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Why Is This Happening? Tracing the origins of a disaster with Adam Higginbotham: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author Adam Higginbotham about the creation of one of the worst disasters in human history.

In April of 1986 a nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the then-Soviet Union. The fallout from the accident and the Soviet government’s response compounded into one of the worst manmade disasters of the nuclear era. In his masterful work of nonfiction, "Midnight In Chernobyl," Adam Higginbotham weaves together the stories of the individuals and systems that contributed to the creation of one of the worst disasters in human history. It is not only a sharp eyed and empathetic look at Chernobyl, but it is a particularly timely story about all the things that fall together to create disaster.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: The core similarity is the same bargain that the Soviet people struck with the Communist Party. Yes, I recognize that I live in a repressive regime, but in exchange for this loss of freedom, you, the state, will provide for me and keep me safe. What happened in Chernobyl is that they realized that this bargain had been broken a long time ago.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. I don't get a ton of time to watch serialized television in my life. I get home every night at 10:00 and then my wife Kate and I, we catch up on our days and a lot of times my brain is so fried that I just watch NBA basketball, so I don't have to think. I'm very late often on whatever is like a hot prestige TV drama. That was the case for the HBO series, “Chernobyl,” which debuted in the spring, I think of last year, in May of last year. People were raving about it and saying how incredible it was and I thought I should watch that. And then time went by and finally some point, I guess in the fall when I was on the road by myself in a hotel room, I watched the whole series and it was just incredible. It takes you through the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Soviet Union, which is in present day Ukraine.

It's incredibly well written, incredibly well acted. And then afterwards I got really obsessed and interested with the actual disaster itself. I was sort of looking online. There were some critiques about some of the kind of characterizations that happened, which is natural in any dramatization of anything. And then I remembered that I had this book I've been meaning to read that was suggested to me by an old book editor of mine and it was her husband's book. A guy named Adam Higginbotham had written a book called “Midnight at Chernobyl.” And so I was still thirsty for more knowledge about Chernobyl and I read this book and it just blew my mind. It's a masterpiece of nonfiction. It's an incredible look at the people involved in the Chernobyl disaster, the institutions, the sociopolitical context of the Soviet Union and its flaws and pathologies.

It's excruciatingly well-written, humane, and empathetic, but sharp-eyed. It's just an incredible book. There's a bunch of reasons that I wanted to talk to Adam on the podcast, but one of them is, it's a book about Chernobyl, but it's also a book about disaster. We see disasters happen, particularly disasters that are essentially human made disasters, right? Like not as tsunami, but the rescue and aftermath of Katrina. The decision to launch the Challenger Space Shuttle despite the engineering flaws. The financial crisis, which was the product of human disaster. In all cases, and in some ways I think the 2016 election, in many ways, human disasters are always the product of multiple causes. A lot of things have to go wrong to get to the point where you have something as bad as the financial crisis or as Chernobyl. As someone who covers the news and is interested in how institutions work and how people work, I'm fascinated by this.

Right now as I'm speaking to you, it is March 6th and the coronavirus cases in the U.S. are north of 250 and there's a real sense in which the federal government response has been really bad. A real failure has gotten us behind the curve on the virus because of a lack of sufficient testing at scale. I fear, I hope it's not the case that we are en route to a kind of disaster here. I don't know if it is. I think we'll be fine, but things aren't great so far. So it's a particularly good time to listen to this remarkable story about a bunch of flawed humans in a flawed system. Some of them heroic, some of them less than heroic came together and caused one of the worst disasters of the last 50 years. How did you conceive of the project? Why did you want to write this book?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: I came to it in an incredibly lame way, which was that, in 2005 I was casting about for another long narrative piece to write. It was a magazine story. I was kind of start Friday. So I started thinking about the oldest trick in the book, what anniversaries are coming up?

CHRIS HAYES: That is the oldest trick in the magazine writing book.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: So it's just... I'm ashamed to admit it, but I then went to the Wikipedia calendar and it was 2005 I was looking at stories for the coming year, trying to think ahead. So I was like, "Wow, okay. So 1996 let's see what was going on in 19... No, nothing really there. 1986 disseminating." And then came to April ideas. Oh the Chernobyl. That's quite interesting.

I had recently read “A Night to Remember” the Walter Lord book about the sinking of the Titanic. When I started thinking about Chernobyl, I was like, "Well I could write a story that's just like the Walter Lord book, which I haven't read anyway, which just reconstructs the night of the accident." That's what I eventually persuaded my editors to let me do after a lot of wrangling. Because this is clearly going to be quite expensive. They agreed to fly me to Moscow and then to Kiev and to go to Chernobyl and interview eye witnesses. Almost as soon as I started talking to these people, I realized firstly that each of them had a kind of amazing story. That secondly, a lot of the stuff that I'd read in the existing literature in English about the accident either missed a lot of stuff or was wrong.

