Chernobyl’s untold story

| September 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

Midnight at Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster
By Adam Higginbotham
561 pages
Simon & Schuster, 2019
eBook $14.99
Hardcover: $29.95
Paperback: $18.00
Audio download $23.99


In his book on Chernobyl, author Adam Higginbotham delivers a "vivid narrative, richly supported by science, history and political context,” writes columnist Christina Spencer. Shown here is an abandoned building in Pripyat.  (Photo: © Ua2mosfet |

In his book on Chernobyl, author Adam Higginbotham delivers a “vivid narrative, richly supported by science, history and political context,” writes columnist Christina Spencer. Shown here is an abandoned building in Pripyat. (Photo: © Ua2mosfet |

On the night of April 26, 1986, a young engineer, Leonid Toptunov, working in the control room of Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Complex in Ukraine, made an error during a test of the emergency water-cooling system. The mistake, which ought to have been correctable, instead was the start of a destructive chain reaction in a structure that had been built by cutting corners and using substandard materials and whose very design was fundamentally flawed. A rapid steam buildup in the reactor spurred an explosion so forceful that it blew off the 2,000-tonne concrete and steel roof. “The temperature inside the reactor rose to 4,650 degrees centigrade — not quite as hot as the surface of the sun,” writes author Adam Higginbotham. The reactor’s graphite rods caught fire, there was a second explosion, and the catastrophe swiftly escalated.
Chernobyl, even today, fascinates us, in much the same way as stories of the Titanic do: an epic disaster apparently driven by hubris. But Higginbotham delivers so much more in this vivid narrative, richly supported by science, history and political context.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, radioactivity blanketed the landscape at levels not even measurable by much of the equipment on hand. It invaded the ground, the water and the air, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands from the Soviet nuclear workers’ city of Pripyat (although not for a full 32 hours after the explosion, as authorities tried to suppress details, sealing off the city and cutting phone lines instead), and coughing out a poisonous plume over much of Ukraine, Belarus and Eastern Europe.
Despite the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev, architect of glasnost, to the top echelons of the Soviet leadership — for Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union at the time — the government remained silent; only when inexplicably high levels of radiation were picked up in Scandinavia, carried on the winds, did the Soviets reluctantly begin telling the world what had happened. It took the TASS news agency three days to issue a statement. The Ukrainian Workers’ daily buried its Chernobyl story “below the Soviet soccer league tables and coverage of a chess tournament.”
The official death toll, based solely on numbers from a single Moscow hospital that treated workers and rescuers who were exposed to staggeringly high levels of radiation, was eventually put at 31. In fact, in the weeks, months and years after, thousands died or suffered serious radiation-linked illnesses and cancers. The United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency would eventually settle on 4,000 as the death toll attributable to Chernobyl, though other experts believe it is higher. As Higginbotham points out, “17.5 million people, including 2.5 million children under seven, had lived in the most seriously contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia at the time of the disaster.” And hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens had been enlisted to help with the cleanup, often wearing no significant protection against the astronomical radioactivity levels around them.
Higginbotham’s description of the Chernobyl accident is meticulous, but it is his in-depth descriptions of the lives of the people and eyewitnesses at the heart of the crisis that elevate this work. Through their eyes, readers see the bewilderment, fear, bravery, ingenuity and, sadly, evasion that spurred many to act as they did.
For example, readers meet Toptunov, the young engineer, who, despite the initial error, acts with compelling bravery; Viktor Brukhanov, the plant director who oversaw the building of the Chernobyl complex, but who realizes as he gazes at the disaster: “I’m going to prison”; Alexander Yuvchenko, a senior mechanical engineer whose personal battle against radiation poisoning unfolds in gruesome detail; the Politburo players, the doctors, even the architect of the workers’ city of Pripyat. Higginbotham began personal interviews with participants and eyewitnesses in 2006, and sorted through thousands of pages of reports and declassified documents to frame this retelling.
The extraordinary human stories, however, don’t replace hard facts. For lay readers, there is a straightforward explanation of the principles of nuclear power and of radioactivity, from Marie Curie to the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There’s a reminder of Britain’s 1957 Windscale breeder reactor fire, details of which were not fully acknowledged for three decades; and of the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. But it’s clear that a unique set of philosophical and political circumstances led to events at Chernobyl.
After the Second World War, the Soviet Union competed for scientific dominance with the United States. The Soviets built the world’s first reactor to use nuclear power for civilian purposes. But in the Communist world, science was as much about politics as it was about expertise. There was “unquestioning obedience” to authority and a “sullen indifference to individual responsibility, even in the nuclear industry,” Higginbotham writes. From the start, significant safety flaws existed in the design of Soviet RBMK power reactors, and the few who pointed out the potential for disaster were either ignored or suppressed.
The Soviet government’s evasions and flat-out lies about Chernobyl do not, however, lead the author to suggest that Western countries are saintly in their own approach. Global nuclear power ambitions, muted post-Chernobyl, began to enjoy a resurgence in the 2000s — until a March 2011 loss of coolant led to a reactor meltdown at the Fukushima plant in Japan. “Sweeping away the convenient fallacy that what had happened in
Chernobyl had been a once-in-a-million years fluke, the Fukushima accident stifled the nuclear renaissance in the cradle,” Higginbotham notes.
He leaves us mourning Chernobyl’s victims, and, more broadly, questioning the wisdom of nuclear power — anywhere in the world.


