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Author Pulls Back The Iron Curtain On The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the days following the 1986 explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, a military officer working to manage the response from an abandoned hotel nearby noticed a mysterious black carpet in the empty dining hall. When he got closer, he realized it was not a carpet; it was thousands of flies, alive but immobilized by the radiation in the air. That's one of the details you'll find in the book "Midnight In Chernobyl" by our guest, journalist Adam Higginbotham.

The book has drawn new interest with the recent airing of a five-part HBO series about the disaster called "Chernobyl." It was produced independent of Higginbotham's research, and he believes it misrepresents some aspects of the story. Based on newly declassified documents and scores of interviews with participants, Higginbotham's book offers a gripping account of the explosion and its causes, the frantic efforts to contain the damage, which exposed thousands of workers and soldiers to radiation, and the impact of the catastrophe on civilians. Large areas around the plant were so contaminated that whole villages had to be bulldozed and buried.

Adam Higginbotham writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and other publications. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Adam Higginbotham, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, the HBO series "Chernobyl" has been a big hit, and you've been reporting on this story for many, many years. I was interested in it. What do you think explains our fascination with the Chernobyl accident?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: I mean, one is the fact that it was covered up, and it was secret in many ways. You know, it took place in the - behind the Iron Curtain in 1986. So although we thought we knew what happened, you know, in fact, many people suspected that we didn't know everything, and as it turns out, we knew a fraction of what really happened. But I think a lot of it is to do with ionizing radiation. You know, in a world in which so many things are now explained and unpacked and understandable, radiation remains something that people fear because they - it's hard to explain, and it's hard to understand. It's invisible, and it can be deadly. And I think that kind of exerts a deadly fascination on people.

DAVIES: Now, you write in this book that understanding this accident requires looking at the Soviet nuclear industry before the Chernobyl accident itself, which was in 1986, and that in the '60s and '70s, the Soviet state enthusiastically embraced nuclear power plants to feed its economy. And the sight of this disaster at Chernobyl was not an old, cranky plant. It had only been in operation - what? - less than three years, right?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, the reactor in question...

DAVIES: Right.

HIGGINBOTHAM: ...Reactor No. 4 had only been in operation less than three years, yeah.

DAVIES: Right. And it was one of four reactors at this big installation. And you introduce us to a guy named Viktor Bryukhanov, who had been there since 1970. And he was assigned to build the reactors and a brand-new city to house its workers. So he ends up, through these years of toil and effort, constructing a city, Pripyat, which is near the plant, which would eventually have 50,000 people - the workers in the plant and the people who support them - and four operating nuclear reactors. But the problems with materials and supplies led to compromises which mattered. You want to give us a sense of how that affected the safety of the plant?

HIGGINBOTHAM: The shortages were often absurd. So for instance, the machine hall of the plant, which was nearly a kilometer long, this giant, flat-roof building that contained all of the turbine generators of the plant - you know, the specifications that came down from the Ministry of Energy suggested that the roof be built of this special nonflammable material. But at the time - the head of construction actually told me that at the time, this material wasn't even manufactured in the USSR; it simply wasn't available. So Bryukhanov had to use bitumen, which is highly flammable. And they wrote a special exception into the plans of the plant, and so this kilometer-long building was covered with this flammable substance.

DAVIES: Now, there's more than one way to build a nuclear reactor, I learned from your book. Different, you know, materials that you can use for the control rods and for the moderator, which sort of affects the speed of neutrons, et cetera. It gets technical. But what were some of the critical differences between the reactors the Soviet government was building, these big reactors, and those in use in the West?

HIGGINBOTHAM: I think there were three principle differences. One is that these RBMK reactors at Chernobyl were absolutely enormous, in keeping with the Soviet tradition for what was called gigantomania. You know, they wanted to build things bigger than anyone else on Earth. So the reactor was 20 times larger than any comparable reactor in the West, you know, bigger than a house.

Secondly, they operated on principles that had been developed from military reactors used to make plutonium for atomic bombs. And these reactors had an inherent instability that made them susceptible to reactor runaway, which is something that happens when the chain reaction inside a nuclear reactor just gets away from the operators, and they can't control anymore. And it can lead to a meltdown or an explosion.