So at that point I knew that there was a book length narrative to be written about this subject. And as soon as I came back to New York, after it finished writing the magazine piece, I went to meet an agent. I didn't have a literary agent at the time. I went to meet this guy who shall remain nameless and I-

CHRIS HAYES: Who said, get out of here.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: I was filled with enthusiasm. But I recognize to be just a brilliant kind of epic story that would make a fantastic book. I was not 90 seconds into my pitch. The guys eyes began to drift over my shoulder as if I was at a cocktail party and he was trying to find someone more compelling to talk to. So that was dispiriting and at that point, I felt... It took another 10 years.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: To sell it as a book.

CHRIS HAYES: So was this just sitting there in your mind or were you doing work during those 10 years?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, this was the other thing is that I just kind of put it on the back burner and forgot about it, but the story wouldn't really leave me alone. So the next time around, anniversary came up, five years later I went and did another magazine story in the exclusions on this time about the ecology of the exclusion zone. And then when I was there at that time, I did some stupid things during the course of the reporting, exposing myself to radiation, that made me think this is a terrible place. I can remember sitting in the hotel in Chernobyl looking out the window and saying to myself, I am never coming back to this terrible place ever again. And then four years later I was like, "I don't know. There's another..." At that point I thought actually, I should probably just try and sell somebody on a book about this, because three magazine stories in 15 years is stupid.

CHRIS HAYES: I thought you were going to say that after exposing yourself to radiation, you thought yourself, well g------ it, I've got the radiation now. I better get a g------ book out of it.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It's too late now.

CHRIS HAYES: I better get a book out of it, if I'm going to be radiated in the exclusion zone.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well that may also have happened, but that was not... That did not play a part.

CHRIS HAYES: What is the exclusion zone like? Obviously we'll get into the actual accident of course, but after the accident, of course the areas evacuated and to this day there's an enormous radius of space that you can't go into called the exclusion zone. What is it? What is it like as someone who's been there?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, to begin with, because I was only going there at anniversaries. I would always go there in the dead of winter. And under those circumstances it's incredibly forbidding place because you have to go through these checkpoints to enter it. There's obviously no one around, but the place is blanketed in snow and there's just this kind of oppressive gray skies, pressing down on this flat landscape. There are these disused electricity transmission masts where the power cables long ago fell to the ground and they just kind of marching off to the horizon. Is disused bits of wrecked equipment everywhere and it looks like a proper post-apocalyptic landscape.

It was only when I was reporting the book that I went back there in late spring, early summer. And then you go there and you visit Pripyat the town, the atomgrad that was built for everybody that worked at the station and their families. It's very beautiful.

CHRIS HAYES: It's funny, in the book you described Pripyat as this kind of almost the countryside Catskill. There's a stream. There's water and there's these beautiful trees and the people that had been moved there who had... They're doing quite well in the context of the Soviet war.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: They were doing extremely well.

CHRIS HAYES: They were at the top. They had good jobs. They were living in this town where there was recreation and they could go fishing in the water. I mean, they were fishing from the water that was coming out the cooler into the reactor, if I'm not mistaken

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: But the fish loved it. The fish loved it.

CHRIS HAYES: Apparently they did. But you paint this sort of... It's so funny because it was one of the things that strikes me in the beginning of the book as you paint the picture of what Pripyat is like, it's almost weirdly idyllic.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: That's absolutely right.

CHRIS HAYES: This little universe that gets created.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. That was one of the things that make me really want to write the book was that all the other accounts that I'd read about the accident portrayed the people who are involved there and the people that lived in the city in exactly the same way. Which is this incredibly stereotypical vision of the Soviet Union. Of a nation of victims who were all sort of marching in lockstep towards this doomed socialist future. Like the first Apple commercial, wherever things monochrome, everybody's miserable. This played into this idea that these people who are victims of this terrible nuclear catastrophe, were just experiencing a different kind of daily misery. So they were citizens of the USSR whose lives were miserable and then they were made miserable in a different way after this reactor exploded.

And again, when I started actually talking to people who live there, it became clear that this wasn't true at all. I was 17 when the accident happened and a lot of these guys were in the early twenties and so really their conception of the world was not really that different from mine. They had hopes and expectations and everything that were very similar to mine. So I wanted to write a version of the story that restored agency to these people and put them in a proper context. So they weren't these stereotypical characters.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what's remarkable about the book is it is such a human story. It's an institutional story and a sort of sociopolitical story. But it's a story about a bunch of people under tremendous duress making decisions and doing things sometimes that are so blinkered. You want to shake them through the pages of the book and sometimes so heroic and selfless that it feels it's almost too courageous to be true.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Right. Many of them also had genuine human reactions that you or I might have had under the same circumstances. So there's one instance in which I was talking to this firefighter who was among the first responders who responded to the initial fire of the building on April the 26th. The Soviet propaganda version of the firefighter stories, is all the same. There you have selfless Soviet heroes, marching, fully aware of the danger that they're involved in.

