A Compelling Chronicle of Complete Chaos and Catastrophe
IN 1986, A FEW MONTHS AFTER THE CHALLENGER TRAGEDY, ON APRIL 26, THE MUCH LARGER CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR POWER plant incident took place roughly 5,000 miles away from Chicago in the heart of the Soviet Union. Yet, I barely noticed.
I heard about Chernobyl, but it seemed inconsequential to me at the time because it happened so far away, and I didn’t realize (or maybe I couldn’t comprehend at the time) how big this event really was. Without social media, international news really didn’t go viral on playgrounds in those days; only the flu did.
The events that night—an unprecedented accident that likely led to thousands of deaths even though the official death toll has stayed stagnant at 31 for years—most likely changed the course of history. It could have been even worse and affected thousands more people if scientists didn’t step in quickly to devise a plan. After all, there were three other reactors at Chernobyl and a total of 16 throughout the USSR that had the same design flaws. They have since been retrofitted for safety reasons.
It never dawned on me to ask, “Why did Chernobyl happen?” But I’m glad that Craig Mazin did. Mazin, of course, is the writer of the excellent five-part HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” that debuted in May 2019.
It’s a wonderful, captivating series that is not to be missed, especially by anyone who takes safety best practices seriously. While I can’t personally speak to the veracity of the content in the series, from what I’ve read, the story and the science appear to be on point even though there will always be unknowns when it comes to Chernobyl.
Slava Malamud, a U.S.-based journalist and math teacher who lived in the Soviet Union at the time of the accident wrote in the online Russian newspaper Meduza: “When I watched ‘Chernobyl’—and 1986 was a very memorable year for me, and I recall all these events very well—I was shocked by how little there was to find fault with.” Additionally, Mazin, himself, told Vice, which had a partnership with HBO that ended soon after “Chernobyl” debuted: “We had a general standing philosophy from the beginning, which was: Accuracy is everything to us.”
On the other hand, in a New Yorker essay titled “What HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong,” the author, Masha Gessen, a journalist who has written extensively on Russia, said: “Herein lies one of the series’ biggest flaws: its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power.” I won’t argue that point, but I don’t believe that should prevent anyone from watching and learning about the extraordinary incident presented in this exceptional film.
Are there liberties taken? Of course, but for purpose. The character of Ulna Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist, for instance, is not a real person but was added to the story to represent the scientists working in the Soviet Union at the time who helped investigate Chernobyl—“to honor their dedication and service to truth and humanity,” as the films states. Otherwise, you would have a host of additional characters that would unnecessarily complexify what is already a multifaceted storyline.
Khomyuk plays a key role in challenging the protagonist of our story, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), the real-life professor who was brought in to lead the scientific investigation and help supervise the crisis management after the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant (Chernobyl) Reactor 4 exploded during a safety test no less. While Legasov was resolved to lie to the world about what caused the incident based on what Soviet authorities wanted the world to know, Khomyuk challenges Legasov to tell the truth during the trial for the three people accused of causing the accident—and he does. “The testimony in Vienna was a lie,” Legasov says at the hearing. “I lied to the world. I was not the only one who kept the secrets. There were many. We were following orders.”
At the trial, Legasov explains that, while the three on trial were far from innocent, the real cause of the incident was inexperience, gross negligence, cost-cutting and design flaws. The shutdown button, which was meant to ensure the safety of the nuclear plant, actually acted as a “detonator” unbeknownst to the people performing the test, because it was cheaper to do it that way. Also, as we see so often in incident investigations, siloed information was also to blame, and, in this case, you can add intentional misinformation as a caveat.
The series opens exactly two years after the Chernobyl disaster. We’re shown Legasov’s apartment. We see a cat, a clock, a simple kitchen through a doorway; it’s a doorway into Legasov’s world really. As is prevalent throughout the film, there’s a cigarette and vodka nearby. Legasov is sitting at a table listening to his recollection of the events: “What is the cost of lies?” we hear him say. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories. In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is who is to blame. In this story it was Anatoly Dyatlov. He was the best choice. An arrogant and unpleasant man. He ran the room that night. He gave the orders. And no friends, at least not important ones. … There were far greater criminals than him at work.”
As he starts recording again, Legasov goes on to say, “There was nothing sane about Chernobyl,” and he’s right.
It was a preventable disaster that will continue to haunt the area for centuries to come. (Scientists have estimated that the area will be uninhabitable for anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 years, so the fact that the area has become somewhat of a tourist destination with plans to become even more touristy following the release of this film is hard to fathom. As we see near the end of the movie, the first responders’ clothing that was removed at the time and has remained in the basement of the former Pripyat Hospital for more than 30 years is still highly radioactive.)
Shortly after Legasov is done recording, we see him pop out the cassette, which we learn is No. 6 in the series, and wrap it and the five other tapes neatly in a newspaper bundle. Knowing he’s being watched, he puts the cassettes in a trash bin and heads out to dump the “waste.” He shrewdly pretends to dump all the contents out, but instead takes the tapes a few feet further and hides them behind a vent cover before throwing the real trash away. It’s an interesting dynamic really as if to say: The truth behind the accident should not be hidden but in this case there is a literal hidden truth stored away with the concealed tapes.
