CHERNOBYL debuted as a much-watched HBO miniseries in the Spring of 2019, less than a year before covid changed our world. But now, with war raging in Ukraine, Chernobyl is once again a topic. Russian forces took control of the nuclear power station hours after invading the country. Although the plant is no longer in operation, it still requires constant management to keep water circulating through the nuclear reactors still on site.
Chernobyl, the April 1986 explosion of Reactor 4, was the worst nuclear accident in history. Chernobyl is a docudrama, not a documentary, but it stays true to most key facts, particularly about the accident itself, even though it sometimes errs for dramatic effect. There’s much to learn here and much to ponder.
The five-part series begins somewhat slowly—two years after the explosion.
Valery Legasov sits at a table in a drab apartment in Moscow, speaking into a tape recorder. “What is the cost of lies?” he says. “If we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.” When he’s done recording, he packs up his tapes and goes out into the night to drop them in a depository on the side of a building. Walking home, he notices a man in a car tracking his movements, but he returns safely to his apartment–and kills himself.
The story rewinds. It’s two years earlier, and the action accelerates quickly.
Professor Legasov (Jared Harris), who is a member of the Academy of Sciences, learns about the explosion at the nuclear plant when he gets a call from the Kremlin and is told to report to the Central Committee right away. Meanwhile, at an emergency meeting in Pripyat, the town closest to the plant, an elder member of the governing council says they must seal off the town. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation.”
Containing the spread of misinformation—in this case, the truth—is also foremost on the minds of the Central Committee. Legasov is told by his Soviet handler, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), “A global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.” It’s clear that efforts are underway to downplay the incident. In the Committee meeting, Gorbachev sits at the head of the table and is assured that everything is under control. Clearly everything is not under control, and Valery tries to make this as clear as possible under difficult circumstances. Boris and Valery then board a helicopter to Chernobyl to begin damage control.
Meanwhile, no thanks to a north-blowing wind, radioactive particles have reached neighboring Belarus—twelve miles away. In Minsk, Nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is at work at the Institute of Nuclear Energy when an alarm alerts her to a problem. She tries to tell the Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party about the radioactive threat, but he’s been assured by higher-ups there’s no problem.
Valery, Boris and Ulana work separately and together, often clashing, as they uncover what caused the explosion and decide how to contain it and how much to reveal of the truth.
The facts are these: During a planned test of Reactor 4, mistakes were made by the inadequately trained plant technicians which caused the core to overheat and explode. A radioactive cloud was released, and a fire burned for ten days before it was brought under control. The Soviet Union did not sound the alarm to the European community. It was Sweden that was first to report high levels of radiation in the atmosphere.
Technician error aside, the Soviet-designed nuclear reactors were inherently flawed—and the Soviets knew this years before the accident. One plant operator was killed outright in the explosion, but his body was never recovered. The firemen who arrived on the scene suffered greatly. They arrived to put out a fire, not a nuclear explosion, and their protective gear wasn’t up to the task. Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) is a horrible way to die. Six firemen succumbed within two weeks and approximately thirty people died from radiation exposure in the first three months. The town of Pripyat had to be evacuated; later other residents within the contaminated “Exclusion Zone” were told to move. Pets and farm animals were left behind and later killed because of the threat they posed. (In fact, farm animals that grazed on contaminated land continued to pass on radioactive materials through their meat and milk.) One of the major health problems longer-term was an increase in thyroid cancer–thousands of cases.
The making of the miniseries was inspired by the book Voices from Chernobyl by the Belarusian journalist and historian Svetlana Alexievich. (She won a Nobel Prize in 2015 for her body of work.) First published in Russian in 1997 and in English in 2005, it gave survivors the chance to tell their personal stories. Because the Soviets shared as little as possible about the accident with their own people, Alexievich has said it was her easiest book to research. None of the people who lived in the area knew how they were supposed to talk about it. So they opened up to her and told what they knew.
Chernobyl today. Russian troops took control of the power station in the early hours of February 24th. They kept the crew working at gunpoint for 500+ hours straight before allowing in some replacements. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported, “Every morning at 9, the national anthem, “Ukraine has not yet Perished,” blares through the loudspeaker. The Ukranian workers stand, palms pressed to their chests, then return to work.” There’s more recent reporting through Reuters that Russian troops are moving heavy equipment through the “Exclusion Zone,” where all men should fear to tread.
How do we know this? Good journalism. Reporters doing their jobs at great personal risk. At least five journalists have died in Ukraine, three while working for U.S. media. Meanwhile Putin shouts “fake news” and tells his people he’s not waging war, he’s conducting a special military operation to denazify Ukraine. To convince Russians of this ‘truth,’ he shut down all independent media and threatened prison sentences for up to fifteen years for anyone spreading lies about the ‘fake’ war.
The truth? Democracies can’t survive without journalists who are free to report the facts. The fiction? Putin and other authoritarian-type figures shouting “fake news” about the truth.