Midnight in Chernobyl

The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster


  • Media: #Books #Books 2021
    • Author: Adam Higginbotham
    • Tags: read #nuclear #science #history #nonfiction #russia
    • Rating: ★★★★☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★★☆


"At 7:07 a.m., he wrote: “People are resting. At 8:00 a.m., the staff office will start working. The situation is normal. The radiation level is rising.”"

A balanced overview of the Chernobyl accident, combining a blow by blow account with enough exposition to convey the science and wider political context. The book manages to be intensely personal without losing the bigger picture and impact. However, this personal take did at times make the account difficult to follow. The cast kept expanding and when we hopped back to someone we had met before, I sometimes struggled to remember who this was and what they did. There is a glossary, which helps but also demonstrates just how many perspectives the book delves.

Is it a bit on the long side? Probably. But it remains a sweeping but balanced look at the historic event, spanning the human, political, and environmental, and scientific impact while delving the root design faults and unique environment which produced the accident (and subsequent semi-cover-ups) in the first place.

"This was a task on a scale unprecedented in human history, and one for which no one in the USSR—or, indeed, anywhere else on earth—had ever bothered to prepare."

As an aside, I wish some of the photos were interspersed when we meet the people instead of grouped at the end (at least in the ebook version). They bring home the fact that these were real, relatable people whose lives were turned upside down (also the scale of the city which had to be completely abandoned).


[[!Accidents do not occur in isolation]]

"It was this profound failure of the Soviet social experiment, and not merely a handful of reckless reactor operators, that Legasov believed was to blame for the catastrophe that had bloomed from Reactor Number Four."

  • The book explores not just the design and operation of the reactor which led up to the incident but the unique sociological and political context of the late USSR which enabled those conditions.
  • Chernobyl occurred during the soviet [[!Era of Stagnation]], with central planning and corrupt bureaucracy run amok. "The Era of Stagnation had fomented a moral decay in the Soviet workplace and a sullen indifference to individual responsibility."
  • "...the thread of virtuous purpose had run through their fingers, leaving behind a generation of young people who were technologically sophisticated but morally untethered."
  • That does not excuse anyone from responsibility, but it does require a look at the wider ecosystem around an accident beyond the immediate parties. Instead, the operators took the fall while the designers and high-ups who knew about the flaws covered up the rest.
  • One of the operators, protesting innocence, blamed the fact that there was no one controlling the ministries and scientific centers.

The importance of communication

"Lies and deception were endemic to the system, trafficked in both directions along the chain of management."

  • To mitigate the dangerous system flaws, operators had to follow strict procedure but they had no idea about the flaws themselves or why those rules were important. Corners were inevitably cut to meet deadlines. [[!If you dont know why a rule is important you have little reason to follow them]].
  • In a time when the USSR was attempting to be more transparent, covert and military mentality still prevailed, especially when it came to nuclear power. Previous accidents were covered up.
  • "The military roots of the civilian nuclear industry had entangled not only the technology it relied upon but also the minds of its custodians. Even in the West, nuclear scientists continued to dwell in a culture of secrecy and expedience: ==an environment in which sometimes reckless experimentation was married with an institutional reluctance to acknowledge when things went wrong.=="
  • You need the appropriate information to be able to best respond.


  • [[!Plan for failure]]. [[!Know when to ask for help]]. When you can't question authority or reveal information, you can't plan for when things go wrong or seek help.
  • The disaster disconnect: Interesting how people could not believe or could not understand the severity of what happened. No one wanted to stay inside at first (even when they were finally warned). Even some of the people who saw the destruction of the reactor describe going home the next day and everything seeming so normal so they felt they had to enjoy it. Reminds me of the reactions to [[!COVID-19]].
  • The effects of Radiation are crazy and so varied.
  • The impact of Chernobyl was massive and varied but many diseases were attributed to anything but radiation.
  • Nuclear power is not fully understood and doesn't take much to become dangerous. Higginbotham on the bombing of Japan: "The bomb itself was extremely inefficient: just one kilogram of the uranium underwent fission, and only seven hundred milligrams of mass—the weight of a butterfly—was converted into energy. But it was enough to obliterate an entire city in a fraction of a second."
  • The Chernobyl Sarcophagus sounds like something out of science fiction or a #ttrpg adventure.
  • Made me think of [[!Entombed Above]]. What if there was like a necromantic nuke?