And the final major difference is that all reactors in the West are constructed and were constructed with a containment building, which is a thick concrete structure that's built around the outside of the reactor, so that in the case of a radiation leak, it's all contained within this building. Now, this was dispensed with for reasons of economy in the case of the RBMK reactor. And what surrounded it was essentially a big metal shed.

DAVIES: So Chernobyl was a huge complex. There were four nuclear reactors in a row and a big turbine hall that ran the length of it behind them, which would convert the steam into electricity. And then in the middle of the night, April 25 to 26, 1986, a powerful explosion rocks reactor No. 4. And it wouldn't be clear for a long time what exactly had happened. But give us a sense of what was going on that day and that evening that increased the chances of a problem.

HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, the problems began because, as they brought the reactor around for a scheduled maintenance shutdown, they arranged to conduct a long-overdue safety test that was supposed to have been conducted when the reactor came online first, almost three years earlier. And in order to conduct this test, they reduced reactor power to a very low level, which made the reactor inherently unstable. And then the test itself was postponed so that the shift that was responsible for conducting the test went home and was replaced by a second shift that arrived at midnight that was expecting the test to have been completed, and that they would just be overseeing the cooling down of a shutdown reactor.

Now, the test was being overseen by Anatoly Dyatlov, who was the deputy chief engineer for operations at the plant, who was bad-tempered at the best of times. And he had been awake for hours and had hardly any sleep and was determined to conduct this test, regardless of the objections of any of his underlings.

Then the reactor control engineer who was at the desk, in control of the reactor, was Leonid Toptunov, who was only 25 at the time, had been in his position for only two months. And although he was extremely well-trained and technically proficient, he had never overseen the shutdown of a reactor before, and this is one of the most capricious and difficult stages of reactor control there is. And when he took over at the desk, he made a mistake in the control of the reactor which increased the instability.

And at that point, they should probably have closed the - shut the reactor down completely without conducting the test. But Dyatlov insisted on going ahead with the test and conducting it at extremely low power. And these were all parts of a situation that made an accident, an explosion much more likely, although none of them realized it at the time.

DAVIES: So an inexperienced crew, kind of tyrannical guy managing the control room - so describe what happened immediately in terms of the damage and how plant and local officials responded.

HIGGINBOTHAM: What happened immediately is that there were two enormous explosions inside the reactor, and these did two things - one, blew the lid off the reactor. Two, it completely destroyed the upper reaches of the metal and concrete shed that surrounded it, opening it up to the sky. Fires then started in the - on the roofs of the buildings around.

But the staff of the plant remained convinced, because of what they'd been assured for years by the chiefs of the nuclear industry, that an accident of this kind - an explosion inside a nuclear reactor - they had been told could simply not happen. So their immediate response to this was to continue to try and pump cooling water into the reactor to head off a meltdown, which was the worst accident scenario they could possibly imagine. They didn't know that the reactor had been completely destroyed. And many men went to - effectively to their deaths in the attempts to cool a reactor with this water.

Meanwhile, fire crews arrived and climbed to the roofs of the buildings around to try and put the fires out. Operators inside the reactor buildings did the same thing inside to stop oil escaping from broken pipes to head off leaks of scalding radioactive steam. And all of these people, too, were subjected to enormous amounts of ionizing radiation.

DAVIES: So after this explosion occurs and the reactor is destroyed, there's kind of two lines of response that I think - we want to talk about it. One of them is dealing with the reactor itself, trying to stabilize it, render it safe, and then a second thing, which is to inform and protect the civilian population near and far.

So let's talk about dealing with the situation in the reactor. How quickly was the situation relayed up the chains of command in the country? - because national resources would need to be mobilized. And how candid were the officials with one another in describing what had happened?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Very slowly. Viktor Bryukhanov was ordered by his immediate party boss from Kiev to prepare a report explaining exactly what had happened that Bryukhanov was told would be passed up the chain of command.

