For more than three decades, the word Chernobyl has become synonymous with catastrophic failure and with disaster. Its legacy weighed on popular perceptions of nuclear power for years, and it came to symbolize Soviet decline. Chernobyl is now attracting renewed attention these days, with a popular HBO miniseries and a tremendous new book, Midnight in Chernobyl, written by Adam Higginbotham.
In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Jason Bordoff is joined by Adam Higginbotham to discuss his new book, a thrilling, chilling, and gripping account of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The book holds lessons today, too, as we contemplate the role of nuclear power in trying to achieve a decarbonized world to address the threat of climate change.
Adam has written extensively on a variety of topics for The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, and many more publications. He’s also the former U.S. correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph.
Jason and Adam sat down to discuss Midnight in Chernobyl, the causes and consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, the future of nuclear power, and much more.
View the transcript
Jason Bordoff: Hello and welcome Columbia Energy Exchange. A weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Jason Bordoff. For more than three decades word Chernobyl has become synonymous with catastrophic failure and with disaster. Its legacy weighed on popular perceptions of nuclear power for years and it came to symbolize Soviet decline. Chernobyl is now attracting renewed attention these days with the popular HBO miniseries and a tremendous new book, “Midnight in Chernobyl” written by Adam Higginbotham. The book is a thrilling and chilling and gripping account of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and holds lessons today as we contemplate the role of nuclear power in trying to achieve a decarbonized world to address the threat of climate change. Adam has written extensively on a variety of topics for the New Yorker, the New York Times magazine, Wired, GQ and many more publications. He’s the former U.S. correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph magazine. I had a chance to sit down with him recently to discuss his new book, the causes and consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, the future of nuclear power and much more. Here is my conversation. Adam Higginbotham, thanks for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.
Adam Higgenbotham: Thank you for having me.
Jason Bordoff: And congratulations on the book. It is a non-fiction piece of writing that is incredibly gripping, a real thriller and tells the remarkable story. So, congratulations.
Adam Higgenbotham: Thank you.
Jason Bordoff: Start just by talking a little bit about why you decided to focus on the world’s greatest nuclear tragedy to focus so many years of your life?
Adam Higgenbotham: Because it was, when I first came across, I realized that it was just an amazing epic story. You know, starts with 34 year old man standing up to his knees in snow in a field in Ukraine and being tasked with building the largest nuclear reactor complex in the world and ends with the destruction of the Soviet empire.
Jason Bordoff: And it hadn’t really been told in a complete way before. I think, it’s fair to say.
Adam Higgenbotham: No, it haven’t and when it had been told, it had been filled with what was discovered was a kind of lot of myth and misinformation, misunderstanding. So, part of what I wanted to do is to, you know, address and demolish a lot of that mythologization.
Jason Bordoff: And at that time, was that mythologization – is that the right word? – the result of Soviet propaganda after the fact or… Antinuclear advocates or…
Adam Higgenbotham: A bit of it was, well, a lot of it was from misinformation and from people relying on you know news reports that they published in Pravda and Izvestia and just treating them as if they were gospel truth. But a lot of it, you know, was also the result of people writing about the accident in a way that panned to people’s worst expectations of what might have happened. And so, you know, given the choice between printing the truth and printing the legend, I would go with the legend.
Jason Bordoff: What’s an example of that?
Adam Higgenbotham: The best example that comes to mind is this idea of Bridge of Death where which actually was depicted in this recent HBO TV show where in the TV show, you know, the explosion takes place in the middle of the night, 1:24 in the morning and inexplicably, dozens of citizens of Pripyat at the time, it was three kilometers away from the plant, you know, many of them have families and family members who work at the plant. These people get out of bed in the middle of the night, take their children in strollers to go and watch the burning nuclear plant from this bridge that crosses the railway line over the entrance to the, at the entrance to the town. You know…
Jason Bordoff: Causing their own certain death.
Adam Higgenbotham: And according to the TV show, you know, these people, none of these people survived afterwards. And you know, which is a kind of a very compelling urban legend but if you think about it for more than a second, it doesn’t make any sense. Like there was nothing, there is no historic evidence to back this up at all. It’s just nonsense.
Jason Bordoff: But I don’t know if a counter example, I mean some of the mythology, the movie called the China syndrome, you actually write in the book that this idea of the China syndrome maybe isn’t as far-fetched as some people thought that when you started to see what actually happened.
