Catastrophes happen when a large system gets so out of sync with its environment that a tiny tweak can crash it to the ground. It’s happened to oil rigs, spacecraft and mines. Afterward, committees blame the people who did the tweaking. But what matters is how the system became unstable and crashed, the atmosphere that caused it and the aftereffects. In these two books about the April 1986 explosion of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, “Midnight in Chernobyl” focuses on the first and second, “Manual for Survival” on the third.
Electricity is easy to create in small amounts. A hamster on an exercise wheel can make a little light bulb flicker. A generator and some gas powers a house. But the vast quantities of energy demanded by modern cities require huge steam turbines that operate 24 hours a day. One way to heat the water to create the steam is to burn fossil fuels. Another is using heat created by nuclear fission.The Soviets, who built the first nuclear power plant in 1954, considered themselves the finest reactor engineers in the world, and masters of gigantic engineering projects. Their rapidly expanding infrastructure desperately needed electrical power, especially in the Soviet Union’s industrialized western region, far away from Siberia’s fossil fuel deposits. Planners thus decided to build colossal reactors. These included a set of four at Chernobyl, about 100 miles north of Kiev, intended to be “the greatest nuclear power station on earth.” Its No. 1 reactor was completed in 1977, No. 4 in 1983.Adam Higginbotham’s “Midnight in Chernobyl” is a gripping, miss-your-subway-stop read. The details of the disaster pile up inexorably. They include worn control rod switches, the 2,000-ton reactor lid nicknamed Elena, a core so huge that understanding its behavior was impossible. Politicians lacked the technical knowledge to take action, while scientists who had the knowledge feared to provide it lest they lose their jobs or lives.Higginbotham captures the nerve-racked Soviet atmosphere brilliantly, mostly through vivid details about the participants. Schedules were impossible, production quotas demanding, workers sloppy, budgets insufficient, rules disregarded. Warnings that the design was unsound were ignored. While the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island prompted American engineers to re-examine reactor designs, the Soviets did not bother. In 1957, one Soviet reactor had a radioactive contamination accident, as did Chernobyl No. 1 in 1982. These and other accidents were covered up. A design fix was planned, but implementation at No. 4 was postponed until its first safety test in April 1986.Aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the explosion.CreditVolodymr Repik/ReutersHigginbotham, who has written for such publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, follows the postponed safety test minute by minute. A neglected step caused the reactor’s power to plunge, and frantic attempts to revive it created an unexpected power surge. Poorly trained operators panicked. An explosion of hydrogen and oxygen sent Elena into the air “like a flipped coin” and destroyed the reactor. Operators vainly tried to stop a meltdown by planning to shove control rods in by hand. Escaping radiation shot a pillar of blue-white phosphorescent light into the air.The explosion occurs less than 100 pages into this 366-page book (plus more than 100 pages of notes, glossary, cast of characters and explanation of radiation units). But what follows is equally gripping. Radio-controlled repair bulldozers became stuck in the rubble. Exposure to radiation made voices grow high and squeaky. A dying man whispered to his nurse to step back because he was too radioactive. A workman’s radioactive shoe was the first sign in Sweden of a nuclear accident 1,000 miles upwind. Soviet bigwigs entered the area with high-tech dosimeters they didn’t know how to turn on. Investigations blamed the accident on six tweakers, portrayed them as “hooligans” and convicted them. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear), which is to radiation studies something like what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) is to assessing human-induced climate effects, struggled to make sense of changing and confusing information.Kate Brown’s “Manual for Survival” has a different style and emphasis. Its aim is to be an exposé of the attempts to minimize the impact of Chernobyl. The disaster was less an accident, says Brown, a historian at M.I.T., than “an exclamation point in a chain of toxic exposures that restructured the landscape, bodies and politics.” Unscear’s publications were cover-ups, and radiation-related maladies are “a dark horseman riding wild across the Chernobyl territories.” Brown undertook the book so as not to become “one of those duped comrades who found out too late that the survival manual contained a pack of lies.”Around 2014, Brown began interviewing people in the affected areas, and sought measurements of radioactivity in such things as wool, livestock and swamps. Her stories are affecting, yet it is hard to evaluate memories and anecdotes. It is also hard to evaluate measurements. These are meaningful only within the tangled web of factors that radiation epidemiologists consider — including type and time-span of dose, pathways through the body, susceptibility of individual tissues and background radiation — as well as health issues like alcohol, obesity and stress.Radioactivity is present in different amounts in everything from muscles to masonry. Higginbotham notes that the granite in the United States Capitol “is so radioactive that the building would fail federal safety codes regulating nuclear power plants.” Brown writes that permitting an annual dose of five millisieverts (a dose unit) in one Chernobyl region is “cruel” and implies that its inhabitants should be relocated. Yet that’s less than the background radiation in many populated areas. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the average annual radiation dose in the United States (including medical diagnostics) is 6.2 mSv, while many studies put the annual dose in Denver at over 10 mSv, with no noticeable increase in cancer rates. Brown plays down reports of relocation’s psychological and social effects. Immigrants and refugees may have a different perspective.One wonders about Brown’s suggestions of conspiracies. She writes darkly that “the medical section of the U.S. Army report on physical damage in Hiroshima is missing in the U.S. National Archives.” Given that so much data is now available online, isn’t it possible this is due to incompetence or sloppiness? Are Unscear’s sometimes flawed publications cover-ups, or do they indicate the difficulties of incorporating changing data of varying degrees of reliability into the best available models? Brown endorses the work of antinuclear activists like Ernest Sternglass, many of whose claims that radiation causes everything from high infant mortality and crime rates to low SAT scores have been discredited. Brown is credulous of sources that share her opinions, skeptical of those that don’t. This gives the book the flavor of a polemic. Not all accusers of the scientific infrastructure are holy. Their claims need to be evaluated with the same diligence that scientists do theirs.Neither book is about nuclear power. The Chernobyl story is indeed as little about nuclear power as the Bhopal catastrophe is about the pesticide industry. Yet the issue looms, for the fossil fuel alternative has disastrous long-term effects. Brown notes that the founders of Kiev built the city on a bluff to repel invaders. It’s a haunting image. Today’s threats are pollutants that cannot be stopped by bluffs, and we create these threats ourselves to drive the turbines that sustain our towns. To keep these modern invaders at bay requires separating fact from fiction, and depending on expert advice. Will we avert catastrophe by honestly judging the benefits and risks of each energy source without hiding their costs — and will politicians have the guts to act on those judgments? Not yet.Robert P. Crease is the chairman of the department of philosophy at Stony Brook University. His most recent book is “The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority.”MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster By Adam Higginbotham Illustrated. 538 pp. Simon & Schuster. $29.95. MANUAL FOR SURVIVAL A Chernobyl Guide to the Future By Kate Brown 420 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95. Follow New York Times Books on Twitter and Instagram, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast.A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Chernobyl Reconsidered