DAVIES: And again, he's the plant manager at Chernobyl, right?

HIGGINBOTHAM: The plant director - exactly. He's the person who is solely responsible for everything that happens in the plant, everything that happens in the city. He knows that he will be the fall guy when the bill comes to be paid for what has happened.

And he is asked to fill out this report, which he does. He puts his signature on the report at 10 o'clock in the morning. But it seems from his report that, you know, everything is pretty much under control. You know, there has been some sort of explosion. They're not quite sure where it is. Some of the building has been destroyed. There were fires, but the fires have been put out. There's a couple of casualties. One man is missing. Radiation levels are complicated.

But he gives this reading in the report, which sounds pretty reasonable. It's high, as you'd expect in a radiation accident, but it's not necessarily deadly, and there's really no need to evacuate anyone from the surrounding area. But what he doesn't say is that the reading that he puts into the report is the maximum reading that can be recorded by the equipment used to record it.

So then this report is sent to Moscow, and it gradually winds its way through the Soviet bureaucracy and eventually reaches Gorbachev's desk at some time in the afternoon. And Gorbachev calls an emergency Politburo meeting, but he clearly regards it as such an emergency that the meeting doesn't take place until Monday morning. And they dispatch a government commission down to Pripyat to go and take control of things and look after what they called the liquidation of the consequences of the accident. And those guys arrive on Saturday evening.

DAVIES: And the accident was the Friday night. Right.

HIGGINBOTHAM: Right. So the accident happens in the very early hours of Saturday morning. And these guys, under the command of this government minister named Boris Shcherbina, arrive late on Saturday evening. And Shcherbina immediately sets about trying to tell people they shouldn't panic, that he's seen things worse than this before and everything's going to be under control.

DAVIES: Adam Higginbotham's book is "Midnight In Chernobyl." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist Adam Higginbotham. He's been reporting for many years on the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. His book, published earlier this year, is "Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story Of The World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster."

So let's talk about what was really going on. I mean, there was this huge cloud of smoke and dust rising from the reactor, which people assumed was smoke from a fire. What was in that cloud? What does it look - what did it look like, and what was really going on?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, it's not really smoke. It's what people I spoke to described as a sort of white cloud of, perhaps, steam or vapor. So, you know, to add to the incipient terror that we, knowing what might be going on if you're reading about this - is that you can't really see anything in particular that looks like - you know, it doesn't look like a major fire.

What you can see is this stuff that's sort of wafting out of the open roof of the building. But what it contained was, you know, an enormous quantity of deadly radionuclides that were constantly roiling out of the top of the reactor and into the atmosphere. And initially, this column of radionuclides was being carried upwards and away from the city of Pripyat, which is only three kilometers away. And this column of radionuclides was being taken into the upper atmosphere and then up into the rest of Europe. And eventually, it came to encircle all of the Northern Hemisphere.

DAVIES: There's a scientist who becomes deeply involved in managing the reaction. His name is Valery Legasov. He is - he's played in the HBO series by Jared Harris. And the government official, Shcherbina, says, we need to put the fire out. How do we do it? And what does Legasov come up with?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, initially, they have no idea how to put the fire out. Initial ideas ranged from the straightforward - pouring water on it - to the outlandish - dropping loads of lead balls on it from above. And Legasov and the other scientists involved eventually decided that the best thing they could do, because they couldn't get close to it to pour water on it - and pouring water on it would be, in itself, a dangerous act - they would employ Soviet military helicopters to drop a mixture of sand, boron, lead and clay onto the reactor from the air.

DAVIES: So they think that the drops of sand are working. It turns out later, probably not. But the radiation levels do seem to fall, and the temperatures of the burning core seems to be declining, which is encouraging. And then it all changes, right? It gets hotter. It emits more radiation.

HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. Yes. Just as they think that all of this effort of this constant carousel of helicopters flying over the reactor and dropping in all of this material, hour after hour, for every hour of daylight that they have for four or five days - you know, the figures that they get back from their temperature and radiation readings seem to suggest that everything's improving.