Adam Higgenbotham: No, that’s the idea of, I mean, not the way that it’s presented in the movie China syndrome where I think a nuclear engineer explains the idea of the molten bowl of nuclear fuel burn through the basement of, and then burn through the earth and then emerge in China.
Jason Bordoff: Yes. Not that but the idea that this could have kept going and you talk about the molten mass that the elephant, you can describe all of that.
Adam Higgenbotham: Yeah.
Jason Bordoff: That actually was a real risk.
Adam Higgenbotham: Yes, and in fact, the Russian nuclear industry now has a sideline in going around the world constructing reactors with what they call core catchers underneath them which is a concrete plate that’s constructed in the foundations of the plant to catch a molten ball of burning nuclear fuel should it escape.
Jason Bordoff: Which is what resulted, which is what happened here.
Adam Higgenbotham: What they found, which couldn’t really happened. Yes yeah.
Jason Bordoff: I want to talk about what went wrong and by that I mean, there is a lot of discussion about the risk of nuclear technology when something can go catastrophically wrong with nuclear technology. But this, one of the things, I found really interesting in this book, this was not only a technology failure or a human error, it was a failure of human systems, political systems and accountability that led the Soviet system to sort of allow over decades, a confluence of errors to build up to what happened that day and then cause that day to be much worse than it needed to be. Talk about that.
Adam Higgenbotham: You know, you’re right. Because of the approximate causes of the accident were errors made in the control room on the night of the accident. But which would not have been significant hadn’t not been for design faults in the reactor which the designers of the reactor had known about for ten years before the night of the accident but have done very little to rectify and they have tried to cover them up.
Jason Bordoff: And had covered up severe nuclear disasters before. 1957.
Adam Higgenbotham: Yes.
Jason Bordoff: It’s a reactor design.
Adam Higgenbotham: So, but there had been accidents with the same reactor design as well. So, there is, I mean in terms of the sort of systematic problems that you’re talking about, I mean the path to the accident had been laid decades before because of this culture of secrecy and because you know, essentially the Soviet system was built on pillars of lies and you know, an obsessive concern for secrecy. So, the reactor itself was badly designed. But also every nuclear accident that have taken place previously had been classified and details of those accidents have been kept even from the staff of the nuclear plants where they had occurred. Which meant that the opportunity to learn from the states and from design faults and accidents of them before, you know, was completely lost. And that there was this widespread belief that an accident of the type that actually happened in Chernobyl was simply impossible. And those were the kinds of things that I think.
Jason Bordoff: And that was kept secret because it was inconsistent with the Soviet story of strength and power in the nuclear sector, the cities of the future like Pripyat the it was created, is that why?
Adam Higgenbotham: Yes, and also because, you know, if they couldn’t confine news of these kinds of accidents from the outside world, if they let it leak, you know, beyond these extremely carefully confined circles within which the information was shared, within you know, the handful of specialists at the Kurchatov Institute for instance. And so, this was a, you know, a pattern of Soviet concealment of any bad news that have gone wrong which was kept from the outside world and kept from the Soviet people themselves.
Jason Bordoff: The Soviet nuclear program, a source of great pride in part, didn’t want to undermine that story.
Adam Higgenbotham: Exactly. Yes.
Jason Bordoff: And you talk about, well, what the city of Pripyat where he Chernobyl plant was, was a pretty nice place to live, the way you described it.
Adam Higgenbotham: Yes, I mean for people in the Soviet Union, it was a fantastic place. I mean, I wouldn’t want to kind of, it’s all relative. I wouldn’t want to give you the impression, if you’ve gone there from, you know, Minneapolis in 1985, you would have thought this was a kind of paradise on earth. But you know, it was because it was designed to attract nuclear specialists from around the Soviet Union. The ministry of energy had taken great care to make it as nice a place to live as possible. So, it’s much better, the city was much better funded. It was much better resourced than other comparable cities in the Soviet Union which meant that the people who lived there could have access to amenities but also to foods and consumer goods that you couldn’t get anywhere else even big cities like Kiev. So, you know, they had disco techs in the weekends, they had a scuba diving club, a shooting club. It was kind of located in this beautiful silvin location where the white sand beaches and it was surrounded by woodland and in the stores you could buy five types of sausage and an extremely rare delicacy in shops in the Soviet Union at the time was tomatoes which you could also find in grocery stores. So, yeah, it was a really great place to live. And it attracted a very young population, I think the average age of the population was 26 at the time.
