ABLAZE by Piers Paul Read


The Story of Chernobyl
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 A dispassionate yet mesmerizing survey of atomic-electric power in the Soviet Union, whose centerpiece is the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl. While Read (On the Third Day, 1991, etc.) never says as much, his detailed, human-scale account could serve as an allegory for the concurrent chain reaction that resulted in the USSR's meltdown. Drawing on previously classified data and on testimony from participating principals, Read recalls Moscow's post-WW II drive to showcase Communist physics through a network of nuclear generating stations. Moving on to the construction of the Chernobyl complex, he documents how material shortages, technical incompetence, bureaucratic snafus, Communist Party interference, and allied constraints ensured the facility's eventual failure. Although operator errors contributed to the accident, Read leaves little doubt that design deficiencies were primarily responsible. Moreover, he reports, after the explosion, the immediate instinct of most apparatchiks was to cover up the fact that the country and its vaunted scientific establishment were neither ready, willing, nor able to respond effectively to a nuclear emergency: Since Soviet reactors were deemed perfectly safe, for example, no evacuation plans had been drawn up. The official death toll was put at 31, while scapegoats were quickly identified and imprisoned. By contrast, Read cites estimates that Chernobyl ulimately could claim more lives than the Soviets lost in WW II, and he notes that fallout has made large areas of Belorussia, Russia, and the Ukraine uninhabitable, perhaps for thousands of years. Partisans on both sides of the nuclear/environmental issue may take exception to the author's agenda-free narrative: Read allows the story and his sources to speak for themselves, eschewing any hint as to whether he believes atomic power to be a blessing or a bane. A top-notch take on a man-made catastrophe and its chilling consequences. (For a look at Chernobyl's aftermath by the plant's former chief engineer, see Grigori Medvedev's No Breathing Room, p. 207.) (Sixteen pages of photos, three maps--not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-40819-3
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1993


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