But then, just at that point, all of these radiation readings start to spike again. And they realize that they've made a terrible mistake and that they've actually covered the melting core of the reactor with this huge cap of extremely heavy cloaking material, which has served not only to increase the temperature, but also to put an enormous amount of pressure on the foundations of the reactor itself.

And they begin fearing that they've made everything much, much worse and that what they're now facing is the China syndrome, which is this doomsday scenario in which the melting core of a nuclear reactor becomes so hot and so concentrated in place that it burns through the base plate of the reactor and then burns through the foundations of the building in which it stands until it reaches the earth. And then, you know, in the sort of mythic version of the China syndrome, or the reason it's given its name, is it burns all the way through the earth until it reaches the other side of the world.

DAVIES: One of the interesting things about these officials trying to cope with something that was utterly unprecedented on the planet is that they were in this little city of Pripyat, which had, by this point, been evacuated of all the people. But they were still there, working long, long hours, enduring radiation, you know, being irradiated themselves. What effect did that have on their judgment, their ability to, you know, collaborate?

HIGGINBOTHAM: I think that the - to be honest, I think the radiation had much less effect on their judgment than their preexisting attitudes. Boris Shcherbina in particular, you know, was this grizzled apparatchik who had spent his entire career, you know, working in this way where people just had to do what he said, and he always thought he was right. And even specialists were people who he considered not fit to really overrule him.

So he brought that attitude to the problem, but also, he didn't really understand or take seriously the problems of being in a radioactive environment. So even though the members of the government commission were issued with cloth respirators and with dosimeters soon after they arrived in Pripyat, many of them didn't use them. And they just kind of swaggered around with this attitude of Soviet bravado, thinking that nothing was going to hurt them.

And indeed, when they were evacuated themselves soon afterwards - because after a while, they began to come down with the initial effects of radiation sickness, you know, some of which are very peculiar. So they began speaking with squeaky voices, some of them told me, because that's an effect that alpha and beta radiation can have on the vocal cords.

But they were shipped back to Moscow, and one of the first things that happened is they all had to have their heads shaved because their hair was contaminated with radioactive dust. But Shcherbina himself refused to have his hair cut because he said that it was not befitting a Soviet official of his standing. So he assented only to a light trim and, you know, in a not unconnected matter, died a premature death a few years later.

DAVIES: What did he die of?

HIGGINBOTHAM: I spoke to a guy who was his kind of right-hand man during the liquidation, and he said that his health was just destroyed by radiation exposure.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Andrew Higginbotham (ph), author of "Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story Of The World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster." We'll hear more of the interview after a break, and Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by jazz pianist George Cables. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with journalist Adam Higginbotham, whose new book "Midnight In Chernobyl" is a detailed account of the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986. When they left off, they were discussing the concern, a few days after the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor, that a meltdown of the remaining nuclear fuel in the core could create a radioactive lava that would reach large quantities of water beneath the reactor, causing a second even more catastrophic explosion.

DAVIES: So as best they understand it, you have this molten core of the nuclear reactor burning its way down through the bottom of the building. And there's a concern that it will hit these tanks of water underneath the reactor. And so they want to find a way to remove that water. And you write about a guy - a captain in the civil defense regiment named...

HIGGINBOTHAM: Moose Zborovsky.

DAVIES: Yeah. Moose, yeah. His name is Piotr, but he has the nickname Moose. What did he and his men do? This was considered a critical thing, right? I mean, the fate of millions could be depending on this. What was he asked to do? What did he - how did he undertake it?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Zborovsky was instructed to organize an operation to pump the water out of the tanks beneath the reactor because the feeling was that if he removed all the water in the quarry and reached the tanks, then there would be no water to create a steam explosion, so he could head off this catastrophe.

So he had to, you know, marshal a group of volunteers to go in and, first of all, find a place where they could put the end of a pipe to get to the water in the first place. And then they had to find somewhere to put thousands and thousands of liters of what, by this time, was intensely radioactive water. And this operation under Zborovsky's control took several days. And, you know, regular updates were being channeled up to the Politburo in Moscow as they awaited word of whether or not this doomsday scenario of this massive explosion would be headed off.