Jason Bordoff: What’s Chernobyl like today?
Adam Higgenbotham: Well, you know, I haven’t been back there since 2016, I think was the last time, I was there and it has changed quite a lot because it’s, you know, it remains at the center of the plant and Pripyat remains at the center of the exclusion zone which is this massive area of depopulated intermittently radioactive wilderness. But the Ukrainian government has engaged on this program of encouraging tourism to the area.
Jason Bordoff: Yeah. What do you think of that?
Adam Higgenbotham: It’s good for the Ukrainian economy. Because it means that you know, it’s bring a lot of money into the country and I think last year, 70,000 people visited Pripyat on these organized tours, you can take from Kiev. You just come down a coach. You come down, for the day and they’ll take you around the city for a couple of hours and you can poke around Soviet ghost town and then leave with your, there is a sort of Chernobyl selfie now. If you search images on the internet, there is a standard image which people take of themselves standing in front of the sarcophagus that covers the ruins of reactor 4 with a, there is a cemetery in front of them showing their radiation exposure at the moment with the photograph. But it’s important tourism has expanded to the point when there is now not one but two souvenir shops on the perimeter of the zone where you can buy bright yellow knick-knacks with radioactive warning symbols on. And subsequent to the radioactive cleaning that took place from 1986 to 1990 to kind of clean the debris at the exclusion zone, I read in the Ukrainian press recently that they’ve had a second clean up which is to send people into the zone to clean up the trash that the tourists have left behind.
Jason Bordoff: So the tourists are bringing a little damage of their own.
Adam Higgenbotham: Yes.
Jason Bordoff: Come back, I just want to close talking about what went wrong. So, the design of the reactor, many failures but the most significant probably that control rods. Explain what that was?
Adam Higgenbotham: There was a lot of. There was sort of myriad design faults. Rooted in the fact that initially, the principles on which the reactor was based, the design principles came from a military reactor that was designed and manufactured with plutonium that was built in 1940s. And that had incipient instabilities in itself, the principle on which it was designed made that reactor unstable. But then there were other problems with the design of the specific model of reactor that accentuated those instabilities and made it capricious and hard to control. And in terms of the accident itself, the one that proved most critical was the design of the control rods. The control rods designed to slow or increase the level of reactivity inside the reactor core. If you withdraw them then…
Jason Bordoff: It increases.
Adam Higgenbotham: If you withdraw them, then the level of power and the reactivity increases and if you move it in, then the power and the reactivity decreases. But these rods in the RBMK had a design for which meant that if you insert it, the emergency control rods, as you would do for emergency shut down all as on the night of the accident merely to bring the reactor itself to bring into complete shutdown. For the first few seconds after they were inserted, the circumstances, instead of decreasing reactivity, the emergency control rods could slightly increase reactivity. So, it’s equivalent to, you know, speeding on a car, stamping on the breaks and instead of immediately slowing the car, the car suddenly leaps forward.
Jason Bordoff: Before it slows down.
Adam Higgenbotham: Further acceleration. And that was enough to cause a catastrophic run away in reactivity.
Jason Bordoff: And the reason for that design?
Adam Higgenbotham: Was to save money, yeah.
Jason Bordoff: Was to save money. Talk about the role, some of the key individuals that were involved in the summer, no names, some not so much but the role of a young Mikhael Gorbachev, not young but early in his career. What was his role in the moments of, in the days of the accident and then the months and years after?
Adam Higgenbotham: Well, he had only just become general secretary of the communist party. The year before, and he had, you know announced his intention to embark on a process of more open government, Glasnost, and economic reform, Perestroika. But those two concepts had really been just slogans up to the point when the accident took place and the accident was really kind of the first test of Glasnost. So, they had this, what Gorbachev in his memoir subsequently described is an emergency Politburo meeting. There was such an emergency that he called it for the Monday morning after the accident happened. So, he waited two days for this.
Jason Bordoff: On Saturday.
Adam Higgenbotham: It happened early on a Saturday morning.
Jason Bordoff: Early on a Saturday morning, yeah.
