When a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded and burned 33 years ago, it generated a radioactive cloud that contaminated parts of the Soviet Union and Europe before dissipating.

But

Higginbotham, a British journalist, takes account of the political fallout as well, but the bulk of his book is about the accident and the response and clean-up—primarily the first seven months, which culminated with the rushed completion of the concrete-and-steel sarcophagus that entombed the remains of Unit 4.

The author clearly has been captivated by the disaster for years. His interviews for the book began more than a decade ago and include some of the key surviving characters. He was also aided by the recent declassification of much archival material, especially the deliberations of the various government tribunals that managed (or, more accurately, mismanaged) the response.

Higginbotham introduces us to a few people who have never received much notice. Chief among these is Maria Protsenko, the architect of Pripyat, the city of nearly 50,000 that was built for the Chernobyl workers. Like most of the Soviet Union’s privileged atomic cities, Pripyat was a clean, comfortable place, a glorious testament to the Soviet system, and Protsenko’s job for seven years had been to make it even more glorious.

Her world changed in an instant when the reactor exploded. Pripyat, just a few miles away, was heavily contaminated immediately, though it took the authorities a day and a half to order an evacuation. (This was just one of many examples of Soviet officialdom’s callousness and irresponsibility in handling the disaster. Another was telling the evacuees to plan to be away for a few days; in reality, they would be gone forever.)

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Protsenko, who in the space of 36 hours went from proudly planning Pripyat’s expansion to calculating how many buses would be needed to get its residents to safety. (Precisely 1,225, as it turned out.) Ever the dutiful technocrat, she rode the last one, zigzagging across the ghost city to pick up stragglers.

It’s this kind of detail that makes Higginbotham’s book so gripping. His accounts of the “liquidators,” or clean-up workers, are especially riveting, including the “bio robots,” men who had to clean lethally radioactive debris off the roof of the plant by hand after mechanical robots failed, and the workers whose job was to enter the destroyed reactor building itself, hunting for the remaining uranium fuel in an effort to allays fears that another, potentially worse, explosion was possible.