent.

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    • Yes, the book talked about people refusing to leave their homes – usually older people. You can kind of understand it – radiation can’t be seen, and for lots of people it’s years before the effects show up. No, I think it’s a common human reaction to go into denial over something like this, whatever kind of society you live in. I know it happens over here…

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    • Yes, that’s the thing about these tragedies – they disappear from the news after a bit, but the effects can last for generations…

      Thanks for popping in – sorry about the delay in responding. My excuse is watching too much tennis… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great book review… I’m looking to learn more about the history of Ukraine, and will definitely give this book a try. I was trying to remember why the authour’s name was familiar, then remembered he gave a guest lecture presentation at my University this spring about Russia/ Ukraine relations. A very intelligent man!

    Thanks for this post!

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    • Thanks for commenting and sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been taking a little blog holiday! I’m sure this would be a great one for learning more about the history of Ukraine, and it’s very readable. I thought he handled all the difficult technical information very well. Hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to read it! 😀

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