Adam Higgenbotham: And the meeting took place on Monday morning. So, that’s how much of an emergency it was. And at this meeting, they had to decide to what extent, they were going to admit to what happened. So, this was a kind of critical test of his principles of Glasnost. And he subsequently insisted that you know, he was all for complete openness from the outside. But they lacked information. But subsequent testimony from other people in meeting suggested that this is not true. And whether it is or it isn’t, the result of the meeting was to take what they referred to was the traditional approach which was to disclose the information as possible. So, they released a three line statement that night but only having spent the entire day denying to western diplomats that any accident of any kind had taken place in the Soviet territory.
Jason Bordoff: And talk about, there were a lot of acts of heroism and bravery for all the acts of negligence that might have led up to this. Were there one or two characters that stood out as particularly notable?
Adam Higgenbotham: Yeah, I mean, there was a lot of kind of incredible acts of courage took place during the long course of the accident remediation. And mostly familiar with the work of the firefighters and a lot of people know about the helicopter pilots who were drafted into to drop sand and boron and lead into that open mouth of the reactor. But the one story that stuck with me the most is that of Maria Protsenko who was the chief architect of the city. And was overseeing its expansion at the point of the day the accident took place she was, she had just received a visit from architects from Kiev who had come in to help her expand the city as part of a project to make it twice as big as it was at the point of the accident. And she was someone who took it kind of distinctly un Soviet interest in getting all the details of the city, took extreme care of it and because she was the one who knew the layout of the city best, she was the person who was charged with organizing the logistics of the evacuation at the time. 36 miles off the explosion, so, she had to organize these 1100 buses that came into remove the entire population as quickly as possible, when they finally took that decision. But she was also the person who then stayed behind and a few months later was responsible for helping the KGB permanently fence off the city that she had played such a key role in building from the rest of the world forever. And her story is the one that…
Jason Bordoff: She’s still alive?
Adam Higgenbotham: She is still alive. She still lives in Kiev. She still teaches design of the Salvador Dali institute in Kiev and she’s kind of an incredible character. She’s like, the unsinkable Molly Brown of the Chernobyl story.
Jason Bordoff: One of the characters who is prominent, also is sort of a central character in the HBO series, was Legasov. Talk about, was he accurately portrayed in that TV series?
Adam Higgenbotham: He is not accurately portrayed in the TV series. I don’t even know where to start answering the question. I could tell you that his daughter Inga, a few weeks after the HBO show had aired in Europe sent me a Whatsapp message that just said, shame on you. Because she misunderstood, she had got some of the idea that I’ve incorporated with the making of the TV show which was far from the truth. And so, I had to put it straight about that. But that was her reaction to the way her father was portrayed in the TV show.
Jason Bordoff: So, describe what an accurate portrayal of his role would be?
Adam Higgenbotham: Well, he was not, you know, he’s represented as this kind of, as this sort of heroic matter in the TV show and his role was just, I mean as with most of the characters in TV show that you know, none of them is simplistic, Hollywood archetypes that they are represented as. Legasov was, you know, he was a happily married father of two nor the kind of lonely bachelor living in a squalid flat somewhere in Moscow which is the way it is represented in the show. And you know, he was a true believer in the communism and you know, one of the most interesting aspect of the story is the way in which he who is at the absolute pinnacle of his profession, at the time when the accident took place, you know, his believe in Soviet socialism was and the system that he worked within was completely shattered by what he saw in Chernobyl. And it completely changed his thinking about Soviet science and about his place in it. And so his story is really much more interesting and nuance in the way that…
Jason Bordoff: And the series also has a female scientist who sort of uncovers the mystery of what happened but I mean, it’s been widely reported, lots of composite but it seems to me based on what you said earlier that in fact, many people knew when this happened, what the problem was. It wasn’t… Mystery that needed to be uncovered necessarily.
Adam Higgenbotham: No, the idea that she’s, that yes she’s a fictional character but she’s a composite of the scientist who did this crusading work that I am afraid is also nonsense because there is no scientist for her to be a composite of. Because as you say, you know the faults in the reactor were well known within the nuclear within the Kurchatov Institute before the accident took place. There was no need to do any courageous investigative speaking truth to power. You know, what there was, was a much less cinematic bureaucratic struggling between different wings of the atomic energy industry to try and bring the truth to Gorbachev and to reveal to him what had actually happened. And then subsequently, you know, over the course of several years, there was no attempt to make the results of those investigations public. But the causes of the accident were not a mystery.