The Course of History: Ten Meals That Changed the World
By Struan Stevenson
Recipes by Tony Singh
Simon & Schuster, 2019
269 pages
$34.99 (hardcover only)

No one else was in the room where it happened, goes the song from the popular musical, Hamilton. But former British politician Struan Stevenson pries open the door to that room in an unexpected way: through a dinner menu. U.S. secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, no slouch in the world of diplomacy, served up a multi-course meal to treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton and House of Representatives leader James Madison one evening in June 1790 as the three senior American statesmen tried to bridge their differences over the shape of their fledgling nation’s post-revolution government.
“As a lifelong politician,” writes Stevenson, “I have witnessed ‘dining diplomacy’ firsthand.” Food, he asserts, has been used “throughout history as a means of persuasion.” His chapter on Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison is but one illustration of that thesis.
Stevenson’s, um, easily digestible tome recounts 10 historical events in which momentous decisions were made around the dinner table, or were strongly influenced by a meal. They range from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s botched Battle of Culloden (the Scottish prince dined royally the night before, as his soldiers starved); to the sumptuous meal served up at the 1814 Congress of Vienna by Emperor Francis I in order to keep a variety of big-ego players talking to each other after Napoleon’s exile to Elba; to the unfortunate 1914 decision of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Hapsburg emperor, to stay the night after dinner in the Bosnian Hills for a quickie tour the next morning of Sarajevo; to Adolf Hitler’s lunch-time intimidation of Austrian chancellor Kurt Von Schuschnigg, triggering the union of Germany and Austria in 1938; to Winston Churchill’s birthday banquet in Tehran with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet leader Josef Stalin, where the trio cobbled together plans that would ultimately defeat the Germans in the Second World War.
Stevenson’s vast knowledge of diplomatic history is on display throughout: for instance we learn that Roosevelt couldn’t really figure out Stalin, but “quickly realized that making a fool of Churchill was the best way to endear himself to the Soviet leader.” We learn that Hitler chose the generals who would attend his luncheon with the Austrian chancellor mostly on the basis of how “brutal-looking” they were. We learn how deftly the French foreign minister, Talleyrand, was able to represent the interests of France — a defeated power — at the Congress of Vienna.
But it isn’t just the story of dinnertime diplomacy that makes this book interesting; it is the research on the meals themselves. Stevenson teams with British celebrity chef Tony Singh to carefully re-create the recipes for each of the 10 historical events.
This meal, for instance, was arranged for the stellar heads of state who gathered in Vienna to carve up Europe after Napoleon: Russian caviar; pâté de foie gras de canard; consommé; Styrian carp with root vegetables and caraway seed potatoes; roast partridge with cabbage parcels; “fromage;” and orange-flower and pink-champagne jelly. Detailed recipes for each appear, and some chapters also offer up alternative cooking methods.
And the wine…. diplomatic friendships have ever been forged over a tipple or two. Take the Jefferson dinner, for instance. As the former American ambassador to France, Jefferson was, naturally, a wine connoisseur. Here’s what he served up in the room where it happened: Graves, from the heart of Bordeaux; Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; Chambertin; unusual non-mousseux white wine from Monsieur Dorsay in the Champagne Region; and cognac. All appropriately matched to the right part of the meal, bien sûr. Is it any wonder that Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton emerged from that room with a deal on their country’s war debts and a location for a permanent capital?
Mind you, meals don’t always turn out this well. Stevenson also notes that Hamilton died in a duel with vice-president Aaron Burr in 1804 — a duel triggered “somewhat ironically, by an insult at a dinner party.”