Marching inevitably to their deaths, but going on just like the heroes of the second World War. I spoke to this Alexander Petrovsky and he told me the story of being told to go up and help his friends and colleagues on the roof of the reactor block, the most dangerous place. I'm getting up there and realizing that everybody else had left and it was just him and his mate and he momentarily went blind as a result of radiation exposure and just said to his colleague who he was with, let's get out of here because this is incredibly dangerous.

CHRIS HAYES: Obviously, we should not be standing over this reactor.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. You've got to be crazy. Let's get out of here. That's exactly what any real person would do. So what I found is that the more people I spoke to, the more I found... Not these, stereotypical cardboard cutout character reactions, but the reactions of people who clearly were there and had really done these things.

Sam Troughten and Paul Ritter in "Chernobyl" Season 1 on HBO.Liam Daniel / HBO

CHRIS HAYES: So Chernobyl is constructed amidst a raft of construction for nuclear power for the Soviet Union, which is a big project. One of the things that I thought was really interesting as a slice of life in the Soviet Union that struck me is the organizational structure of a country in which there's the government and the party in parallel structure on everything. But it's the party that calls the shots, fundamentally.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. Even though the government is ostensibly in charge.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. That comes across in the book. Why does Chernobyl get built and why does it get built the way it does at the moment, it does?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It gets built because they wanted to bring more electricity generation to the western part of the Soviet Union. It got built the way it did because they wanted to build nuclear power plants. But the kind of technology that was required to build the sort of nuclear power plants we have in the West pressurized water reactors was beyond their manufacturing capability. So PWR reactors are a lot safer intrinsically than the graphite reactors that they ended up building the Chernobyl, but they just couldn't build enough of them because the tooling was too complex.

So the manufacturing to cope with and indeed they did... But they were in the middle of constructing a plant that was dedicated to building these kinds of reactors, costing these globular pressure vessels that are required for the water cooler reactors. But Soviet industry and construction techniques and planning being what it was, the plant itself, the construction plant, the atom mash plant that was designed to manufacture these things itself began sinking into the swamp on which it had been inadvertently constructed. So, so even that didn't really work out.

CHRIS HAYES: So they had to abandon that and they built these alternatives-

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, they kept building, but it wasn't very effective.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. I mean the big takeaway I have from the book and it comes across also in a book I read about the challenger disaster is an incredibly banal but important point. It also relates to the 2016 election, which is that all disasters are by their nature, a concatenation of causes. Each one fairly unlikely. That's what makes a disaster, a disaster.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. It's the normalization of deviance is what the sociologists call it.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Chernobyl is one thing after another in the link of the chain that bring you to the disaster. So there's a million, not a million. There's so many different points that you could point and say, but for that, but for this decision we wouldn't have had the disaster. And then another but for, and another, but for, and another but for until you arrive at the cataclysm. The first link in the chain is the decision to build these reactors that are inherently less safe but cheaper essentially.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Right. And easier to build. Yes. And easier to scale up.

CHRIS HAYES: Why are they less safe?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: They are less safe because the inherently unstable in a way that water reactors like the PWR are not. So under certain circumstances they are susceptible to run away chain reactions, which is something that can happen inside the reactor where it simply runs out of control up to the point where it either catches fire or explodes. That you're starting at that point and then after those first principles are taken into account, they then committed a series of design decisions which added to those initial instabilities further faults.

There's a long laundry list of them, but the most frightening and most significant one in the context of the Chernobyl accident is that the control rods that were designed to be put in as an emergency shutdown mechanism whenever you wanted to shut down the reactor. Whether there was an emergency or not, or whether you just wanted to shut it down at the end of, for example, the safety test. Could, they eventually discovered for a few fractions of a second increased reactivity in the core of the reactor. When you inserted them instead of reducing it as it was intended to. It's analogist to, you're driving along the highway in a car and you stomp on the brakes because a deer leaps out in front of you, and instead of stopping the car suddenly, leaps forward and accelerates.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. That the first microsecond, the brake actually acts as the accelerator. And so if you're really close to something, you're going to smash into it. And in this case, you have these boron rods. That's the chemical. The boron is put into absorb the electrons that are bouncing around.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: To dampen the reactivity of the reactor.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, to dampen. But they have on the tip of them this graphite?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. Which facilitates fishing.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. So when you pull them all the way out, the moment when the graphite tips are coming down, that graphite is actually accelerating?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: So this design flaw is discovered at some point by the engineers who work on this.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: At the very latest by 1983, or possibly before that.