Jason Bordoff: And then those largely failed, efforts to bring the truth to leaders in the Soviet system and then be open about it.
Adam Higgenbotham: The bureaucratic battle was ultimately won. So, Gorbachev knew the causes of the accident by July 1986, I mean, very quickly after the accident it took place. And he was absolutely curious when he realized and to go back to your question about the role that Gorbachev played in the accident and I mean, this is one of the most interesting aspects of what happened in the context of the fall, the ultimate fall of the Soviet Union is that what he learnt in those meetings in July 86 when he report the results of the investigation were presented to him, made him realize exactly how corrupt the system he inherited was and he realized that it was much, much worse than he had believed and as a result of that it made him plunge into Glasnost and Perestroika and social and economic reform much more deeply than perhaps he would had the accident not happened. And it was those reforms that were sort of bungled and mishandled and rushed that ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union. And so, you can see from that, that Chernobyl, if not in a direct way, indirectly played a very significant role in the collapse of the empire.
Jason Bordoff: What most surprised you about the story of Chernobyl and during this reporting? What was most unexpected?
Adam Higgenbotham: Initially, how many of the people who were there at the moment of the explosion were still alive and able to tell me about what they’ve seen. I mean, so when I began reporting in 2006, I mean, I frequently find myself sitting in rooms with people and thinking that what they were telling me was literally incredible and I shouldn’t really believe what they were telling me because I couldn’t believe that they’ve seen the things that they were describing at such close hand. And yet was still, so 20 years later telling me about. So, I think that was, that was initially the most surprising and then I think the biggest surprise was the fact that the fear of a second explosion was very real. And they thought that there was gonna be, the first explosion on the night of the 25th of April was merely a prelude to something that would be much worse.
Jason Bordoff: To your first point about how long people lived following that. There is such a widely bearing estimates of the casualty count following this disaster, did you come to, you think the right answer is still there?
Adam Higgenbotham: I did not because it’s, as you, as I’m sure you know, it’s an extremely floor question complicated by the complexities of epidemiology and by the fact that the Soviet authorities did an extremely good job of covering up the true story of what happened to begin with, of them burying and confiscating the data that they did gather and failing to gather of the data on the wider health effects of what happened. So, you were there in that situation where you know, more than 30 years after the accident, it seems like they have too much time combine, first ever to have a true understanding of exactly what the health consequences were. And the parameters set by you know, on the one hand, you have like a respected epidemiologist like Elizabeth Cardis who’s estimated that, I think up to 10,000 extra additional death against the background rate of expected. Deaths from cancer in an area of a population of 5 million people. You know, there will be 10,000 extra in population on which, there is obviously, a kind of vanishingly small percentage and so you can see the room for error in an estimate like that. It’s almost. On the other hand, you have organizations like Green Peace that will put their estimates in six figures. The sizes that I spoke to in the course of reporting of the book said that, you know, there was little scientific basis for those kind of extremely high figures. And in all likelihood, you know, the true figure lie somewhere in between, definitely to the lower, I think.
Jason Bordoff: How do the people of Ukraine feel about Chernobyl in your view?
Adam Higgenbotham: Well, strangely, a lot of people continue to regard it as a kind of an underreported issue, you know, it’s a national catastrophe that a lot of people feel went for a long time being ignored by the wider world. But you know, this meant when I was talking to people that you know, there are a lot of people who are kind of glad that I would bring the attention to it. But to my mind, I don’t think, it’s ever really gone away. So, you do have this kind of strange dichotomy where Chernobyl is ever present as an issue in Ukrainian politics. But when you talk to people, they weren’t convinced that you know, they are not getting enough attention. Certainly not getting enough money because the people who were in that, by their involvement in the clean up of the accident itself, you know, was promised by Gorbachev publicity in the months after the accident, they would be looked after and just as the veterans of the second world war have been looked after by the Soviet state for the rest of their lives. You know, but what actually happened is the Soviet state as a disintegrated had no money to be made available for this kind of thing. And so, they have been, you know, neglected. And kind of, and they suffer as a result of that because medication and things like that. They can’t afford it.
Jason Bordoff: So, we are an energy institute. We have spent a lot of time thinking about the role of nuclear power in the global energy mix and as you know that something that they have strong passionate views about on all sides. You’ve spent more than a decade studying the worst nuclear accident in history. What’s your view on the answer to that question?
