Culture & Criticism Since 2003
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was a nation in deep decay: not just with the economic, industrial and military sectors, but also in the leadership, most of which consisted of fearful, strutting groups of apparatchiks whose deepest instincts were rather than upset the party leaders.
Comforting lies, when they become a way of life, become a way of death. And when the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant happened on April 25th, 1986, valuable time was lost because of misinformation: That this type of reactor-core could not physically explode; and that the emissions from the plant were a hazardous, but survivable, 3.6 roentgens per hour.
Another, similar meltdown in Lithuania, at the Ignalina plant, very narrowly escaped a similar catastrophe in 1983. And had the people at Chernobyl been informed of this, they might have avoided the steps that led to the meltdown. High-end dosimeters were destroyed, so only the low-end ones could measure the radioactivity levels – and those maxed out at 3.6 roentgens per hour. However, the actual emissions were closer to 20,000 roentgens per hour. Between incorrect engineering theory and the mistaken readings, plant managers initially concluded that the core was intact, initially diagnosing the event as a probable hydrogen explosion. In turn, they dismissed highly radioactive chunks of graphite lying in the parking lot as being just charred concrete.
Moreover, even after people on the ground realized the enormity of the disaster, Moscow was receiving those comforting lies from below for another couple of days. In another time and in another place, the national leader might have been hearing happy chirps about how Chernobyl was emitting isotopes of freedom. It’s a matter of blind luck that the meltdown didn’t reach ground water, a reaction that would have killed all chordate life forms for 600 miles and permanently poisoned most of Europe and a large chunk of Asia.
HBO’s new five-part miniseries, Chernobyl, is searing, letting both the sheer horror and strangeness of the event speak for itself. As such, the film reminds us that there are still hundreds of nuclear power plants around the world (including 11 surviving sister plants to Chernobyl) – while they might be safe, they are not fool-proof.
Some will recall that there have been brilliant, terrifying dramatized documentaries about radiation before: The Day After and Threads come immediately to mind. But there has been nothing like HBO’s Chernobyl, where gritty realism and horror stem, not from stagecraft, but from an unblinking stare into the glowing blue truth that lies at the core of every reactor.
This is an extraordinary and unflinching film that’s been called a dramatic mini-series, since some aspects have been fictionalized due to the cloak of secrecy that surrounded the catastrophe. Nonetheless, it appears this recreation has been partially based on existing records of the actual event and from the audio tapes secretly made and smuggled out by Professor Valery Legasov shortly before his suicide on the second anniversary of the explosion. It’s that real. As such, it deserves a place on your must-see list.
Bryan Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Canada and raised in London. He has lived in the Mount Shasta area since 1990, which he regards as the finest place on earth. Jamieson has spent the past 25 years as a graphic layout technician, web designer and writer, with over a thousand essays, a dozen short stories, and two novels – Ice Fall and Snow Fall – to his credit. In addition to his wife of 30-plus years, he normally lives with a dog and several cats, none of whom are impressed by him. Reach him through The Electric Review.