CHRIS HAYES: And what happens to that discovery?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: The engineers who discover it, communicated to their bosses in Moscow, and their bosses in Moscow say, "Yeah, don't worry, we'll take care of it." And then they don't.

CHRIS HAYES: And it's not communicated to people that this exists.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well it kind of is communicates to people, but it's done in such a way that it's sent to the nuclear safety departments of some of these power stations along with a thicket of other designed-

CHRIS HAYES: Here's a bunch of stuff.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: ... corrections and things that you should be aware of. And as with all the other design flaws of the reactor, nobody ever pointed out to the operators the significance of any one of these problems with the reactor. So yes, there's a problem with it. But this is the Soviet Union and there were design faults in everything. And so people got used to working with things that they had to devise work arounds for, or they knew that they didn't work properly. The technology was old. So this is where the normalization of deviance comes in, is because it's part of the mythos of Chernobyl, that the operators of the reactor, the trained nuclear engineers were incompetent, and didn't know what they were doing. That isn't true. These guys are extremely highly trained.

CHRIS HAYES: It's not just they're highly trained, because they're dealing with this machinery that's a little like, I had an idea, I had these flashbacks to like when you watch like a seventies' movie and someone's got an old car and they're trying to get it to start and they know the special trick of like, "Come on, come on, come on. There it goes." They're even super competent in the sense that they know how to massage and manage a not super well designed machine to get it to work.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: However, some of those tricks and work arounds were safety shortcuts and things that they knew that they probably shouldn't be doing. However, in the normalization of deviance, what happens is that you have something that is very risky and you do it and you get away with it. And so that seems fine. So it no longer seems risky. So then you do something else that's risky, but you also get away with that. And so you keep doing it, and you keep doing it, and you keep doing it. And this is exactly what happened in the challenger disaster as well.

Ultimately what happened is they got used to doing these things that the regulations said that you should not do, and these were regulations where nobody bothered pointing out the significance of each of these individual regulations. None of them said, "Do not do this under any circumstances because if you do the reactor might explode, there was no regulation written that way. So the operators of the reactor was simply required to follow all of the instructions, but at the same time they were given these ridiculous deadlines, they were given these extraordinary production quotas. So something had to give, and this was typical throughout the Soviet workplace.

So they ended up doing these things that were dangerous, and they were inured into thinking that they were lulled into a false sense of security, that they could get away with pushing this reactor around and it would take any punishment, and then one day it turned round and bit them.

CHRIS HAYES: So you've got this design that's suboptimal in terms of its safety, and then you've got this crucial design flaw, which is that the break glass moment when you are like, "Oh Jesus, everything else has gone out the window, we need to shut the reactor down." That itself can accelerate a reaction. Those two things are already in place. And then they have been putting off a safety test. They're supposed to run.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: That was supposed to be carried out when the reactor first came online at the end of 1993, so almost-

CHRIS HAYES: And they just been kicking the can down the road.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well they tried doing it previously and it hadn't worked.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, I forgot that detail. They did the safety test and it failed.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: They tried doing the... Because one of the many ironies of the story is the safety test was something that was designed to test a piece of equipment that would protect the plant against a meltdown taking place in the event of a power cut, because the station itself did not make the electricity to run its own pumps and all the electrical and keep the lights on inside the station. That's not how a power station works. It has to draw energy from the grid, electricity from the grid in order to run the fluorescent lights in the control room, and keep the pumps going.

So the safety test was designed to use a new piece of equipment that they'd installed on the turbine generators, which could use the turbine generators own inertial energy to keep the pumps going, to keep the water circulating in the reactor in the event of a massive power cut.

CHRIS HAYES: So they're testing for a black swan scenario, which is an enormous blackout happens in Ukraine.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: And you want to make sure that the reactor doesn't go down, and they have this new tool, that's part of the reactor that's going to use the spinning turbines to create some power. And they want to test that to see if it works. And they test it, it doesn't work.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: God help us if the pumps should stop working for three minutes because then we'd have a catastrophe.

CHRIS HAYES: Because you've got to keep the cool water going through a reactor or melt down.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Because it's long enough for the fuel to start melting down.

CHRIS HAYES: So they do it and it doesn't work, and so they just keep putting off when they're going to do it again.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It didn't generate enough electricity to keep the pumps going, so they needed to go back and have another go at fixing the equipment and change the voltages... And you're now reaching the end of my electrical knowledge.

CHRIS HAYES: By the way, your electrical knowledge, at least as it comes across in the book, is amazing. So you did a very good job-

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: That's very reassuring.

CHRIS HAYES: ... of... Well, I know nothing. So for this layman, I was amazingly impressed.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: No. I had a lot of help from nuclear engineers in those parts of the book, definitely. But yeah, so that was the idea. It was a safety test that was designed to protect against a blackout.