Adam Higgenbotham: I think the simplest way of putting it is that I think it needs to be addressed from a scientific rather than an emotional standpoint. Because too much of the argument about the viability of nuclear energy in the energy mix is one that comes from kind of deeply entrenched, almost fundamentalist positions on either side. And while I think the nuclear industry can do a much better job of kind of communicating the benefits and problems of the technology to the public, I think that people who kind of use Chernobyl as an anti-nuclear talisman do a great disservice to not only the industry itself but to all of humanity at a point where we are now being engulfed by this climate crisis and we need to look at objectively and rationally at all the potential solutions that might be on the table.
Jason Bordoff: Do you have a sense for how much we’ve learnt the lessons to the extent there were lessons learnt of Chernobyl how much better prepared we are today to avoid catastrophic nuclear failure?
Adam Higgenbotham: Well, that’s a difficult question because the truth is that there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from Chernobyl but nobody bothered learning at the time. I didn’t put this in the book because I, remember reading at the time and then I couldn’t find the reference when I came to actually finish the manuscript. But I’m pretty sure.
Jason Bordoff: Student research assistant might help you with that.
Adam Higgenbotham: I’m pretty sure that the Japanese did not bother sending a delegation to the IAEA meeting in August 1986 when the results of the Soviet investigation were presented to the world. So, confident were they, that they didn’t need to learn anything from Soviet reactor accident. On the other hand, you know, the Chernobyl accident was unique event that could affect only if taken place in the Soviet Union. The model of reactor was only manufactured in the Soviet Union. It used principles that nobody else was using to generate electricity. And as we’ve discussed, you know the Soviet system produced this accident just as much as individual human error did. But I think, you know, the broad lessons of the accidents of it that over confidence in technology and hubris about your technological capabilities can lead to absolute calamity, if you are not careful. And so, I think that you know, the lessons of it, technological lessons of the accident are extremely broad and the need for technology now, you know is very different. And if we do pursue further development of it with further generations of reactors then, you know, nuclear safety needs to be considered in a much more careful and intensive way than it has been before and the risks and benefits need to be communicated much more clearly to the public.
Jason Bordoff: And we see nuclear reactors closing in the U.S., Germany is moving away from nuclear power after Fukushima.
Adam Higgenbotham: While simultaneously importing a lot of it from France where 75% of electricity is still generated from nuclear power.
Jason Bordoff: Sure, but the country is there kind of doubling down on nuclear. We see growth in China, Russia, are you concerned about the safety of nuclear given which countries are taking leadership roles right now in the global nuclear sector?
Adam Higgenbotham: I don’t know very much about the Chinese attitude towards nuclear safety and there are, you know, unpleasant echoes of extremely swift expansion of the Soviet nuclear program in the late 60s and the late 70s in what’s going on in China at the moment because they’re on this massive expansion of nuclear power plant.
Jason Bordoff: So, Obama’s former head, the chairman of the nuclear regulatory commission Greg Jaczko wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year that nuclear power should be down because it was too dangerous and regulators couldn’t respond to that risk even here in the U.S.
Adam Higgenbotham: Right.
Jason Bordoff: Had your work on nuclear power, informed your view about that? Why is he wrong?
Adam Higgenbotham: Well, I mean, I don’t think that nuclear power should be banned. And I just, I think that, you know that seems like an extremely, that seems like an extreme view to take. And I think that as I kind of implied before, you know, we’re at a point where we’re already being engulfed by a global catastrophe in the shape of global warming and if you kind of take all nuclear power off the table at this point, then the contribution that, that will make to putting carbon into the atmosphere and increasing global warming at a point where we need to be trying to combat it would be extremely irresponsible.
Jason Bordoff: What did you think of the arguments, he made that an accident of this scale of Chernobyl scale, is that possible to happen again?
Adam Higgenbotham: Well, I’ve, I did have an exchange with Greg, an email exchange with Greg in which we specifically addressed this issue because he seem to be implying in what he was doing, there could be, you know a level seven Chernobyl scale nuclear accident in the United States. So, I asked him directly if that was the case and he said no. So, I think the problem is that by making these arguments, you can kind of, you can surround nuclear energy with this miasma of fear without actually necessarily having a rational conversation about the real level of risk involved. And moreover the potential risk of not using nuclear power in the energy mix, again you know, having a rational conversation than rather than one attached in overly emotional terms.