DAVIES: Right, so he gathers people. And they have to hammer their way actually into this vault where the water is, right? I mean, it's not like...

HIGGINBOTHAM: He smashes - he and his crew smash a hole in the concrete wall of the building with a sledgehammer. You know, other military minds wanted to use explosives to make this hole until it was pointed out that this probably wasn't wise in proximity of a melting-down nuclear reactor.

DAVIES: Right. And so I guess the first thing they do is they connect, like, fire hoses - right? - and connect it to a pumper truck and he locates...


DAVIES: ...The pool, right?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. And, you know, initially, because we're dealing with an area that was intensely radioactive - and gamma radiation levels in this area were extremely high. And, you know, it would have been lethal to have spent too long there, so they tried to find ways of preparing this kilometer-long pipe that they needed to bring into the area to pump the water out through, you know, without exposing them to too much radiation. So they trained initially by trying to drop the hoses from helicopters, but that didn't work. And in the end, they realized that men were just going to have to go in and do it by hand and put together all of these lengths of pipe that had to be bolted together.

And they did that. They went in. They managed to switch the pumps on. And then a few hours later, word came back that the amount of water that was reaching the pond that it was being pumped into had suddenly fallen off to nothing. And so they went back in and realized that during the middle of the night, some radiation reconnaissance truck had driven over these pipes and crushed them and smashed them to pieces. So now intensely radioactive water was just being pumped out all over the ground near the reactor.

And Zborovsky's men then had to go back in once again in these bulky radiation protection suits and try and replace all these lengths of pipe. And they ended up working on their hands and knees in these puddles of radioactive water. And the gloves that they were wearing - these huge rubber gloves that were designed for fighting a nuclear war - proved so unwieldy and so hot because it was unseasonably hot at the time that they just - these men eventually threw away the gloves and started working with their bare hands.

DAVIES: So the Soviet authorities decide that it appears that the danger of a meltdown has passed. And they next engage in this massive project to kind of entomb the reactor in concrete and steel. That's an incredible story, which people can read about in the book. We don't have time for it here. But I want to talk about what was done for these civilians. The city of Pripyat, which is right next to the plant - I mean, the day after this happened, did the citizens know anything about it?

HIGGINBOTHAM: They did know something had happened but not because the authorities told them. What happened is that there were people who were at work at the plant. Those of whom, you know, were not sent immediately to hospital because of their radiation exposure, you know, came home at the end of their shifts. And word began to spread that there had been an accident at the plant. But the authorities in the town did not tell people to take precautions against the accident. They didn't tell them to close their windows. They didn't tell them to make sure their kids didn't go out and play in the street.

And so the people who lived in Pripyat didn't really initially understand the scale of what had happened. And similarly to the management of the plant, you know, they had got wind of previous accidents that had happened at the plant, and nothing serious had ever happened. The last accident that had happened on any scale in 1982, you know, had resulted merely in contaminated areas being washed down by tanker trucks. And the main boulevard into the town being quietly covered with asphalt. So when word began to spread that something had happened, nobody really took it that seriously.

DAVIES: You tell a story of a guy - the day after the accident - who goes to sunbathe on the roof of his building. You remember this.

HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. I mean, everybody went about their business just as normal. And it - partly because it's hard to visualize the effects of radiation. So the Saturday morning, it was a beautiful, sunny day. It was unseasonably warm, so this one guy goes out to sunbathe on the roof of his building. And he finds that he starts tanning unnaturally fast. And he starts feeling pretty overexcited. And he goes downstairs and reports to his neighbor that, you know, it's pretty great up there, and maybe his neighbor would like to join him.

And, you know, and it's - the source of this story is his neighbor, who subsequently, you know, tells the story of how this guy seemed to be behaving quite oddly. And he was going brown very fast, but he didn't want to have anything to do with this sunbathing scheme. And the guy just went back up to the roof on his own and carried on sunbathing.

DAVIES: Right. And his skin gave off of a funny smell.

HIGGINBOTHAM: An odd burning smell, yes.

