Accidents happen, history is full of them, but the question is: what happens in the aftermath?
At approximately 1:23 on the morning of April 26th, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded. As was highlighted in the new mini-series Chernobyl, one of history’s worst nuclear disasters was not handled well. In fact, the poor handling was compounded by several fatal errors, made worse by the ineptitude of the Soviet government.
In its entirety, Chernobyl only runs for five episodes. But those five episodes give a detailed, harrowing look at the events leading up to and after the initial explosion. The problem is, calling it human error doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The majority of the series follows Valery Legasov, the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute. While he is initially brought in to advise Soviet politician Boris Shcherbina on how best to clean up the site and prevent further spread of lethal radiation, Legasov eventually becomes the driving force behind the investigation into what really happened that night in Reactor 4.
But Legasov isn’t alone. The morning following the explosion, Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist, discovers that the dust on her window in Minsk, 400 kilometres away from the reactor, is already intensely radioactive. Deducing that it must have been caused by one of the reactors at the Chernobyl plant, she rushes there to join the clean up efforts, and aids in conducting her own investigations of what happened. Unlike many of the other characters in the series, Khomyuk’s character isn’t based on a real person, but instead comprises the efforts and work ethics of all the Soviet scientists who worked with Legasov and made sure that the errors made at Chernobyl would never be repeated.
The series begins with Legasov hiding tapes outside his home, which contained a complete account of the events leading up to the explosion. These tapes were damning for Anatoly Dyatlov, an engineer in Reactor 4, as they made clear he was a significant party responsible for what happened. After hiding the tapes, Legasov hangs himself, and the viewers are taken back two years and one minute. From their apartment, a good distance away, a firefighter and his wife watch in shock as Reactor 4 explodes.
As someone who has been endlessly fascinated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but understood very little of the mechanics behind it, this series was an excellent watch. I sound a bit cavalier when I phrase it like that, and I do mean it from a standpoint of morbid curiosity, but then isn’t that how most disasters work? After all, the expression “it’s like watching a train wreck” exists for a reason.
That being said, I think Chernobyl did an excellent job making viewers truly understand what happened. This was a truly terrible disaster, and in the end, it was something that could very easily have been avoided were it not for the sake of human arrogance and vicious denial. The series gave significant insight into what happened, including who was ultimately responsible, and how even with overwhelming evidence, the government and the KGB still tried to cover it up. It was a very entertaining series, but it was also informative.
History remembers the name Chernobyl, and even the name Pripyat, as being ghost towns, that to this day are still so radioactive they’re uninhabitable. What fewer people remember—what the series sheds light on—is the role that the government played in what happened, in addition to individual engineers, like Dyatlov.
For anyone who has yet to watch the series and wishes to (and those that don’t, I strongly encourage you to), I’ll refrain from detailing too much of the show, so you can experience it for yourself. That being said, I’d really like to impress upon those of you who’ve yet to see it how worth watching it is.
The level of arrogance from the government, the KGB, and other officials who were supposed to be in charge of civilian safety, that was presented in this show was infuriating, as evidenced by the amount of screaming at the TV myself and another of the Voices did while watching, however, it was true to life. The creators of the series went to great efforts to stick as closely to historical events as possible, and it worked out well.
Upon doing some further research into the series, I learned that it actually gathered much of its own research from a book written by Svetlana Alexievich, who gathered the stories from Pripyat locals that experienced the event directly. This makes many moments throughout the series even more chilling. One that stands out in particular is a scene wherein residents of Pripyat watched the reactor burn from a distance, while radioactive ash fell like snow upon their heads. They were aware it was ash, but horrifically unaware of the radioactivity, and so they danced and played in it, not realizing the clock counting down the end of all their lives had just started ticking
As I said, the truth of the matter is that history is full of accidents, some more or less intentional than others. The important part is what we learn from them, and that we do better going forward. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, as illustrated in the TV series, was a chaotic mess, and by all means, should have been avoided. It provides a warning for what happens to those who put loyalty based upon arrogance and ignorance above common sense and common good.
Let’s just hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Maggie Kendall spent the first fifteen years of her life furiously avoiding all things horror, but then her friend forced her to watch Paranormal Activity, and there’s been no turning back. She still checks the bathroom mirror for Bloody Mary before getting in the shower.