The biggest nuclear disaster ever continues to hide answers. But in “Midnight in Chernobyl”, Adam Higginbotham summarizes years of investigation, countless hours of interviews and unpublished documents about the events of the fateful dawn of April 26, 1986.
In an interview with Renascença, the British journalist and writer talks about the consequences of the nuclear accident, described in detail in the more than 500 pages of the book, edited by Desassossego. Dozens of witnesses were heard for the first time. It is they and files now available that allow to reconstruct part of the history, not only of Ukraine, but of the Soviet Union and the world.
Adam Higginbothan still talks about Pripyat today, a city where time froze and nature settled in, until it was invaded by tourists.
Regarding the nuclear industry, he argues that accidents like Chernobyl are unrepeatable, but that there are lessons that may have been left behind.
“Midnight in Chernobyl” is taken as the inspiration for the HBO series about this nuclear accident, but at the start of the conversation the author guarantees that it is “pure coincidence”. Especially because the content that was shown on television falls far short of this investigation.
Do we already know everything about the Chernobyl accident?
I think not. Much material was declared confidential at the time. Soon after the accident, the Soviet authorities carried out a very extensive investigation, interviewed dozens of people and gathered boxes and boxes with records and information.
According to the Kiev public prosecutor involved in the investigation, with whom I spoke, a total of 57 volumes of investigation materials were collected. In the end, these volumes were sent to Moscow and classified as confidential. A few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he tried to access this material but he never succeeded and it was he who told me that there were things about the accident that would never be known.
All of this material remains secret. And there are also the medical and psychological effects of the accident, which were also overshadowed by the Soviet authorities as soon as the accident occurred. The real costs of the disaster, in these areas, I think will also remain hidden. Probably forever.
Will we never know, then, the whole truth?
No. I tried to investigate as much as possible, but there are certain aspects that we will never know, because 35 years have passed.
“There are many aspects to the Soviet response where the authorities did their best, given the circumstances”
He found many contradictory testimonies. Do you think it was due to the time that has passed or are there other reasons?
In any major event like this, which affects so many people over such a long period, we will always face the problem of people’s memory and reports that come into conflict. Simply, because people perceive events differently. I have encountered the same problem in other, more recent situations, it is part of human experience.
As a reporter and historian, the best I can do is try to come up with what Bob Woodward, the investigator for covering up the Watergate scandal, describes as “the best available version of the truth.”
How do you rate the response of the authorities and, in particular, the regime to the accident?
It is a very complicated question. In general, they showed a lot of recklessness at an early stage, in relation to the safety of citizens and the delay in evacuating the city of Pripyat, which is only three kilometers, at the closest point, from the radioactive complex. It is inexcusable and has been postponed, for the most part, for political reasons. But there are many other aspects to the Soviet response in which the authorities did their best, given the circumstances.
The compulsion for secrecy, which dominated the Soviet state, complicated everything, made work difficult and compromised efficiency. If they had received international help in cleaning up and responding to the disaster itself, they would have shown more transparency and things could have been very different.
Can we point to this accident as the reason for the fall of the Soviet Union?
In the Soviet Union it has two main effects. One is how it affected Mikhail Gorbachev’s attitude towards the reforms he had announced before the accident, but which were still slogans, glasnost and perestroika, greater openness by the government and restructuring of the economy.
He hasn’t really done anything yet, but he finds out how corrupt the system he inherited has become and, in particular, he begins to realize that the nuclear industry, the jewel of the Soviet system, was deeply corrupt and prone to secrecy and convenience . He realizes, then, that he must act much faster than he had anticipated and anticipate economic reforms, which ultimately contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, it allowed the opening of reports after the Chernobyl accident, in line with glasnot, which led the Soviet people to realize the extent to which they had been deceived by their leaders and the extent of lies about the nature of the state and how was administered. This was also a strong contribution to the ruin of the USSR.
Did Chernobyl end up messing with nuclear policy internationally?
Certainly. The scale of the Chernobyl disaster had an almost immediate impact on the development of nuclear energy worldwide. In many countries, nuclear energy development programs have stopped, given the fears raised by this accident.
How do you describe Pripyat today?
The last time I was in Pripyat was in 2017. It is a fascinating place to visit. On the one hand, it remains a kind of time capsule, from the last days of the Soviet Union, because everything remained as it was left on the day of the evacuation, at the end of April 1986. But also because it is an entire city that was left to be repopulated by nature.
Now we walk the streets, especially in late spring and summer, and there are trees growing in the atriums of the buildings, there are moose and wolves roaming the city’s central square, it’s a unique experience.
What impressed you the most?
I would say that one of the most memorable moments I lived in Pripyat was when I was walking through one of those big courtyards, in the center of one of the apartment buildings, with my translator and the guide who took us around the city, I came around the corner and suddenly they disappeared and I was alone. I was invaded by an incredible feeling, not only was I the only person in this courtyard covered with trees, plants and shrubs and invaded by wild animals, but I was also the only person in the city and the only person on earth.
I had a kind of vision, in flashes, of what it would be like to be the last person in the world.
It should now be possible to repeat this experience, but only because Covid-19 has practically suspended international tourism. The city has become a tourist destination.
Now tens of thousands of tourists go there each year, to the city and the exclusion zone. I think it’s starting to affect the factory and the environment in Pripyat.
I read recently that there are so many tourists that the Ukrainian authorities have to do a second cleaning inside the exclusion zone. After radioactive cleaning, they have to send teams to clean up the garbage left by tourists.
Ukraine wants to give Chernobyl a “new life” – at 108 meters altitude
Can the city be re-inhabited?
It is interesting … In the archives there is a 1991 document, I think, where two radiology experts from the Ukrainian Institute of Sciences suggest that, until then, the combination of decontamination with radioactive deterioration indicated that the city’s radiation levels have restocking is possible. But this is the only report that I have seen suggesting the return of the population.
When we visit the city, the guides are very fond of telling us that the radiation level is so low that we are probably more exposed during the flight across the Atlantic than in the hours we spent in Pripyat. But I think there is still enough radioactive dust on the surfaces and in the soil around the city, in sufficient quantity to rule out the possibility of being a safe place to live.
We currently have many nuclear power plants that have already passed, or are close to, their useful life. The one in Almaraz is close to Portugal, on the Spanish border. Is an accident like Chernobyl possible today?
Like Chernobyl, I don’t think it is possible today to have an equal accident with nuclear reactors in the West.
Much of what happened in Chernobyl was the result of defects in the design of this specific type of reactor, the RBMK, used in the Soviet Union. These reactors were never built outside the country and, most importantly, they did not include a containment dome, which is a cement structure built on top of the reactor to contain any radioactive leak that may result from an accident.
These two factors contributed to the scale of the Chernobyl disaster, which I believe is unrepeatable. We have the example of Fukushima, in which the scale of radioactivity released is much lower than Chernobyl, which continues to far exceed other accidents of its kind.
But nuclear accidents continue to occur.
If you speak today with the technicians and scientists who worked at Chernobyl they will tell you that the nuclear industry has not learned its lesson.