DAVIES: Right. Right. Eventually, Pripyat is evacuated - I guess Sunday. That's after the Friday night accident. What were citizens told? Where would they go?

HIGGINBOTHAM: They were told very little about where they were going. They were told, first of all, that they only needed to bring clothes and food for a short stay. They were given the impression very deliberately by the authorities that this evacuation was only temporary, so most of them thought they'd be away for about 72 hours. So they just, you know, stuffed a few things - like essential documents, you know, potatoes, lard - into plastic bags. And then they were put on the buses, and they weren't told really where they were going. And then they were deposited in small villages and towns surrounding the countryside, surrounding what became the exclusion zone. And just put up by, you know, ordinary workers, kolkhoz workers, and villages and peasants in the villages nearby and just had to make do with what they had.

DAVIES: Over time it becomes clear that there's a lot of radiation that has been released. This cloud that came out of the reactor for many, many days sent stuff into the upper atmosphere. It reached other countries. They became aware. Eventually, they would evacuate all of the children from Kiev, which, you know, prompted what would be an understandably chaotic exodus from the city. You know, one of the things that was happening here was that Mikhail Gorbachev was the general secretary of the Communist Party then and was known for glasnost, this, you know, allowing more freedom of ideas and information. How did he deal with this disaster when it came to disclosing information to the West and to his own people?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Gorbachev took what was regarded at the time as the traditional approach because although he'd spoken publicly of the ideas of glasnost and perestroika, of open government and economic reform, these two things had only really been slogans up to this point. So when they have this emergency Politburo meeting, what is on the table really is whether to disclose any information and how to go about doing that. And it seems that Gorbachev was arguing for more openness and to tell the Soviet people and to tell the West a lot about what had happened. But we rely a lot on what Gorbachev himself says now for this version of events.

And in the end, whatever happened, it seems that the conservatives in the Politburo, who far outnumbered the reformers at this point, prevailed, and that they issued this extremely minimizing three-line statement. And they only did so after having spent the entire day denying to the West that anything had happened because the accident had released these radionuclides which eventually, by Monday morning, had drifted as far as Sweden and set off radiation alarms inside a Swedish nuclear plant.

And that was how the West found out that an accident had happened, not because the Soviets admitted it, but because the radiation had already fallen in - as fallout in rain, on the ground outside this plant. And nuclear workers arriving for work had tracked the radioactive contamination into the plant and set off radiation alarms because of the stuff on their shoes.

DAVIES: There was this exclusionary zone formed around Chernobyl, which was fairly extensive, in which it was regarded that, you know, all life had to be considered irradiated. I mean, not just people who were evacuated, but, you know, animals and plants. And there was this - I mean, tens or I guess maybe even hundreds of thousands of people were employed to try and reclaim or cleanse or control the radiation, known as liquidators. Tell us who were - who they were, what they did.

HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. I mean, ultimately around 600,000 liquidators were brought to work into the zone over a number of years to try and contain the contamination. But the problem with radioactive contamination is that you can't destroy radiation; you can just kind of move contaminated material around. So initially what happened is they brought the army in to try and deal with this. And they had to try and bury contaminated earth.

So you have this bizarre situation in which they would be filling trucks with contaminated dirt and taking it away to inter it elsewhere in these radioactive graves. They had to cut down entire forests and bury them in concrete-lined pits in order to try and contain the radiation and prevent it from leaching further into the water table. But ultimately, they ended up having to bulldoze entire villages into the ground.

DAVIES: Adam Higginbotham's book is "Midnight In Chernobyl." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with journalist Adam Higginbotham. He's been reporting for many years on the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. His book published this year is "Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story Of The World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster."

Over the months that followed the accident, more was learned about what had actually happened, and again, there's fascinating stuff in the book about people going inside the reactor, looking for missing fuel. But there was a trial of six of the plant operators. There were - was a report to the International Atomic Energy Agency, other reports and documents. And it seems clear that the scientists understood that while there was operator error in this disaster, that the reactors themselves were fundamentally flawed and unsafe. I mean, one of the - I think the premier of the party actually told Gorbachev at one point this kind of accident was inevitable. In the end, was the world, were the Soviet people told the real story about this?

