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Serhii Plokhy

The Baillie Gifford Prize Lecture: Chernobyl, History of a Tragedy

Hay Festival 2019 , 

On the morning of 26 April 1986 Europe witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history: the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine. In the end, less than five per cent of the reactor’s fuel escaped, but that was enough to contaminate over half of Europe with radioactive fallout. Plokhy’s Baillie Gifford Prize-winning account recreates these events in all of their drama, telling the stories of the fire-fighters, scientists, engineers, workers, soldiers and policemen who found themselves caught in a nuclear Armageddon and succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible: extinguishing the nuclear inferno and putting the reactor to sleep. While it is clear that the immediate cause of the accident was a turbine test gone wrong, Plokhy shows how the deeper roots of Chernobyl lay in the nature of the Soviet political system and the flaws of its nuclear industry. Plokhy is Professor of History at Harvard University and a leading authority on Eastern Europe. Chaired by Nik Gowing.