The best books about the Chernobyl disaster

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The top 3 books about Chernobyl

The true extent of death and illness from the Chernobyl disaster will probably never be agreed upon. It’s certain though that hundreds of thousands of people were affected in some way. Many died. Many more were evacuated from their homes never to return. Almost a million citizens of the Soviet Union were drafted in to help in the cleanup, without choice. Many of them were sent onto the roof of reactor number 4 to push highly radioactive material off the roof with shovels so that it could be collected on the ground and removed. They had to wear protective suits that offered little protection and rush out onto the roof to do their job as fast as they could before being called back in after a maximum of 2 minutes, having received a dose of radiation so severe that many later died or suffered cancer. The military had brought in robots from across the Soviet Union, even ones being developed for a planned moon landing, and tried to use them to cleanup the debris. The radiation was so extreme that these remote controlled robots failed within minutes of being put to use. And so, thousands and thousands of young men were sent to do it instead. They were known as “The Liquidators”, and their story like all the other details of the worst nuclear disaster the world has seen, was suppressed by the Soviet propaganda machine for many years.

Without their efforts, and their sacrifice, without the reactor core fire being extinguished after 9 days, if things had gone just slightly worse, the 30km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant may instead have been an uninhabitable zone covering Belarus, Poland, and reaching all the way to Estonia and Germany.

The Chernobyl story amazes on every page. Around 300 people refused to leave the exclusion zone, and perhaps 150 remain there, farming their ancestral land now in their 70s and 80s. Helicopter pilots who flew over the reactor, first to understand the nature of the problem and then in attempts to drop material to extinguish the reactor core fire, received massive doses of radiation that saw them die in the following weeks.

Here are the top 3 books about Chernobyl that reveal all these true stories of heroism and desperation.


3 – Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

The best-selling Midnight in Chernobyl is the New York Times and Sunday Telegraph journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive report of the Chernobyl disaster. This book details the unfolding disaster like a thriller, and goes on to discuss the causes of the accident, borne of the Soviet Union’s unique culture and the Soviet nuclear industry’s lack of up-to-date safety standards. Bureaucracy and government control, pressures to create the impression of high performance, lack of transparency. Higginbotham reveals how a series of events that should have been avoidable became inevitable, and how that same broken system tried to cover it up while a cloud of radioactive dust drifted towards an unsuspecting west. But this isn’t just a story about the government’s failings and mistreatment of its people, it’s a gripping tale of the desperate efforts to stop the disaster and the horrifying aftermath. Start and you won’t just be fascinated, you’ll still be awake reading it at three in the morning.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

chernobyl pripyat hotel rossiya old versus new

2 – Chernobyl 01:23:40: The Incredible True Story of the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster

At exactly 01:23 and 40 seconds on the 26th April 1986 the emergency shutdown button for reactor number was pressed to initiate a test of the safety systems. Untrained and exhausted workers following inadequate procedures after a previous unexpected power loss had left the reactor in an unstable state, and after the shutdown button was pressed the reactor rapidly and unexpectedly overheated. 01:23:40, a precise marker for the beginning of a catastrophic event that authorities predict will still require cleaning up until the 2060s. This book is less technical than others, and much more informal. It’s as much a travelogue as a history, but Chernobyl 01:23:40 does a great job of revealing some of the most incredible stories of the disaster.

Chernobyl 01:23:40: The Incredible True Story of the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster

chernobyl pripyat fairground funfair ferris wheel

1 – Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serheii Plokhy is an award winning history of the disaster and its aftermath that draws on recently opened archive material to create perhaps the most detailed account ever written. Like Midnight in Chernobyl, it reads like a thriller, mixing together the Cold War intrigue with powerful human stories of courage and loss. There has obviously been painstaking research and yet the detail does not obscure the story. The detail is used to create authenticity and to draw you into the time and the locations, where the pace of the narrative takes over and leaves you tense and apprehensive. It’s powerful and exciting and transports you into the Soviet Union, behind the Iron Curtain and into the lives of the heroes and villains of Chernobyl. The author lived a few hundred kilometers from Chernobyl at the time of the disaster and knows the politics and culture of those times first-hand. Where this book truly excels is personalising the history. The firefighters, the scientists, the politicians, the KGB. This book is comprehensive and compelling. From Gorbachev himself to the lowly men who picked up radioactive material with their bare hands, from the politics and culture to the human cost, and from the cause of the explosion through to the lasting effects on both the surrounding environment and the structure of the Soviet Union.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy

chernobyl memorial name signs long image

 

A memorial in the exclusion zone showing the names of every village that had to be evacuated

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