CHRIS HAYES: So on this night, the fateful night, they were going to run the safety test and they're running it at shift change. Right?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: One element of this long chain of unlikely events is that the test was supposed to be conducted in the afternoon by a totally different shifts of people. But what happened is that they were reaching the end of the month, and the way the Soviet workplace worked is that everybody had end of month production quotas, but people would show up to work by the beginning of the month, drunk or not at all, and just not really put their much effort to it really. So they would wait until the end of the month and then they'd have this, what they called stern period, when they would like storm towards their goals and everybody would work around the clock and use an enormous amount of electricity to stamp out tractor parts, or whatever it was.

CHRIS HAYES: It's basically an entire planned economy operating on the college term paper approach.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. It is.

CHRIS HAYES: Like, "Oh, it's due in two weeks. Oh, it's due in a week. Holy s---, it's doing 72 hours. I have 90 cups of coffee and I'm writing this thing."

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. And so what happened is we're approaching the end of April and then more than that, you've got the Mayday holidays coming immediately after the 26th of April. So the grid controller from the central grid in Kiev refuses to give them permission to conduct the test because it requires, the test requires them to take the reactor offline.

CHRIS HAYES: And he's like, "We can't spare the power. We got canning factories that had to hit their quota."

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. So the grid controller says, "You can't conduct this test until later today, nine o'clock at the earliest." And then that kicks the test back into the night shift, and the night shift are not the group of operators in the control room who've been preparing to do this test.

CHRIS HAYES: So there's a day shift that thought that when they went to work that day, they were doing the test?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: But instead what happens is a night shift shows up, and it is sprung upon them. That they're going to do the test.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: Again, normalization of deviance. We've gone through a bunch of the chains, so then they start to do the test. What's, I forget the name of the engineer who's the one driving them to do the test that day.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Dyatlov.

CHRIS HAYES: Dyatlov, who becomes one of the villains in the internal Soviet propaganda about what went wrong?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes, he does. And in the TV show where he's portrayed-

CHRIS HAYES: In the TV show he's the most villainous. He's the one with like the thin mustache who's chainsmoking, right?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. Well, it's funny you mentioned the mustache, because I kept thinking that he was going to nip out of the control room at some point to sell wax in the ends of it, put on a stove by path and tie a woman to the railroad tracks.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. He is the only one in the whole thing that has that like cartoonishly villainous vibe.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes, maybe, yes, but definitely.

CHRIS HAYES: But maybe some others, but he's the most monochromatic in that film, but Dyatlov is the guy who it's his control room.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, he's running the test. Yes, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: And he's got, I mean God, the human drama here of just like, it's... So he's got some engineer who's sitting there.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Two engineers.

CHRIS HAYES: Two engineers and these guys you talk about them in the book, and again do this amazing job of opening up their inner lives, like they're sitting on top of the world. They're 24, 25, they're engineers and they've got these plum a-- jobs. And they got their own apartments, which is not a thing that most people were-

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Absolutely, no.

CHRIS HAYES: ... in the Soviet Union have. They've got this sweet job, they're young men on the make, living in this idyllic town and they're going to sit at this reactor with their boss over their shoulder and run this test.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: And they don't really want to do it because they think that the circumstances are not optimum, but he insists.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. This is one of those moments of real human drama. I kept thinking about it as I was reading it. It's portrayed in the series too, but as I was reading the book about, it's an imperfect analogy, but of course like the Nuremberg standard, about following an illegal order which is a highest level at which a person has the courage or fortitude or ability to say no, to someone above you who's telling you to do something. In the case of Nuremberg obviously like commit a moral atrocity. In this case it's like, "Eh, this seems a little risky." But it's that question of, "Can you stand up to the boss?"

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, the other thing to bear in mind is that the... And again this goes back to some of the mythos of the story, is that previously Dyatlov has been portrayed as someone who didn't necessarily really know what he was doing, and didn't really understand how those reactors worked. But that's not true at all. He was regarded as an absolute expert because he was, he was a pure physicist who'd had decades of experience working with nuclear reactors. And so the younger members of the staff may not have liked him. In fact, many people-

CHRIS HAYES: But they respected him.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: ... detested him, but yes, they respected him, and they respected his opinion. And so if Dyatlov said it was okay to do something, then whatever misgivings you had, you might well think that you should just do it because he was right. And also part of what we're leaving out here is that the reactor had folded into an unstable state partly because these guys made a mistake. Leonid Telyatnikov made a mistake when he first got to the desk. So the rector began losing power and reached a point where all of the regulations said that you should just shut it down, and that would be the end of it. There would be no test. It was due for maintenance, the reactor would be shut down and it will be offline for a month or six weeks while the work was done on it for the maintenance. And then they could do the test and another couple of years, which was absolutely what Dyatlov did not want to have happen.