Media and Mass Atrocity: The Rwanda Genocide and Beyond
Edited by Allan Thompson
Centre for International Governance Innovation, distributed by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019
637 pages
Hardcover: $29.41
Kindle: $24.30

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down, unleashing a deluge of violence that ended a ceasefire between the Rwandan government and rebels and began a spree of cold-blooded slaughter by Hutu extremists of both ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. These latter killings, often involving hacking people to death with machetes, were organized and co-ordinated acts. Barely three weeks into the massacre, the BBC began calling the cascade of blood-letting by the Hutu extremists a “genocide.” The term was accurate: In three months, at least 500,000 civilians were killed.
Twenty-five years later, a new collection of essays edited by Canadian journalist Allan Thompson tries to draw lessons about the role of the news media during the killings — and asks how things might be different in the modern era of cellphones and social media.
Implicit in many articles in this collection is the notion that Rwandan local media — primarily Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTML) — played a significant role in fuelling the genocide by indulging in hate speech, egging on the killers and even giving instructions on where to find people targeted for death. Also repeated is the idea that the international media ignored or did not understand what was happening in Rwanda.
Canadian Gen. Roméo Dallaire served as commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, a mission repeatedly prohibited from intervening to prevent the slaughter in the tiny African Great Lakes nation. And so Canadians, fascinated as they continue to be about peacekeeping, have a direct interest in the lessons to be learned from this disaster.
This book’s many chapters were preceded by an international round table of experts — both journalists and academics — studying the media during the genocide. Some writers were direct eyewitnesses to the killings — Mark Doyle, for instance, provides a riveting account of how the few international journalists on the ground came to understand they were witnessing something much worse than a civil war — while others approach the topic from the perspective of social science and what modern research tells us about the media’s influence in the 21st Century.
There is no broad agreement in this book about the media. Dallaire, a direct and often helpless witness to the carnage, writes of Rwandan radio station RTML: “The génocidiaires used the media like a weapon. The haunting image of killers with a machete in one hand and a radio in the other never leaves you.” He asserts that, “the use of hate media by proponents of the genocide had an impact on events.” RTML, he says, was “the voice of the devil in Rwanda …”
A few pages later, academic Scott Strauss contradicts the general, saying “much of the conventional wisdom on hate radio reproduces simplistic models of political behaviour that attribute little or no agency to Rwandans and minimize the context in which extreme violence took place.” Strauss examined such issues as when the bulk of the massacres happened versus when RTML was actually exhorting people to kill others; and he surveyed many of the convicted perpetrators later on in prison to find out what motivated them. His work suggests that the radio’s hate broadcasts in fact “had a marginal effect” on the slaughter. His research also leads him to believe that some of the most incendiary things RTML is said to have broadcast may not, in fact, have ever been aired.
This compilation also addresses the state of modern media. Geoff York, a Globe and Mail reporter and long-time Africa hand, writes about the impacts of the internet and social media — most notably the popular WhatsApp messaging system — in countries such as Sudan, Kenya and South Africa.
The book closes with a chapter by Thompson on how today’s powerful internet research tools have allowed a host of “open source investigators” to help professional journalists discover and verify events that would otherwise be kept secret by governments. In one example he cites, the BBC collaborated with a host of open-source users of Google Earth to discover and verify a gruesome amateur video, likely shared first on WhatsApp, of two women and their small children being killed, execution-style, in northern Cameroon by government soldiers. The example is one possible means by which modern journalism, limited by the costs of international travel or the dangers of putting correspondents permanently on the ground — might still get the story.
Would modern journalistic tools have made a difference in Rwanda, though? If world leaders had seen a rush of livestreams on their phones detailing the daily carnage in Rwanda, would the UN, the rest of Africa or the Western powers have intervened to save hundreds of thousands of lives? That answer is far from clear.


