April 26, 1986.
I’ve just finished the five-part HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” (2019), a powerful depiction of the events and aftermath of the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen (a ranking which includes the horrific Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011). Interestingly, the miniseries isn’t necessarily a statement against nuclear power. In fact, the real-life Soviet nuclear physicist investigating the disaster, Valery Legasov (played by “Mad Men” costar Jared Harris) describes the inner workings of a functional nuclear power planet as an elegant ‘dance’ between the tremendous energy and its control rod ‘brakes’. The miniseries is more about the danger of denying facts, evidence and even reality.
The facts surrounding the events of the Chernobyl nuclear power disaster of the early morning hours of Saturday, April 26th, 1986 are readily available on the internet today. Of course, it wasn’t so at the time (the internet didn’t as yet exist). Soviet officials had a strict policy of minimizing the dangers of what had happened, even knowing the cost in human lives. I still remember a Soviet official on ABC News (a few days after the disaster) saying that one of the reasons the world wasn’t informed about the initial explosion was that weekends were considered holidays, and that it’s impolite to ruin one’s weekend with bad news. I kid you not.
The disaster itself was, in short, due to a mix of gross incompetence, negligence, inexperience and a fatal flaw with graphite-tipped control rods in the plant itself. It was precipitated by a long delayed power-down test that goes horribly wrong. A buildup of xenon in the core, as well as lowered steam production to the turbines, leads to a runaway energy release which blows the core (and roof) off of the recently constructed reactor number four. Radioactive graphite from the core itself was blown over a mile into the air, and left the core exposed to the atmosphere for months before human beings could even approach it, let alone attempt to contain or cover it. Radiation from the disaster (as I personally remember via newscasts at the time) was immediately detected as far away as Sweden; and some of it eventually reached North American shores.
I watched many news broadcasts at the time of the disaster (I was 19), but I’d never seen the horrors of it as intimately depicted as they are in this miniseries.
The miniseries, written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, is primarily seen through the eyes of a handful of characters; two real-life men involved in investigating the disaster, a Soviet party official named Shcherbina (Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard) and the aforementioned Legasov (“Mad Men” veteran Jared Harris) as well as one admittedly fictional character named Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear scientist who essentially acts as the conscience and sounding board for the real-life players involved in the disaster.
Khomyuk is often ignored, even arrested, but ultimately she helps the two men do the right thing, even at the costs of their futures and reputations within the Soviet Union. She represents the muffled conscience of those who saw the horrors but were stymied against taking action.
There are many side stories, one of which involves a fatally irradiated firefighter’s wife, Ludmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), who compromises both her safety and her unborn child’s by violating quarantine and having contact with her dying husband.
We also see a group of miners who are recruited for the life-shortening duty of trying to tunnel under the reactor and prevent radioactive material from seeping into the groundwater. The understandably cynical men are eventually told the truth of their situation; the work they’re being ordered to do is quite possibly fatal. As black-lung miners, many of them grimly accept what has to be done, especially after being handed their reality checks. Better to die accepting reality than to die a fool’s death.
In episode 4 we see a group of soldiers and volunteers (most of them Afghanistan war veterans) who are given an ugly detail (months after the disaster) of going into the abandoned woods and villages surrounding the plant to kill any animals that they see. The abandoned animals are walking radioactive contaminants now, and must be killed, collected and buried in impromptu cement graves.
The final episode is the Soviet mandated show-trial, where the power plant managers are (rightfully) held liable, but in a surprise twist, the ‘inconvenient truth’ comes out regarding the fatal flaw in all Soviet RBMK-type reactors… the graphite-tipped control rods, which act as the ‘brakes’ of the nuclear reactor itself.
Legasov makes an impassioned case for the redesign of the other 16 RBMK reactors still in use (which is eventually done, at a cost of billions), but he is now persona non grata within the Soviet Union. The miniseries begins with Legasov’s suicide exactly two years after the disaster, but not before he makes tapes detailing the truth of the Chernobyl disaster. Legasov, trailed by Soviet KGB, manages to clandestinely leak the tapes to free media before his suicide.
Legasov’s Soviet initially skeptical overseer Shcherbina, who eventually becomes his staunchest ally, is later diagnosed with a deadly cancer and has a year to live. The cancer is, of course, a direct result of his months-long investigation near the Chernobyl plant. Even though he and Legasov lived to tell their respective truths, the truth also killed them both…either physically or through conscience. The truth made it, even if the men couldn’t.
