The Ukrainian-born Plokhy — now a Harvard history professor — was a student living less than 300 miles from the site in 1986 and this book has a strong personal angle. Using new archive material, it is also a work of deep scholarship and powerful storytelling. Plokhy is a master of the telling detail ... Plokhy’s description of brave men with no protection walking on what was left of the burning reactor hall is horrifying ... Plokhy is convinced there will be more Chernobyls. Despite headlines about nuclear weapons in North Korea or Iran, the greater danger to the world, he insists, is from nuclear energy in developing countries, where most of the reactors are being built and where ambitious dictators will be prepared to cut corners in pursuit of economic growth and relatively cheap energy. It’s a ghastly prognosis, and even if not entirely persuasive, so well argued that it is highly plausible.
Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe shows how the nuclear energy sector and the political system were largely discredited. It is no coincidence that the Soviet Union collapsed a mere five years later. Mr. Plokhy, who teaches Ukrainian history at Harvard, mercilessly chronicles the absurdities of the Soviet system and the arrogance of its apparatchiks. But the fact that he grew up fewer than 500 kilometers south of Chernobyl probably accounts for his vividly empathetic descriptions of the people on the ground—the plant managers and employees, the firefighters, soldiers and others—who risked their lives to contain the damage.
Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is a lucid account of how the Soviet mania for nuclear power combined with endemic shoddiness in the industrial sector and near-paranoid habits of state secrecy led to the 1986 disaster ... Plokhy concentrates on the political fallout of Chernobyl in Ukraine, leaving little space for Russia and Belarus. This is a pity, because the political repercussions in Russia were far-reaching, while Belarus was by far the hardest-hit republic in terms of radioactive damage. But these do not detract from what is the most comprehensive, convincing history of Chernobyl yet to appear in English.
Plokhy aims to replace the myth with history, drawing on newly released archive material and interviews with eyewitnesses. His narrative is thorough and well organized, but consensus is elusive. Those involved were working with different and often contradictory sets of facts, in the service of mutually incomprehensible agendas and ideologies ... As for the lessons to be learned from Chernobyl, Plokhy’s conclusion is anything but reassuring.
In this compelling history of the disaster and its aftermath, Serhii Plokhy presents Chernobyl as a terrifying emblem of the terminal decline of the Soviet system. The turbine test that went catastrophically wrong was not, he argues, a freak occurrence but a disaster waiting to happen. It had deep roots in the party’s reckless obsession with production targets and in the pliant nuclear industry’s alarming record of cutting corners to cut costs. Plokhy’s well-paced narrative plunges the reader into the sweaty, nervous tension of the Chernobyl control room on the fateful night when human frailty and design flaws combined to such devastating effect ... Plokhy gives a balanced and sympathetic account of the experiences of the senior scientists, engineers and politicians who extinguished the reactor fire, organised the evacuation of the region and contained the radioactive contamination. Yet the firefighters, reservists, teachers, farmers, doctors and schoolchildren caught up in the disaster have only walk-on roles in his narrative ... Plokhy’s most penetrating chapters deal with the political fallout. Attempts by Moscow to downplay design flaws in the reactor and to make scapegoats of a handful of managers and operators failed to reassure public opinion in a new era of open discussion. Chernobyl, Plokhy writes, 'ended one era and initiated another'.
As an author, he is a brilliant interpreter not only of the events themselves but of their longer-term historical significance. Plokhy definitely has his head around all the science (there’s a two-page footnote on roentgen, bone marrow and gamma rays). But he manages it so comfortably that even the biggest science-phobe (ie me) is not put off. More importantly, he never loses sight of the human picture ... This history reads like an academic thriller written by Malcolm Gladwell. Without losing any detail or nuance, Plokhy has a knack for making complicated things simple while still profound. As moving as it is painstakingly researched, this book is a tour de force and a cracking read. No physics GCSE required.
This book, the first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl disaster, assesses the Soviet reaction to the nuclear horror. It shows the governing elite as bureaucratic, heartless and often bewildered. While much of pop culture now presents Chernobyl as the site of horror flicks and computer games, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy reclaims the tragedy. Now that Ukraine’s revolution has opened the archives, here at last is the monumental history the disaster deserves ... There is no neat and happy ending. Plokhy ditches the pleasing talk of roses, children and freedom to make the icy point that when Ukraine won independence it found itself a fledgling nation with bills to pay, particularly the massive welfare bill for the Chernobyl 'sufferers', so it embraced the nuclear plant it had fought so valiantly against.
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.