Other reading:

Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Security and Governance Online
By Shaun Riordan
Publisher: Polity Press, 2019
160 pages
Kindle: $10.91
Hardcover: $52.46
Paperback: $19.95

Although diplomacy, as we’ve seen in The Course of History (reviewed above), was once practised over a fine meal with one’s peers, the modern foreign service officer must focus on the essential, though less delectable, tools of cyberspace. Shaun Riordan suggests that, so far, it’s not going well. While “ambassadors blog, first secretaries tweet and third secretaries have pages on Facebook,” these platforms can frustrate diplomacy as much as help it. And they certainly can’t replace it. “Diplomats and scholars need to raise their game,” he warns. Can diplomats apply their own unique skill and perspective to help resolve issues around internet governance, global cybercrime and information warfare? It’s imperative that they learn to engage properly.

The Mission of a Lifetime: Lessons from the Men Who Went to the Moon
By Basil Hero
Grand Central Publishing
Hachette Book Group, 2019
304 pages
Kindle: $13.19
Hardcover: $15.26
Audio CD: $25.37

In 2017, 18,300 people applied to NASA to fill 14 astronaut jobs, proof that humankind still feels drawn to the exploration of space. Yet, Basil Hero also notes, no human has left low Earth orbit since 1972. The people who have left our planet are, therefore, “history’s most élite fraternity.” Mindful of the passage of time, Hero set out to speak to the remaining dozen of the 24 people who have journeyed to the moon to get their impressions of the current state of space exploration — and its future. The characteristics of these men, dubbed the “Eagles,” reflect consistent strengths: “courage, quiet patriotism and conquering fear.” Among the many books available over the past year on the moon landing and space program, this one endures for its success in defining “the right stuff.”

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison
By Behrouz Boochani
Anansi International, 2019
416 pages
Paperback: $19.80
Kindle: $9.99

Kurdish poet Behrouz Boochani wrote this book, in Farsi, on his mobile phone, the only medium available to him as a detainee in Manus Island’s “Regional Offshore Processing Centre” — effectively a prison camp set up by the Australian government in Papua New Guinea so that thousands of asylum-seekers would not reach Australian soil. Boochani’s observations were smuggled out via thousands of WhatsApp text messages, since Australia sought to curb information from its offshore detention centres, where violence was frequent, conditions poor and human rights routinely ignored. Published initially in 2018, this indictment of refugee policy in one Western nation became available in Canada earlier this year. At the time of writing, Boochani was still confined to the island, though the processing centre had been closed.

Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen. She holds a master’s from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and is a past winner of National Newspaper Awards for international reporting and editorial writing.

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Category: Delights

About the Author ()

Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the inaugural recipient of the Claude Ryan Award for Editorial Writing at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards. She holds a master's in international affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

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