Topics to Pursue

  • The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia—Past, Present, and Future, trans. Catherine Fitzpatrick
  • Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia
  • David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire
  • Craig Nelson, The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era
  • Josephson, Red Atom,
  • the secret space city of Leninsk
  • Forbidden islands of Novaya Zemlya
  • Mary Mycio, Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl
  • Sich provides a map of the four flow routes: “Chornobyl Accident Revisited,”
  • Documentary footage in Inside Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus, 1991; BBC
  • “Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay?,” Wired,
  • Mary Mycio in “Do Animals in Chernobyl’s Fallout Zone Glow?,” Slate
  • “Satan Sleeps Beside the Pripyat” [На березі Прип'яті спить сатана] by Lina Kostenko, translated here by Tetiana Vodianytska.

Scrapbook Concepts

  • Forbidden islands of Novaya Zemlya, "high in the Arctic Circle and ground zero for the detonation of the terrible Tsar Bomba, the largest thermonuclear device in history." --> nuclear winter island #locations #ice
  • the Ministry of Energy #locations #factions
  • 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. #locations #factions
  • Palace of Culture in every city, windows hung with hand-painted portraits of state and Party leaders #locations
  • 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 --> That would make a surreal pamphlet #idea
  • "More than eighty years later, Curie’s laboratory notes remain so radioactive that they are kept in a lead-lined box." #artefacts
  • The Article - the first Soviet atomic bomb
  • the Ministry of Culture #locations #factions
  • turned the surface of the earth to glass for five kilometers around ground zero.
  • Mobile nuclear reactors mounted on tank treads or designed to float around the Arctic #artefacts #ice #locations
  • "the mellifluous propaganda jingle of the Ministry of Energy and Electrification: Hai bude atom robitnikom, a ne soldatom! “Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier!”"
  • School Number Four #locations
  • the secret space city of Leninsk, building the first rocket #locations
  • Council of Ministers
  • "The boxes—radio-tochki, or “radio points”—hung on the walls of homes throughout the Soviet Union, piping in propaganda just like gas and electricity, over three channels: all-Union, republic, and city. Broadcasts began every morning at six with the Soviet anthem and the cheerless greeting Govorit Moskva—“Moscow speaking.”" #fragments
  • a Pioneer camp thirty kilometers from the plant site, named Skazochny, or “Fairy Tale.” --> Nuclear fairies #creatures #idea
  • Hospital Number Six #locations
  • the secret weapon proving grounds of Semipalatinsk—the hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of Kazakh steppe known as “the Polygon” #locations
  • "The trees and fields that flashed past looked lush and green but were barricaded behind plywood fences marked with the warning “Do Not Pull Over—Contaminated.”" #fragments
  • A city without children. No one could say when they might return. #locations #adventures
  • "the “Red Forest”; even shielded by armor plate and bulletproof glass, the needles of their radiometers began to swing wildly amid the extraordinary levels of contamination." #locations
  • Nuclear detective investigating accident while shadowed by the KGB and having to promote government cover-up #characters
  • "If you smell ozone, his colleague said, run."
  • the First Main Directorate #factions
  • Uranium mines with 50% forced labours, shipped into exile in the Far North to prevent them telling anyone what they had seen #locations #factions #ice
  • Shevchenko - city beside a uranium mine on a remote desert peninsula in Kazakhstan. #locations
  • "A big man wearing a three-piece suit and a polka-dot tie, sixty-two years old, he was animated and emphatic, his speech rich with metaphor and arid humor." #characters
  • Radioactive Eden #locations
  • Greeters handing out lanyards hung with dosimetry buttons to monitor guests’ radiation exposure #apocalypse
  • A broken reactor, robots and construction vehicles abandoned around it where the radiation brought them to a halt #fragments
  • Monstrous giant carp in radioactive coolant tank inside reactor ruins #apocalypse #industrial
  • Gosplan - Centralized resource distribution centre, handling everything from toothbrushes to tractors, reinforced concrete to platform boots. #locations
  • "The task promised levels of radiation almost beyond imagining, a construction site too dangerous to survey, and an impossible deadline." #adventures
  • "Inside the Sarcophagus, they were explorers on the frontier of an alien world, where they found gamma radiation fields scaling heights no one had witnessed before and strange new materials forged at temperatures of more than 5,000 degrees centigrade in the crucible of a disintegrating nuclear reactor." #locations