So it wasn't as if they were blamelessly sitting there and say, "This is, Comrade Dyatlov you put reactor in a state that we think it is unwise to proceed with the test." They themselves, Toptunove himself had overseen this mistake.

CHRIS HAYES: So they start to do the test and as they're moving through the test, they're essentially losing control of the reactor.

A view of the abandoned city of Pripyat is seen near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine April 22. For residents of Chernobyl, a three-day evacuation turned into a thirty-year exile. On the morning of April 26, 1986, no one could yet tell that a meltdown in reactor 4 of the nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine was poisoning the air with so much deadly radioactivity that it would become the world's worst nuclear accident. Now, as some survivors returned to their hometown of Pripyat on the eve of the anniversary, memories of confusion and sacrifice abound.GLEB GARANICH / Reuters

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes they are, but they're not really aware of the extent to which they're losing control of the rector because things are happening. Part of the reason for the instability of this modal reactor, the RBMK, is that it's absolutely massive. It's 20 times by volume larger than the reactors that were being built in the West at that time. And this means that inside it, one of the nuclear engineers who worked with them described as resulting in series of hot and cold spots inside the reactor core, as if it was a giant apartment building where in one apartment somebody was celebrating a wedding, and then across the hall somebody was celebrating or marking a funeral.

So what was happening deep inside the reactor, quite often, they couldn't be quite certain of. So they're aware that things were not optimal, but they didn't realize how not optimal they were. They run the test and the test takes 36 seconds and at the end of the test they say, "Okay, the test is complete, let's shut the rat down." And the mechanism for shutting the reactor down is to press the AZ-5 emergency shut down button, that's what you do to shut the reactor down. And so these emergency control rods begin descending into the reactor. But what has happened is that there is already a runaway reaction building inside the bottom of the core of the reactor, and there is no instrumentation indicating that this is happening. So there's no panic.

I think probably, again this is the mythic version of the accident, and I think probably what's portrayed in the TV show, although I can't remember, is that it's this extremely dramatic China Syndrome style moment where-

CHRIS HAYES: Right, where it's getting worse and worse and worse.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Where there's all these alarms going off and the reactor's clearly running out of control and somebody screams, "Press the emergency shutdown button." And then somebody leaps across the control room and slams the hand on the button, and then a massive explosion ensues. But actually what happened as I discovered during my reporting is what to me seemed much worse than that, which is that nobody's talking, everything's calm. Akimov says, "Shut, the reactor, the test is complete. Shut the reactor down." AZ-5, so he presses the button. And he presses the button, and then after that happens suddenly all these warning buzzers and annunciator alarms begin going off and then the light. What? But at that point, there's nothing else they can do. They're powerless to stop whatever is happening happening.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Because they've hit the kill switch.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: There's no other kill switch.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: So then the explosion happens.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: And one of the things that's so striking is that people can't make sense how long it takes to make sense of what has happened. To conceive of what's happened. It's like you have this incredibly complex system that has been derailed through a series of incredibly complex steps that have brought you to this place, and now you're faced with something that is a mystery to you, that you can't figure out.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It's something that nobody really thought was possible. I would be interested to know how common this is in this context of a massive cataclysm like this, where I think people just experienced some psychological break, which is certainly what happened with individuals who were involved in this one, which is that despite the fact that they can see what's happened with their own eyes, their brains refused to process it because it's so far outside their realm of experience expectations, and they don't want it to have happened.

And I think that's what happens. So for ours, Viktor Bryukhanov, the director of the station is simply denying that what has happened has happened. And indeed there's one case of the leader of the nuclear emergencies response team who flies down from Moscow who the following afternoon is flying over the reactor building in a helicopter and looks down into the reactor building. And he can see that the top of the reactor has been torn away by this massive explosion. But he wrote in his memoirs that even then he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He had to force himself to comprehend what his eyes told him he was seeing.

CHRIS HAYES: So that's the kind of key moment there. And I want to talk about what happens after the disaster next. What is the aftermath like in those first 24 hours? 48, 72 hours?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, I mean the first responders from the fire stations near the plant and the operators from within the plant are the people who bear the brunt of what happens. So these people are people who take enormous exposure to radiation or are exposed to scolding radioactive steam. And the people who deal with most of the problems are the operators inside the reactor building, not the firefighters. The firefighters are dealing with what's happening outside. But the guys who really are exposing themselves to extraordinary danger and knowingly so are the people who work inside the plant, they're the ones who become very gravely injured. And it's not until probably six or seven in the morning that the authorities say, actually, you know what? Let's not send any more people in to try and deal with this.

