In 2018 I vowed to read 52 books. I just made it, but I lost about 10 weeks to work overload. So the following year, I upped it to 60 books. I again lost a few months to work overload, but I also made it. So this year, my goal is to read 65 books and if I don’t lose a few months mid-year, I should make it pretty easily by keeping up my current pace. 

One of my early reads in 2020 has been the much-acclaimed Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. I didn’t fall quite as in love with this book as other folks did. But I still recommend it if for no other reason than it was surprisingly one of the most timely books I’ve read of late. 

The book is a staggering work of research and journalism that unpacks a massive knot that has befuddled everyone since the disaster: What or who was really responsible? 

It’s clear that the main reasons that Chernobyl happened and was not properly contained had less to do with the arrogance of the scientists in the USSR, or the comparative lack of resources to the West, or the irrationality of blind competition, or the men who created the reactor, those who cut corners when it came to testing and safety, the hastily written safety manuals, or the men who made mistakes once things started to go wrong.

It was a country that had no facts, no truth, no independent journalism, and an absolute prioritization of short-term political advantage over science. 

As Adam Higginbotham painstakingly traces, long before Chernobyl was active, the seeds of its undoing had been planted. Out of ego and global political gamesmanship, the USSR covered up every nuclear breach, disaster, and mishap creating two massive problems: A country incorrectly believed nuclear plants were absolutely fail-safe and scientists couldn’t learn from what had gone wrong on a smaller scale before. Even those in the government, in the country, and in the USSR’s nuclear industry didn’t realize these breaches had happened before. 

Beyond that, corners were cut in safety and design of reactors because of the race with the United States and a need to show that Soviet science was superior—the priority wasn’t on the science being superior. It was on it appearing to be superior. Bigger, faster to market, no matter the risk. 

Because any risks in the Soviet nuclear program were inconvenient facts, they were hidden from those tasked with operating these machines. 

And of course, there’s the toll on the public. The months of face-saving at all levels of Soviet society meant even more people were exposed to nuclear radiation, died, had deformities, lost their possessions, and face stigma for the rest of their lives than needed to. 

The book is a long, thorough cautionary tale in what happens when a society decides to believe political leaders’ wishful thinking over reality, when there’s no such thing as truth anymore, when journalists no longer have a role of being the arbiters of truth. And it’s chilling. The disinformation was so complete, even Mikhail Gorbachev at one point screams at his own government for hiding the true extent of the disaster from him. 

The fascinating thing is: It didn’t work for the politicians either. Chernobyl more than any other single factor brought down the USSR, according to Higginbotham’s analysis. 

Another thing struck me as I read it and thought about where we are now as a society. There was a time that people—particularly those in Silicon Valley—hoped the Internet could be what broke the controlled flow of information for personal gain. That things like the Rwandan Genocide or Chernobyl could no longer be conveniently covered up the way it had in the past. Twitter’s role in Arab Spring was an enthusiastic and over-optimistic surge of belief that this had happened. 

Instead the Internet has done the opposite. The vast majority of advertising online goes to just two companies: Facebook and Google. As such they control almost everything we see. And those companies have chosen to prioritize [fill in the euphemism of the day] over truth. 

The Internet didn’t solve the problems that plagued individual authoritarian regimes of the past; it created a make-your-own media disinformation system for billions of people all over the world. 

With the wave of a hand and the words “fake news,” another Chernobyl seems more likely now than it did five years ago.

Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:

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