A history of the nuclear disaster that set precedents—and standards—for future mishaps of the kind.
As Plokhy (Director, Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard Univ.; Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation, 2017, etc.) writes, the Ukrainian city of Prypiat and the entire “exclusion zone” created after the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor on April 26, 1986, stand as a kind of living museum, a time capsule enshrining the communist era. In 2015, the Ukrainian government removed statues of Lenin and other communist leaders from the streets, but “the monument to Lenin still stands in the center of Chernobyl.” In other respects, Chernobyl requires a more forward-looking approach; when the plant’s core melted down, an army of engineers, laborers, soldiers, police officers, and specialists had to evacuate thousands of people and attempt to isolate the power plant. They did so by dropping thousands of tons of sand, digging diversion tunnels and dams, encasing structures in concrete, and, in the end, abandoning a huge swath of land to an irradiated nature. The immediate cause of the accident, Plokhy notes, was a scheduled test that went awry, but proximate causes included cost-cutting construction shortcuts and an overly ambitious production schedule that forced the machinery into failure-prone overextension. In older times, the event might have been buried away, though atmospheric monitors would have detected it beyond the Iron Curtain. But the Chernobyl disaster occurred during the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev during the time of perestroika, and Soviet scientists were able to take the advice of Western scientists, one of whom suggested “that children be given potassium iodide tablets” in the hope of containing radiation poisoning. The author concludes that even in the wake of Chernobyl, we have not gotten much better at containing meltdowns—consider Fukushima, still poisoning the Pacific—and need to cooperate to “strengthen international control over the construction and exploitation of nuclear power stations.”
A thoughtful study of catastrophe, unintended consequences, and, likely, nuclear calamities to come.