CHRIS HAYES: How does it make its way up the chain of the Soviet bureaucracy?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: That's a very complicated question.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a very complicated question because it gets to this question of how, it gets to a broader sociological and philosophical question about how states manage disasters, particularly how a closed state, right, that manages a disaster, which is particularly I think germane right now with China and coronavirus.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: And the United States. Yeah, you're right. But what happens initially is that this sort of on one hand denial of reality and on the other hand, genuine uncertainty about what has happened plays into the way information goes up the chain. Because Bryukhanov is told to file a report about what has happened.

CHRIS HAYES: He's the plant director.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: The plant director. And he delivers this report which simply reports that everything's under control really. And they take radiation readings and there are radiation readings taken by the plant's head of civil defense who uses a military radiometer and is absolutely terrified by the readings that he sees. But every time he comes back to Bryukhanov to tell him that there are these extraordinary radiation fields around the plant and indeed right outside the entrance to the bunker where they're all sitting and making these telephone calls, Bryukhanov tells him that his instrument must be broken and shut up, go away, leave me alone.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: I have plant dosimetrist, he will go and take reliable readings. He is an expert, a man who knows what he's doing. This guy goes off and comes back and tells Bryukhanov what he wants to hear. He's held him that the readings are high, but within the realms of reasonable tolerance for a nuclear accident at a nuclear power plant and that we don't need to be that worried. But what he doesn't say to Bryukhanov and what Bryukhanov doesn't put in his report when he reports these figures is that the figures that he gives him are the maximum readings for the equipment that he's using to do his measurements with.

CHRIS HAYES: So just to be clear, he's got a scale, let's say goes one to 10 and he's coming back and saying it's a 10.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: And Vorobyov, the civil defense guy has a military radiometer, which goes up to like 200 roentgens. And his instrument is also maxing out, but Bryukhanov insists that that one is broken. Whereas the one that goes up to ten is telling us that the reading is 10. So he puts this in the report and then this report goes to Moscow. And to be fair to the Soviet accident response, they've already got people coming down from Moscow. Early in the morning they're flying down to go and find out what's going on and organize the response. But at the same time, this single sheet report by Bryukhanov is wending its way through the Soviet bureaucracy in Moscow. And ultimately, later that afternoon finds its way onto Gorbachev's desk. But what Bryukhanov report says, if you're in the Soviet Union, this is just sort of par for the course industrial accident. Stuff burns down, planes crash.

CHRIS HAYES: We blew out a tire.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes, exactly. A people have a couple of people are missing, there are definitely radiological injuries, but it's under control.

CHRIS HAYES: You just said something that to me gets at the kind of core question about this, about both the cause and then the response, right? Which is how much is this a product of the distinctness of the system that produced it and how much is it a thing that happens in complex systems and bureaucracies? I feel like, I mean, I guess it's a little bit of both, but there's some kind of way in which we've come to understand it as a particular disaster born of the failures of Soviet communism.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, I would say that that is exactly what it is. It's hard to imagine this accident happening in any other political system. I think it was a uniquely Soviet disaster. Because as you say, you've called all of these elements of the disaster that have been building for years, if not decades before it actually happens. And the bureaucracy and specifically the parallel system of government you're taught, you talked about earlier about having the government and the party just making a mess of everything at every step. Those things are what made the accident happen in the way that it did. And certainly it's hard to imagine the kind of denial and reluctance to admit bad news, which is something that's central to the way the Soviet system worked happening anywhere else.

CHRIS HAYES: What was the cost of that denial?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It was denial really combined with confusion that meant that they didn't immediately respond in the way that they could have done, which resulted in people being sent into dangerous areas unnecessarily and then delaying the evacuation of Pripyat of the atom grad which is only three kilometers away from the plant because they didn't want to admit to the wider world what was going on. I mean after that, I think the denial becomes less corrosive, but what happened in the first 36 and 48 hours is definitely all a result of that.

CHRIS HAYES: What is the scale of the deaths that result from it? It's sort of hard. It's amazing how hard it is to pinpoint that number.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It is hard to pinpoint that number because firstly they covered up, the Soviets covered up a lot of medical information that they gathered around the accident. And it's complicated by the fact that the epidemiology of radiation exposure is extremely complex. So even if you had the data, it would be quite hard to figure it out because there aren't really, with the exception of thyroid cancer, which we can speak about in very specific terms and it's very specific numbers, it's very hard to connect radiation exposure directly to any given cancer, particularly given the extremely high background rate of cancer in the general population. So the signal from noise is very difficult to pick out. But what I would say is that this is a question that's often raised about Chernobyl, but I think that it's, I mean, it's not unimportant but I think that it's kind of missing the point because what's undeniable is that tens of thousands of people's health was ruined by radiation exposure. By the results of this accident. Hundreds of thousands of people's lives were uprooted and turned around. We're never the same again as a result of what happened.

