“MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL”

33 years ago today, reactor #4 exploded in Chernobyl, creating the world’s worst nuclear accident. The Soviets’ secrets about what led up to the event, and it’s cover up, is now revealed.

Aired on April 26, 2019.

TRANSCRIPT

> 1986, PLACE, CHERNOBYL.

IN THE HEART OF THE UKRAINE WHERE A NUCLEAR REACTOR EXPLODED.

30 PEOPLE DIED AND 50,000 FLED THEIR HOMES.

RADIOACTIVE FALLOUT SPREAD TO AN AREA LARGER THAN LONG ISLAND, MAKING IT A VIRTUAL NO MAN'S LAND.

THE PLANT WAS ENCASED UNDER A GIANT DOME.

30 YEARS LATER, THAT DOME IS CRUMBLING AND CHERNOBYL'S THREAT IS ONCE AGAIN IMMINENT AS ANOTHER DISASTER LOOMS.

DEADLY RADIATION IS BEING RELEASED.

CHERNOBYL.

A CATASTROPHIC NUCLEAR DISASTER.

THREATENING AGAIN.

NOW ENGINEERS BUILD A MASSIVE STRUCTURE TO PREVENT ANOTHER RADIOACTIVE CRISIS.

EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.

BUILDING CHERNOBYL.

NOW MORE THAN 30 YEARS LATER, THERE ARE MANY QUESTIONS STILL LINGERING ABOUT WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED THE NIGHT OF THE TRAGEDY.

HERE TO BRING US SOME INSIGHT, ADAM, WHO IS THE AUTHOR OF MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL.

NICE TO HAVE YOU HERE WITH US.

THANK YOU.

I HAVE TO TELL YOU, THIS READS LIKE A NOVEL.

LIKE A MYSTERY DISASTER NOVEL WHICH I SHOWN A COMPLIMENT.

THAT WAS THE IDEA.

YES.

YOU ACHIEVE IT.

FIRST QUESTION IS, OF MOST AUTHORS, WHAT DREW YOU TO THE STORY AND TO MAKE DECIDE IT'S TIME TO WRITE THIS?

WELL, MY REPORTING ON THE STORY GOES BACK QUITE A LONG WAYS IN 2006.

I INITIALLY WENT TO RUSSIA AND UKRAINE TO WRITE A MAGAZINE STORY.

AT THAT POINT I WAS JUST INTERESTED IN RECONSTRUCTING THE EVENT THROUGH THE ACCOUNTS OF EYEWITNESSES.

WHEN I BEGAN TALKING TO THEM, I REALIZED THERE WAS MORE TO THE STORY THAN I HAD KNOWN ABOUT.

AND BOOKS WERE BEING WRITTEN TO THAT POINT.

AND SO THEN I KNEW THERE WAS A MORE, A FULLER ACCOUNT TO BE WRITTEN.

AND THEN I WENT BACK AGAIN IN 2011 FOR ANOTHER STORY.

AND AT THAT POINT, THIS WAS ABOUT A TOTALLY DIFFERENT ASPECT OF THE ACCIDENT.

ABOUT THE ECOLOGICAL ASPECT.

THE WILDLIFE.

THERE IS THIS IDEA THAT IT HAD BECOME A RADIOACTIVE SAFARI PARK WHERE ANIMALS THRIVE IN SPITE OF RADIATION.

I WAS REPORTING ON THAT.

AT THAT POINT I DID SOMETHING IN THE COURSE OF REPORTING.

I WENT TO PLACES, AND I SWORE I WOULD NEVER GO BACK AGAIN.

THEN ABOUT THREE YEARS LATER, I FOUND MYSELF SITTING AT MY DESK THINKING, THERE'S THIS OTHER PART OF THE STORY.

AT THAT POINT, I REALIZED THAT I HAD TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT IT.

IT PULLED YOU IN.

YES.

WHEN YOU SAID YOU WENT BACK AND YOU WERE SURPRISED BY THINGS, WHAT WAS IT THAT YOU THINK, LET'S FOCUS FIRST ON THE EVENT ITSELF AND THE FOLLOW-UP.

THE INITIAL ATTEMPT TO COVER UP.

DID YOU LEARN THINGS ABOUT THAT THAT YOU HAD NOT KNOWN BEFORE?

THROUGH YOUR OTHER REPORTING?

WELL, THAT WAS ONE OF THE MAIN POINTS THAT DREW ME IN IN 2006 WHEN I REALIZED, EVEN THE READING I HAD DONE.

I HAD DONE A LOT OF STUFF TO BEGIN REPORTING IN THE RUSSIAN UKRAINE.

ONE OF THE STANDARD QUESTIONS, I ASKED ALL THE EYEWITNESSES IN 2006, WHAT TO YOU IS THE MOST FRIGHTENING MOMENT OF THE EVENT?

OBVIOUSLY, I EXPECTED PEOPLE TO SAY, WELL, I WAS IN THE BUILDING AND THIS TREMENDOUS EXPLOSION, I THOUGHT THE WAR WITH AMERICANS HAD BEGUN.

WHICH IS WHAT ONE PERSON SAID TO ME.

THIS ONE GUY IS A PHYSICSIST WHO HAD ENORMOUS EXPERIENCE SERVING IN THE NUCLEAR INDUSTRY.

I ASKED HIM THIS QUESTION.

HE DIDN'T SAY THAT.

HE SAID FOR ME, THE MOST FRIGHTENING MOMENT, MAY 5 OR 6, WHEN ME AND ALL THE OTHER PHYSICSISTS AROUND THE PLANT THOUGHT THERE WOULD BE A SECOND EXPLOSION.

