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Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy
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Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (Paperback)

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'As moving as it is painstakingly researched. . . a cracking read' Viv Groskop, Observer

'A riveting account of human error and state duplicity. . . rightly being hailed as a classic' Hannah Betts, Daily Telegraph

On 26 April 1986 at 1.23am a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded. While the authorities scrambled to understand what was occurring, workers, engineers, firefighters and those living in the area were abandoned to their fate. The blast put the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation, contaminating over half of Europe with radioactive fallout.

In Chernobyl, award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy draws on recently opened archives to recreate these events in all their drama. A moment by moment account of the heroes, perpetrators and victims of a tragedy, Chernobyl is the first full account of a gripping, unforgettable Cold War story.

'A compelling history of the 1986 disaster and its aftermath . . . plunges the reader into the sweaty, nervous tension of the Chernobyl control room on that fateful night when human frailty and design flaws combined to such devastating effect' Daniel Beer, Guardian

'Haunting ... near-Tolstoyan. His voice is humane and inflected with nostalgia' Roland Elliott Brown, Spectator

'Extraordinary, vividly written, powerful storytelling ... the first full-scale history of the world's worst nuclear disaster, one of the defining moments in the Cold War, told minute by minute' Victor Sebestyen Sunday Times

'Plays out like a classical tragedy ... fascinating' Julian Evans, Daily Telegraph

'Here at last is the monumental history the disaster deserves' Julie McDowall, The Times

Serhii Plokhy is Professor of History at Harvard University and a leading authority on Eastern Europe whose previous books include Lost Kingdom, The Gates of Europe and The Last Empire. At the time of the Chernobyl explosion he lived behind the Iron Curtain less than 500 kilometres downstream of the damaged reactor.

More books by Serhii Plokhy

Customer Reviews

When Chernobyl exploded, I was very relieved to be back home in New Zealand, and far away from Europe, where I had been living up until only two months previously. With the new information now available, it is horrifying to see just how close Europe, as a whole, came to nuclear devastation. It is a testament to the extreme heroism of the Soviet Union firefighters, soldiers, miners and nuclear power scientists and workers that such a catastrophe was averted. But, at the same time, it was the political flaws in the hide-bound, autocratic Soviet system that made the crisis more likely to occur in the first place. It is the political dimension that this book focuses on –relating to both the causes, and the aftermath of Chernobyl, for the Soviet Union and the entire world. A year later I was back in Europe (London), and Chernobyl was not so much in the news. Then in October 1987 I went to see the play “Sarcophagus” by Pravda science editor Vladimir Gubaryev, and learnt a lot more about the Chernobyl nuclear plant, its construction and the immediate aftermath. Much of what was in the play is also covered in the book – the rushed construction to meet deadlines, the inferior and defective quality of the construction materials, the effects of radioactivity on the local population, workers and people initially drafted into to fight the fire and explosion. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent opening up of access to information as well as the passing of time (not to mention the restrictions imposed by a play compared to the relative freedom of prose), the book is able to go into much more detail. The book makes a big thing about the secrecy and cover-ups surrounding the events at Chernobyl by the Party in Moscow, but the play “Sarcophagus” with its criticisms of Soviet industry and the response to Chernobyl – published and performed in Russia (as well as in the West) with the consent of the Party – was not mentioned. The Soviet nuclear industry was a matter of national and ideological pride, and so its safety could not be called into question, and any problems should particularly not be broadcast to the West – until denial was no longer an option. Secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry is not confined to the Soviet Union. The Windscale reactor in Britain had numerous accidents – the worst a major fire in 1957 with the release of radioactivity across Europe. No-one was evacuated, and for many years the only admission of contamination was in milk produced nearby – which was destroyed for only one month afterwards. As a teenager, I read a lot about the nuclear industry, and what I read in the 1970’s about Windscale’s ‘accidents’ convinced me that nuclear power was safe. Windscale’s name was changed to Sellafield, most likely to avoid continued association with nuclear accidents, and is only now (June 2019) being decommissioned. Chernobyl was a great wake-up call – to me and the rest of the world – and Fukushima was a not-so-gentle reminder. The risks involved in using nuclear power can be minimised, with constant vigilance, continual up-dating of safety measures, high quality construction and adequate financing, and an open, fear-free working environment. But, nuclear power will never be fully safe. The book charts the entire history of the nuclear industry at Chernobyl (and elsewhere in the USSR), the people involved, choices of reactor, decisions made that had later disastrous consequences, the cost-cutting, and most of all the ideology that made the abnegation of responsibility and scapegoating routine. The actual explosion and fire at Chernobyl are dealt with in detail, as is are the attempts at containment, and clean up, with the evacuation(s) of local inhabitants. The book then goes on to consider the political fallout from Chernobyl on the breakup of the Soviet Union. I started to skim through this section, but then paid it more attention, as it explained at least some of the ongoing poor relationship and distrust between Ukraine and Russia. This is a very readable book, with a wealth of well-researched information that gives a historical background to the crisis and important lessons for the future. These can be summed up in three quotes: "The causes of the Chernobyl meltdown are very much in evidence today. Authoritarian rulers pursuing enhanced or great-power status—and eager to accelerate economic development and overcome energy and demographic crises, while paying lip service to ecological concerns—are more in evidence now than they were in 1986." "The most crucial lesson is the importance of counteracting the dangers posed by nuclear nationalism and isolationism and of ensuring close international cooperation between countries developing nuclear projects. This lesson is especially important today, when the forces of populism, nationalism, and anti-globalism are finding more adherents in a world that relies increasingly on nuclear technology for the production of energy." "While world attention is focused on the nonproliferation of nuclear arms, an equally great danger looms from the mismanagement of “atoms for peace” in the developing world."

- 01/07/2019
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