HIGGINBOTHAM: No, they weren't. By July of 1986 - so not really that long after the accident - Gorbachev and the rest of the Politburo were almost fully informed of what had really happened. They knew that the reactor had been badly designed. They knew that these design faults had been covered up. They understood that the operators themselves had made a series of mistakes. But it was also clear that the role of these design faults was pretty significant.

And as you say, you know, Nikolai Ryzhkov, the prime minister said in this Politburo meeting in July, you know, if it hadn't happened here, it would have happened somewhere else sooner or later. But then they - you know, they made a traditional Soviet decision, which was that they presented the Soviet people and the world at large with a bowdlerized and misrepresentative version of the story, which was to blame the operators entirely because they realized that, you know, the person who took credit for designing this reactor, Anatoly Alexandrov, was the head of the Kurchatov Institute.

He was an octogenarian prince of the scientific community. He was someone who could not be publicly faulted because, you know, the scientific establishment was part of the heart of the communist state, so they knew they couldn't criticize him in public. So they blamed - they laid the blame for the accident entirely at the feet of the operators and these six men who ended up participating as the victims in what was effectively the final show trial in the history of the Soviet Union.

DAVIES: Right, and they got prison terms. I think the most served - longest served was five years from the plant director.

HIGGINBOTHAM: But he was sentenced to 10.

DAVIES: Right.

HIGGINBOTHAM: And had the Soviet Union not collapsed, had he not been given time off for good behavior, he might have served longer.

DAVIES: What do we know of the real harm of this accident? I mean, I think the official death toll was in the 30s, right? But clearly, a lot more people suffered a lot of radiation exposure. What do we know of the harm of the accident?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, the 30s figure is a bit misleading because it's like - the number 31 is the number of people who died in the four or five months immediately after the accident of acute radiation exposure that they received as first responders. And then subsequently, you know, these figures are recorded where several dozen more people died of radiation effects in the years after that.

But as part of the cover-up that they brought about, the Soviet government tried to conceal the health effects of the disaster, both on the liquidators who went in to clean up after the accident and on the population at large. So, you know, there were individuals that I spoke to who went to the doctor in the years after it happened, you know, complaining of these kind of mysterious clusters of symptoms and found that the doctors would give them a diagnosis and tell them that they were overtired or that they'd got other problems. And their medical records were marked with the same phrase in every case - ordinary illness not related to ionizing radiation.

But beyond that, there are - the complexities of epidemiology mean that it's extremely hard to directly connect the effects of radiation with, for instance, solid cancers because the background levels of cancer in the general population are so high that it's very hard to pick out levels of cancer that might be related specifically to radiation.

DAVIES: I noticed that Ukraine has opened the exclusion zone to tourism. I went online and I saw this I ad, you know, tours available from $99 and up, quote, "absolute radiation safety of the tourists guaranteed by our own studies." Would you recommend...

HIGGINBOTHAM: Fascinating. I wonder how they arrive at those guarantees.

DAVIES: Would you recommend it?

HIGGINBOTHAM: Would I - I mean, it's a fascinating place. I must admit I've never been on a tour, so I'm not quite sure what those might be like. And to be honest, since I last went there I think at the end of 2016, you know, the tour - the pace of tourism and the level of tourism has really gathered pace. So there are now - there's now one or two souvenir shops on the perimeter of the exclusion zone, where you can buy your, you know, radioactive yellow mugs and other artifacts.

And there was recently a report in the Ukrainian press that there's - a new cleanup effort has had to be engaged in the exclusion zone, not this time to clean up radioactive material but to gather the trash that has been left behind by these tens of thousands of tourists. So I'm not sure what the experience is like today.

DAVIES: Adam Higginbotham, thanks so much for speaking with us.


GROSS: Adam Higginbotham writes for The New Yorker and other publications. His book is called "Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story Of The World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster." After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album from pianist George Cables and his trio. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMASO & RAVA QUARTET'S "MONDO CANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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