IT WOULD BE EVEN MORE EXPLOSIVE AND WE THOUGHT WE WOULD DIE.

SO AT THAT POINT, HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS?

THAT TO ME WAS THE MOST SURPRISING THING?

YOU TALK ABOUT IT IN THE BOOKS.

YOU TALK ABOUT THE NOTION THAT THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN PREDICTABLE.

PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO SEE THE CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING.

WHY DO YOU THINK THAT WAS?

TO GO BACK INTO THE STRUCTURE AND THE NATURE OF THE SOVIET UNION.

IT WAS BUILT ON SECRECY AND LIES.

BUT THE APPROXIMATE CAUSES WERE THE DESIGN FAULTS IN THE REACTOR.

THE PEOPLE THAT BUILT AND DESIGNED IT KNEW ABOUT IT.

MORE THAN TEN YEARS THAT THE ACCIDENT HAPPENED.

SO THAT ALONE, YOU KNOW, WAS AN INDICATION THAT THERE WERE PEOPLE WITHIN THE NUKE INDUSTRY.

WITHIN THE MINISTRY OF NEEDING MACHINES ALL DAY.

THE MONO LITHIC MINISTRY OF THE SOVIET UNION THAT RAN NOT ONLY THE ATOM WEAPONS PROGRAM BUT ALSO ALL THE FUEL CYCLES FOR THE CIVILIAN STATION.

THOSE PEOPLE KNEW THERE WERE THESE PROBLEMS.

THEY COVERED THEM UP.

MINIMIZED THEM AND KEPT DETAILS EVEN FROM THE PEOPLE WHO OPERATED THE PLANT.

LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR VISITS BACK.

IN CHERNOBYL NOW.

AND I WAS STRUCK BY THE FACT THAT THERE WERE SO MANY PEOPLE THAT ARE STILL ALIVE, THAT HAD BEEN THERE, AND I THINK SOME OF THEM ARE STILL, THIS ONE IS INVOLVED IN THE NUCLEAR INDUSTRY.

THAT WAS SOMETHING I WAS SURPRISED BY RIGHT AT THE BEGINNING 12 YEARS AGO.

I THOUGHT I WOULD FIND PEOPLE WHO ARE PERIPHERAL TO IT.

AMONG THE FIRST PEOPLE I MET, THEY WERE PEOPLE INSIDE THE PLANT AT THE INSTANT OF THE EXPLOSION.

NOT ONLY SURVIVED THAT BUT SURVIVED UNTIL THE PRESENT DAY.

THERE IS ONE GUY, BORIS, WHO I INTERVIEWED A COUPLE OF TIMES WHO WAS IN THE CONTROL ROOM AT THE MOMENT OF THE EXPLOSION.

AND HE NOT ONLY SURVIVED BUT THEN WENT BACK TO WORK IN THE NUCLEAR INDUSTRY AND THEN RECENTLY WAS APPOINTED THE HEAD OF THE UKRAINIAN NUCLEAR SAFETY BOARD.

HOW ABOUT THE AFTERMATH?

IT LOOKS LIKE MEDICALLY, THE PEOPLE WHO HAD BEEN IN THE PLANT, THE PEOPLE AROUND THE PLANT, WHAT DID YOU FIND ABOUT THAT?

WELL, I MEAN, THE PEOPLE WHO RECEIVED THE WORST LEVELS OF EXPOSURE IN THE HOURS AND DAYS AFTER THE EXPLOSION, YOU KNOW, THEY SUFFERED VERY SEVERE RADIATION INDUSTRIES.

AND MANY, THE 30 PEOPLE YOU MENTIONED, THOSE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO DIED.

OTHER PEOPLE WERE AFFECTED BUT RECOVERED.

SO THERE WERE SOME PEOPLE THAT I SPOKE TO WHO SPENT MONTHS IN HOSPITAL.

BUT EVENTUALLY, THEIR HEALTH RECOVERED AND THEN THEY HAD TO LIVE WITH THE LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES OF WHAT HAPPENED.

THEY WOULD KEEP GOING FOR TWREMT SKIN GRAFTS, REMAIN ON MEDICATION.

AND THOSE PEOPLE COULD NEVER RETURN TO WORK AT A NUCLEAR PLAN BECAUSE OF THEIR EXISTING RADIATION EXPOSURE.

BUT IF YOU'RE ASKING MORE BROADLY ABOUT PEOPLE IN THE WIDER POPULATION, YOU KNOW, THERE WERE 5 MILLION PEOPLE IN THE AREAS THAT WERE WORST AFFECTED.

IN UKRAINE, BELARUS.

AND REALLY, NO KIND OF COMPREHENSIVE STUDY OF THEIR HEALTH HAS EVER BEEN DONE.

IT'S BEEN DONE PIECEMEAL.

SO AT THIS POINT, PARTLY BECAUSE OF THAT AND BECAUSE THE SOVIETS ATTEMPTED TO COVER UP AND MINIMIZE WHAT HAPPENED, WE'LL PROBABLY NEVER KNOW WHAT THE HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF THE ACCIDENT FOR THOSE PEOPLE ARE.

AS I AM IN THE BEGINNING, IT IS A MARVELOUS READ.

IT DOES INDEED READ LIKE A NOVEL.

AND CERTAINLY IT TELLS US SO MUCH.

EVEN PEOPLE WHO THOUGHT THEY KNEW EVERYTHING THERE WAS TO KNOW ABOUT CHERNOBYL WILL BE SHOCKED WHEN THEY REALIZE HOW MUCH THEY DIDN'T KNOW.

THANKS FOR SPENDING SOME TIME WITH US.

APPRECIATE IT.

THANK YOU.

CONGRATULATIONS.

GREAT WORK.

THANK YOU.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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