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

Book cover image

The story of this book is really interesting. The author, who visited and photographed abandoned cities as a hobby, was particularly struck by story of Pripyat and the Chernobyl disaster. Reading up on the topic, he decided that the book he wanted to read was not written yet, and set out to do so. After working on it for a few years, he practically gave up, and posted the unfinished version to Reddit. The members of this online forum fancied his work, however, and encouraged him to finish his book. With this extra drive, the author managed to finish his book, and self-published it on Amazon.

Reddit is also where I heard about the book, and saw some photos the author took on an expedition to Pripyat. The self-made, amateur-in-a-good-sense aspect of the book is what is most enjoyable about it, and the book’s biggest strength. The language is decidedly unacademic, and the individual impressions and feelings of the author shine through in every sentence. It also makes for very easy reading, since the book is not intended as a reference, but rather as an accessible text for the internet generation. As such, it is very succesful in bringing through the astonishment the author feels at the glaring design defects, the nonchalance with which the reactor was operated, and how bad luck and human error have combined to circumvent every security mechanism the designers built in. We learn, for example, that the mega-project for building the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, which comprised four reactors, and provided 10 percent of Ukraine’s electricity when these were all in operation, was undertaken under massive material shortages. The managers thus had to improvise, using either material of lower quality, or less of it. A glaring example of this was the use of flamable material to cover the roofs, which would prove to be a really bad decision. These material shortcomings execarbated the already deficient nuclear reactor design called RBMK. This kind of reactor uses graphite as moderator, instead of water, and has contaminated water flowing through the system. It has one glaring “bug” concerning what are called cooling rods. This bug led directly to the accident, and you will have to read the book to find out what it is.

The most astonishing aspect of the accident are not the technical failures, however, but human mistakes at every point in time and organizational level. As mentioned above, material was spared on, and a design that was known to be defective, having years ago already caused a very similar accident, was winked through. Experiments that should have been carried out before the reactors were in full operation were postponed to later, to meet deadlines; it was one such experiment that led to the accident. During the experiment, core security systems were disabled to make sure the experiment was successful. And after the accident, the operating crew ignored what was right in front of their noses, pumping cooling water into an already exploded and dispersed reactor core.

The story of the cleanup that followed is again one of incompetence and unpreparedness, coupled with stories of immense bravery and sacrifice. The firefighters and technicians tackled the fire, which could have led to incidents with the other reactors if it wasn’t brought under control, under extreme conditions and without proper gear. Plant management and political cadres kept the actual scale of the accident secret for nearly a week, hoping for the best and relying on wishful thinking. When it wasn’t possible to ignore the obvious anymore, a gigantic effort was started to bring the molten reactor core under control, and decontaminate its surroundings. This decontamination effort was carried out by people known as ‘liquidators’; all in all, more than 240 thousand of them took part in the cleanup. Of these, 25 thousand are estimated to have died from radiation-caused ilnesses.

The amateur zeal that makes the book unique also leads to the most important weaknesses of the book, however. The writing is occasionally rather unorthodox, in terms of flow and spelling. The chapters reporting on the author’s visit to Pripyat are not dull, but they do veer to topics which do not contribute to the reader’s understanding of Chernobyl, such as the author’s experiences shooting AK-47 at a shooting range, or details of which tank models could be seen in Kiev. Last but not least, some conclusions the author derives are pretty obviously not supported by the information he presents. The accident in Chernobyl, for example, is a result of communist planning (p. 213), while an accident of comparable scale that happened in capitalist Japan (a country known for its meticulous planning and discipline) has nothing whatsoever to with capitalism. It is also very ironic that in a book on the hazards of not following rules and regulations, the author complains of “Britain’s health and safety obsession”, just because he couldn’t climb the roof of a hotel. If it was meant as a joke, it wasn’t obvious for me from the text.

Despite these shortcomings, this is a very enjoyable and interesting book, and I would definitely recommend reading it if you are interested in the Chernobyl incident, industrial security, or the role of design and human factors in safety-criticial operations.