The “Chernobyl” miniseries is the stuff of nightmares. The color desaturation gives the entire series a grim, ugly pallor which aids in telling this very ugly story. Multiple vistas depicting radioactive fire and smoke spewing unchecked through the blown rooftop into the gray sky look like an industrial vision of Hell. To those who lived it, I’m sure it most certainly was Hell. Even interior scenes are often dimly lit by unflattering, greenish-gray fluorescent tints.
While the miniseries graphically depicts many burned firemen and other ‘survivors’ being overcome with radiation sickness (including Ludmilla’s husband), I had just as hard a time seeing healthy young men walking into an unseen but overpowering danger… their loudly clicking Geiger counters being deliberately ignored. Even worse was the sight of little children playing on a bridge near the plant with the highly radioactive fire, giving the air an unnatural glow, off in the distance.
Three plant workers, wearing nearly useless protective garb, are given the near-suicidal task of shutting down water valves deep under the reactor. The men struggle to find the valves in the dark, with dim flashlights and loudly clicking Geiger counters. It’s as though the darkness itself is trying to kill them.
Legasov and other scientists recruit several unused Soviet lunar robotic “Lunakhod” rovers and a West German police robot (there were two Germanys in those days) in a desperate attempt to push highly radioactive debris off of the reactor roof and back into the still-exposed core below. The rovers fail, and eventually ‘bio-robots’ (human workers) have to be recruited to continue the work in 90-second shifts (any longer causes immediate debilitating radiation sickness). Even with lead-lined protective gear, many of the men understand that their lives are being shortened… all for a ‘bonus’ of 800 rubles apiece. As the men work, we hear continuously clicking Geiger counters sounding like an electrical scream as their bodies are bathed in 12,000 roentgens of radioactivity.
This is the first drama I’ve seen on television in many years that literally haunted my dreams afterward.
Legacy of Lies.
Like 1983’s “The Day After”, a 3 hour TV event that showed the horror and futility of nuclear war, I hope “Chernobyl” can send an equally powerful message to this generation. “Chernobyl”, as I wrote earlier, speaks to the dangers of denying science and even reality itself, which was often done under the now-defunct Soviet Union. Such denial is now threatening the current United States (and our planet) with the equally ‘invisible’ but no less urgent threat known as climate change.
Most jarring to me about “Chernobyl” was how much the Soviet party apparatchiks’ desperate attempts at minimizing the dangers of the disaster sounded very much like certain members of US leadership trying to debunk the dangers of climate change. I still remember hearing those ridiculous Soviet spokesperson denials about Chernobyl’s danger on TV many years ago, and this miniseries reiterates them as a stern warning for the here and now.
Soviet officials (and hapless firemen) couldn’t see radiation, hence they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) grasp the severity of the danger it posed. In February of 2015, US senator James Inhofe held a single snowball in his hands as ‘proof’ that climate change is just a lot of hooey, willfully choosing to ignore a 40-year motherlode of scientific data & evidence to the contrary. This common populist ‘argument’ against climate change is due to the deliberate muddying of weather with climate. Weather is momentary, climate is long-term. Yes, we can still have rain, snow and cold weather during climate change, but longterm evidence shows that our planet is warming up, fast. ‘Storms-of-the-century’ are now happening several times a year due to rapid heating of the oceans. Climate change is a Chernobyl disaster on a global scale. Without the radiation, yes, but no less deadly.
The US president has now withdrawn the United States from the international Paris Climate Accords. For context, even the North Korean regime led by Kim Jong Un has signed those accords. The accords are not legally binding, granted, but they are a step towards at least acknowledging the danger. 33 years after Chernobyl, we’re in danger of becoming the world’s new Soviet Union… a nation so prideful in its dependence on fossil fuels that it the very thought of changing that status quo is anathema. Lies become preferable to dealing with hard facts. Pro-environmental arguments are frequently ridiculed and denounced as liberal ‘tree-hugger’ propaganda, often by leadership with heavy interests in maintaining fossil fuel dependency. False Soviet pride in its nuclear supremacy helped create the Chernobyl disaster. Continued US denial of humanity’s role in climate change will lead to global catastrophe.
There are many hard lessons to be gleaned from HBO’s miniseries of “Chernobyl”; the prime of which is that denying reality can be fatal. “Chernobyl” is not an easy watch, but it’s a very important one.