A heavy sigh, some extra food for the cat, a couple of more puffs on a cigarette and Legasov is dead. A suicide. The bloody handkerchief next to the tape recorder tells us he probably wouldn’t have had long to live anyway. Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), a known and assigned statesman of the Soviet Union who worked with Legasov throughout the investigation, died in 1990 likely from radiation illness.
When Legasov reappears in the film near the end of the first episode—woken by a telephone hours after the explosion—we realize how much younger he looks from what we saw in the opening sequence.
The cause of the accident is, not surprisingly, complex, but it is explained very well in the film even for a lay audience. We won’t attempt to simplify things even further for this review, but it is good to know that Chernobyl did lead to change and incident management to prevent another similar disaster. The one thing we will say is that graphite played a huge role.
Near the 20th anniversary of the incident, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who is portrayed in the movie by David Dencik, even wrote for Project Syndicate: “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.” Perestroika was a movement in the USSR to reform the Communist Party through economic and political means.
Safety Sacrificed (Spoilers Ahead)
It was easy to give the safety portrayed in the film zero stars. Keep in mind that any incident of this magnitude will likely have multiple perspectives on what went wrong, so the actions described here are simply based on what was shown in the film.
When you perform a test at a nuclear plant with an inexperienced team that is not ready or prepped for such a test and you push forward recklessly even when all signs—and a computer printout—point you to abort, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk.
When you send firefighters in to put out a fire at a nuclear power plant without proper safety equipment and procedures in place, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk.
When you don’t properly evacuate an area and allow people to stand on a bridge and watch the “beautiful” glow as radioactive ash flutters seemingly harmlessly in the breeze, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk.
When you see a nurse who realizes the firefighters’ uniforms are contaminated with radiation and she begins removing the clothes without wearing any personal protective equipment, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk.
When you allow a wife not wearing any safety gear to visit her husband who was one of the first responders—even for “30 minutes”—and was exposed to massive amounts of radiation, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk.
When you’re forced to send three people into the bowels of a nuclear disaster to empty the water tanks to avoid a thermonuclear disaster, assuming they will die imminently from the exposure, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk.
When you enlist scores of miners to dig underneath the plant’s molten core to install a liquid nitrogen heat exchanger in conditions that are so hot that they are forced to remove all their clothes (which may or may not be true, according to some sources) because employing cooling fans would spread radioactive materials, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk.
When you bring in men to shovel radioactive graphite from the reactor’s roof to ensure it doesn’t drop into the core and further fuel a radioactive event, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk.
When you send a helicopter over a reactor to dump massive amounts of sand and boron in hopes of smothering the deadly smoke and curtailing the nuclear reaction, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk. One of the helicopters incidentally flies too close to the reactor, strikes a crane and crashes killing everyone on board.
When you need to go out and shoot domesticated animals to ensure radioactivity isn’t spread further, you’ve got a massive Operational Risk. Not to stop the momentum here, but kudos to the filmmaker for including this powerful scene. It is a testament to how risks can affect more than humans. It’s a good reminder that, especially with environmental incidents, animals, plant life and natural resources throughout the ecosystem are vulnerable.
And, as I’ve already mentioned: When you assume a shutdown button will end a test and everything will be fine except no one told you that unsafe cost-cutting measures were put into place that would prevent such a fail-safe, you have more than Operational Risk—you have a catastrophic event.
Back to Moviemaking
As Shcherbina, who supervised the crisis management for the Soviet Union after the incident, says at the trial in the movie: “It began with, of all things, a safety test. But why was there a need for a safety test at all? Reactor No. 4 was not new when the accident occurred.” The answer, the movie explains, is that the original test was never performed before the plant opened in 1983 even though it had been certified that it was, and the people in charge of Chernobyl were awarded for their efforts. So the decision-makers decided the test needed to be performed post–factum to basically legitimize the premature certification. There were three “failed” tests before the ultimate failure, which led to the nuclear disaster.
The scene was an explosive moment in a high-powered film.
The film itself is well-crafted and superbly acted, and the attention to detail is a thing of beauty in a story of hideousness. I’ve never been to the former Soviet Union or modern-day Russia for that matter, but what I saw in “Chernobyl” seems like what the country would have looked like in the 1980s. There’s an intentional haziness throughout the film that is powerful as well. Of course, it’s from the incident itself, but perhaps it’s also symbolic of the hazy “facts” that are being ignored, too.
Yes, watching the explosion is scary, but what’s even more chilling in the film is the unknown. There are many of them, including the radioactive material flying around for miles and miles that follow a path of delayed devastation. People are sickened by the events, but they do not know what painful fate awaits them from acute radiation syndrome. And the sound of Geiger counters throughout the film are chilling as they chirp on and on as people explore different parts of the reactor.
The darkness, chaos and craziness portrayed in the film capture the unknown with masterful aplomb. Beyond the catastrophic incident itself, what’s also chilling is that there were no plans in place to deal with an incident of this or really any magnitude. It’s a lesson anyone in the safety arena should take very seriously and one that this film shines a light on beautifully.
“Chernobyl” is a film that does great justice to such a catastrophic event.
James Tehrani is Spark’s editor-in-chief. He is an award-winning writer based in the Chicago area.