Readers may well think they know about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, possibly through watching Sky’s popular tv show about it. But did you know (I didn’t) that a key concern of those involved was not the release of radiation into the atmosphere, but instead radiation going down, below the plant, and into the water table, to effect rivers, lakes and ultimately the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The solution? Given that the radiation rendered machinery inoperable, thousands of miners dug by hand under the damaged reactor, before pumping concrete in. The human cost was huge.
This piece of history, which won The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018, is one of the most engaging history books I’ve ever read. The Chernobyl disaster is well known as one of the worst nuclear incidents in the modern world, but this book opens a door into the disaster as it unfolded, as well as the circumstances leading up to it, and the myriad of repercussions.
Plokhy weaves together the narratives of key figures involved in the running of the plant, the Soviet Union, and the Ukraine, as well as keeping us informed about the way in which the rest of the world understood and spoke about the disaster. The result is a finely-researched and thorough history that reads like a novel.
I would recommend Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy to anyone interested in the events, global politics, and the way that humanity can do amazing things in the face of danger. Equally, it is a somber warning about the pursuit of power, and would be a good object lesson for people involved in leadership and politics. Easily one of my books of the year.