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The impact of Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster 33 years later

It will be 33 years this week that the former Soviet Union experienced a devastating nuclear disaster in what is now a part of Chernobyl, Ukraine, killing 29 people and causing permanent evacuations for miles. For more on the aftermath of the accident, Hari Sreenivasan is joined by Adam Higginbotham, author of “Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Next Friday marks an anniversary that's sometimes overlooked. It will be 33 years since the Chernobyl nuclear power plant then in the former Soviet Union now in Ukraine blew apart after an unexpected power surge. The Soviet government initially remained silent but within days of April 26, 1986 hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated, dozens died in the months following, and radiation contaminated a huge area that remains uninhabited today. Earlier this weekend I spoke with Adam Higginbotham, author of 'Midnight in Chernobyl, the untold story of the world's greatest nuclear disaster.'

    This is almost 33 years ago and here you are putting out a book now. What's untold about it?

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    Well I would say that the principal aspect to what's untold told about it is that this version of the story is true.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What did we get wrong?

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    Well because the Soviet government did such an excellent job of attempting to cover up the truth, the beginning, you know most people's conceptions of what happened, kind of rooted in the initial propaganda that the Soviet Union put out and also the misinformation that resulted from a lack of information. So, for example, you know a lot of people still think that tens of thousands of people died almost immediately as a result of this accident.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That's not the case.

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    That's not the case. And but part of the reason for that is Western correspondents in Moscow weren't allowed access to any information. So they did their best with rumors and hearsay. With a result that I think within a week of the accident, the New York Post was reporting that 15,000 people died and their bodies buried in a nuclear waste dump somewhere in Ukraine.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And when in fact it was..?

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    When in fact the death toll from the accident by that point was two.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Two?

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    One man died in the initial explosion, a second man died by dawn that day as a result of burns he sustained in the explosion.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And how do we calculate the ones who sort of got horrible cancers?

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    I mean the official figures are that within five months another 29 people died as a result of as a result of radiation exposure they received in those few hours after the first explosion. But then when you start to trying to treat cancer directly to the results of the accident, things get a lot trickier because of the complexities of epidemiology but also because of the extent of the intense cover-up by the Soviet government.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know in a way when you look at this in a larger picture this is almost one of the things I think that collapsed the Soviet Union. This catastrophe and what they had to pay to try to clean this up. I mean, I don't know what the rest of the Soviet economy was doing at the time but it was really startling.

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    I mean the costs of the accident certainly didn't help. And already sort of staggering Soviet economy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right.

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    But I think the more significant impact that it had in contributing to the collapse of the empire was was the way it changed Gorbachev's mind. He was pursuing these ideas of glasnost and perestroika economic reform in particular quite softly in the lead up to the accident. It was only after Chernobyl that he really realized exactly how deep the rot went in the system that he'd inherited. And that seems to have encouraged him to kind of plunge into these economic reforms at quite reckless speed.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yeah.

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    And as a result those reforms were botched. That really destroyed the Soviet Union.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This isn't a book that's necessarily against nuclear technology or for. It seems to be more about how we collectively put so much faith in technology.

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    I think that's right. I mean, I've tried to show the facts of what happened rather than not including any polemic that see that probe or anti nuclear energy. I think the wider lesson of the story is one of overconfidence in technology, which I think is really you know is obviously still with us today.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yeah besides Facebook we're talking about big data that we're not as conscious of, artificial intelligence that is.

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    And we're assuming it's always improving our lives now rather than perhaps you know, controlling and altering the way things happen.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right Adam Higginbotham. 'Midnight in Chernobyl' is the name of the book. Thanks so much.

  • Adam Higginbotham:

    Thank you.

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