Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by Serhii Plokhy; Basic Books, 404 pp., $32
In April 1986, I was living and working in a small village in Germany when I heard that radiation from an unknown source had been detected in Sweden. Later that day, the Soviets acknowledged that a nuclear accident had occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. It was one of the worst industrial disasters in world history and today serves as a defining moment of the Cold War. In my German village, we were told not to drink milk or eat blueberries. An uneasy feeling took hold. We didn’t know what to believe.
Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, was an up-close observer of what happened at Chernobyl. At the time of the accident, he lived less than 500 kilometers from the damaged reactor, and a later thyroid test suggested he suffered radiation exposure. In his new book, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, he casts his lyrical eye on a vast amount of detail, giving readers a sense of dramatic urgency that makes his account difficult to put down.
The town of Chernobyl was founded in 1193, established on lands that belonged to Kyivan princes. The name stems from the ubiquitous wormwood shrub, recognized by its dark color (the Ukrainian word for “black” is chornyi ). After the accident, President Reagan became one of the many people who believed that the Chernobyl disaster had been prophesied by the story of the wormwood star in the Book of Revelation.