Jason Bordoff: I’m just curious, your process for doing this. I just finished like Robert Karo’s book on working, the writer’s process, I find an interesting one. So, when you say, you spent this many years of your life. You had interviews, you had archival research, you had writing, talk about how that worked?
Adam Higgenbotham: I wouldn’t want to pretend, perhaps like Robert Karo did. You know, I did not spent ten years doing nothing else other than this. Because I think, if I tried doing I would have gone completely insane. I think, I began gathering material on this subject in 2005 when I first began reporting for magazine stories. And I kind of you know, then I came back to it again later and then I worked on the book exclusively for four years, I think.
Jason Bordoff: And that when you say exclusively, that means, a period of research every day and then a certain period where you are writing a certain number of hours? What’s the process like for doing interviews and research and then actually sitting down to write?
Adam Higgenbotham: I did it in stages because I had, I began with an outline of the broad series of events. Because I knew the timeline, and I knew what the overall narrative was. And then, so I would then go on reporting trips in which I would gather material from individuals and from archives on specific aspects of narrative and the timeline. And then I would write up as much as I possibly could and in doing that, you know, further questions would arise. So, then the next time, I went on the reporting trip to Russia Ukraine, I could then find other people to address those issues or I could go back to the people I have spoken to before and ask them further questions and I could fill in gaps and I could begin reporting for further parts of the narrative, further down the line. So, I did quite a lot of it in chronological order.
Jason Bordoff: And the process of writing is what some people say, I write a certain number of hours everyday, a certain number of words, I have to get to everyday and then I could stop. But it takes an hour all day. You have a process for writing?
Adam Higgenbotham: I did. I tell Robert Caro says. But I could write, the truth is I could write a maximum of 500 words in a day. So, I did. When I was working to complete the first draft of manuscript of the book, I had to work, to times, I will have a realistic expectation, like I could only write 500 words a day, five days a week with two days off for the weekend, and you know, of course…
Jason Bordoff: You’ve said yourself that, that’s the way you…
Adam Higgenbotham: Yeah. So, whenever I did, I have to write 500 words a day and the way you say, so on Monday, I might write a thousand words. That mean that I probably wouldn’t write anything on Tuesday. And then I have to come back on Wednesday and write 500 words.
Jason Bordoff: A lot of people around today, certainly all the students that are in Columbia, were not even born when Chernobyl happened. So, what would you, what do you think they should know about Chernobyl? Why is it important to people today to read those story?
Adam Higgenbotham: I think the most significant lesson of the book is as I said, one of over confidence in technology, technological hubris and you know, so the lesson is the same as that Titanic disaster. I mean, the reason that…
Jason Bordoff: Self-driving cars or artificial intelligence or where technology is taking us.
Adam Higgenbotham: Or you know, yeah, Boeing airliner that has, you know, automated systems that nobody really understands how they work. I mean, I think that those lessons are the most important, the ones that are the most…
Jason Bordoff: Machines were safer than people. Self-driving cars will drive better than we will, right.
Adam Higgenbotham: I think machines might be safer than people but human interaction with machines is where the problem is lying.
Jason Bordoff: Right. Whether it’s in the control room or the system decision making system.
Adam Higgenbotham: Yeah. Because this is like a system would have been devised by people in the first place. So, that’s where, that’s where the problems lie and you know, because some people would like to say that you know, the problems, the lessons of Chernobyl of those lies and secrecy but you know, I would disagree, I think that, you know, it’s over confidence in the use of technology and our overestimates of the ability that we have to control extremely complex systems. That’s the most important lesson of the story.
Jason Bordoff: Do you know what your next project is?
Adam Higgenbotham: I have a couple of things in mind but nothing that is sufficiently gelled to be able to tell you what it is now.
Jason Bordoff: Okay. Well, if it’s energy related, we’ll have you back. But it’s not we’ll have you back, this was a fascinating conversation. It really is an extraordinary book. I’m sure, a lot of people have seen the TV series but I do hope they read the book. It’s much deeper and really thrilling and engaging gripping read. So, congratulations on it and thank you so must for being here and make time to talk about it with us here today.
Adam Higgenbotham: Thank you for everything.
Jason Bordoff: For more information about the Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energypolicy.columbia.edu or follow us at Columbiauenergy. Thanks to all of you for listening. I’m Jason Bordoff. We’ll see you next week.