And so we don't know whether, I mean the best estimates are really of around 10,000 deaths, estimated deaths that may happen over the course of 25 years as a result of radiation exposure caused by this accident. But then you're talking about that in a population of 5 million people in the worst effected areas, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Ruffner Republic. So 10,000 people out of 5 million, you can see that statistically this is extremely hard to pick out. But my point really is that to focus on the deaths, which people are understandably interested in, is sort of missing the point because it's undeniable that there were many, many, many people whose lives never recovered from this. And they became sick and they suffered from different cancers, different illnesses that may or may not be linked directly to radiation, but are definitely linked to the accident in some way.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a profound moment of trauma and disruption for the entire society.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. And remains so to this day.

CHRIS HAYES: Does it?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Certainly in Ukraine. Yeah. And Belarus I think.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. It gave me a sense of that because when you're in the world of it, here's Ukraine, part of the Soviet Union, it's like going from Texas to Oklahoma, but now that's not the case. And in fact, that's quite a contested thing. And then when you think about, right, so the history here, which is already a loaded history before Chernobyl, obviously between the Russians and Ukrainians, there's this very recent insane trauma of the Russian Soviet government administering a system that created this disaster in the midst of Ukraine.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Although, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl was used as a political weapon by Yeltsin as an anti-Soviet device. Which is partly why a lot of the documents that were released that were declassified about this accident in the first place came out because Yeltsin wanted to use the way in which the Soviet state had failed in its duty of care to the population as evidence in putting the communist party on trial. And so these documents were released as part of that effort. So initially it was an anti-Soviet thing. Now it's the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which as you say, has a long, long history. This is simply one part of that.

CHRIS HAYES: Right now there's the coronavirus news, and there's a famous book by an academic called James Scott called "Seeing Like A State," which is about the ways states marshal information, what they see and what they don't see. And there's a recent piece by this academic Zeynep Tufekci in the Atlantic about coronavirus in China, where she kind of makes the argument that this is kind of China's Chernobyl in some ways, that the blind spots of the system and the bureaucracy were what allowed the disease to spread in that society before they could essentially, in some ways, confront their own denial about what was happening. And she basically makes the argument that transparency and free flow of information is the fundamental means by which you deal with disaster. What do you think of that?

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: I mean, I've thought about the coronavirus in this context, because actually somebody else to write a similar piece about whether or not this was China's Chernobyl. And the interesting thing about what happened in the Soviet Union is that the way in which Chernobyl contributed to the Soviet collapse was partly due to transparency that Gorbachev introduced in the aftermath of the accident. So although there was growing distrust, there was existing distrust of official information and growing distrust of the state as a result of the accident, it was only after he opened the zone for more open and honest reporting that people got a real glimpse of exactly how badly they'd been misled about what had happened. So I think that's one of the things that makes what's going on in China quite different from the Soviet scenario because Gorbachev kind of voluntarily let the blue touch paper in the Chernobyl case.

CHRIS HAYES: Because he, after Chernobyl, pushed for some transparency.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes, exactly. And I think in the initial liquidation, the cleanup and the disaster response, the Soviet state actually made things possible in disaster response that would not have been possible in a democracy because it was only because of the fact that it was this enormous plan centralized economy that they were able to deliver all of the lead ingots in the Western Soviet Union to Chernobyl in less than 24 hours. I mean, you wouldn't be able to do that in the United States because you'd have individual business managers saying, "I'm not going to do that until you pay me". But they were able to marshal these enormous resources very, very quickly because of the centralized state. And so, obviously-

CHRIS HAYES: There's a parallel there in China because in some ways, what has happened in China is that the initial part I think of the virus spreading and them being slow to deal with it is born of the repressiveness of the regime, but also the insane quarantine, the lock down that they have put on parts of Wuhan and other parts in the country is you could only really do in a state like China.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Right. But I think that the core similarity is the same bargain that the Soviet people struck with the communist party, that the people of China have struck with the communist party there. Which is, yes, I recognize that I live in a repressive regime, but in exchange for this loss of freedom, you, the state will provide for me and keep me safe. And what happened in Chernobyl is that they realized that this bargain had been broken a long time ago and that seems to be a similar thing that's happening in China now.

CHRIS HAYES: Adam Higginbotham is the author of "Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story Of The World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster." It is, as I probably said in the introduction, a genuine masterpiece of nonfiction writing. It's an exquisite book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Adam, thank you so much.

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again my great thanks to Adam Higginbotham. He's an author and writer for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ and The Smithsonian. The book is called “Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story Of The World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster.” You should definitely check it out. It's a fantastic book and a very good read. As always, we'd love to hear your feedback. You can tweet us at the #WITHpod, email us, WITHpod@gmail.com.

“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC news produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

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"Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster," by Adam Higginbotham

"Seeing Like a State," by James C. Scott

“How the Coronavirus Revealed Authoritarianism’s Fatal Flaw,” by Zeynep Tufekci