Chernobyl: The Meltdown of the Soviet Union

In Citizen X, a 1995 film about Andrei Chikatilo, eventually convicted in 1992 of the murder of fifty-two women and children in the USSR, Lieutenant Viktor Burakov cannot persuade the provincial Committee for Crime that they have a serial killer in their midst. He is told, “We have no serial killers in the Soviet Union.” This kind of aberration, he is informed, is associated with Western moral corruption. The political resistance to reality resulted in an eight-year delay in Chikatilo’s eventual capture and dozens of preventable murders.

In the recent HBO series Chernobyl, about the nuclear disaster of 1986, the Russian bureaucracy will not accept at first that they’ve had a catastrophic failure of one of their prestigious “Peaceful Atom” nuclear facilities. A party apparatchik says, “The official position of the state is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.”

Joe Dolce’s reviews appear in every Quadrant.
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But midway through episode two, Valery Legasov, the Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow (played by Jared Harris), and Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist from Minsk (played by Emily Watson), deliver a stark briefing to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev—a terrifying scenario of what is about to occur. The initial reactor fire has been extinguished by helicopters, who have dropped five thousand tons of sand, lead and boron, and streams of liquid nitrogen, onto the damaged reactor. The sand, although smothering the fire, has now been converted by the extreme heat into lava, which is melting down through the cement protective shield below the installation, and will reach the full water tanks within three days, causing:

a thermonuclear explosion. Everything within thirty kilometres will be destroyed, including the three remaining reactors at Chernobyl, the entirety of the radioactive material in all of the cores will be ejected, at force, and dispersed by a massive shock wave which will extend 200 kilometres and likely be fatal to the entire population of Kiev, as well as a portion of Minsk. The release of radiation will be severe and impact all of Soviet Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belorussia, as well as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and most of East Germany … for the Ukraine and Belorussia, this means completely uninhabitable for a minimum of one hundred years.

From this point on, as if we were standing before Coleridge’s Mariner, we cannot turn away. Something important is being explained to us, in a way that we have never heard before.

I confess that I started watching this series a few weeks ago but fell asleep during the first episode. I attributed this to being a bit tired, but also to the dark claustrophobic interiors—the low light of the inner workings of the nuclear plant, a kind of China Syndrome–Andromeda Strain doom-and-gloom style of film-making.

“The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl was perhaps
the true cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
—Mikhail Gorbachev

After all, the protagonist hangs himself in the first scene and the rest of the story is told in flashback. Not particularly the way I intended to spend a night of entertainment with my fava beans and a glass of chianti. So I gave up on Chernobyl, and moved on to something else. Dumbo, I think.

But friends encouraged me to persevere, and I also noticed that the series was starting to receive sky-high ratings on IMDb, the online international database for films, owned by Amazon, with 83 million subscribers. IMDb rated Chernobyl 9.7 out of 10, the highest figures ever.

I’m glad I gave Chernobyl a second chance, as I now consider it one of the most important works I have seen this year, as well as an extremely watchable thriller. The entire final episode is also a cracking courtroom drama.

The series has five parts. After Reactor No. 4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant at Chernobyl explodes in Pripyat, Valery Legasov is appointed by Deputy Chairman Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgard) to supervise an investigative committee into the disaster. Pripyat, a city of 50,000 people, was built in the 1970s as a home for the power plant workers.

At the same time, in Minsk, four hundred kilo­metres away, nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk picks up extremely high and spiking radiation levels. But her concerns are ignored by local authorities. On her own initiative, she travels to Chernobyl to determine the cause.

From a helicopter, Legasov and Shcherbina observe that the reactor core has been completely exposed, covering the roof with radioactive graphite. The town of Pripyat is evacuated and Shcherbina orders sand and boron dumped onto the building to try to extinguish the fire. But this solution is short-sighted and creates a more serious danger: an impending thermonuclear steam explosion between the melting sand-lava and the water reserves beneath the reactor. Three heroic men volunteer to enter the poisonous facility and drain the water tanks, with full knowledge that they will die as a result. They succeed, but as one disaster is averted, another one emerges—a massive meltdown that will contaminate ground water and reach the Pripyat River, which passes through the Ukraine and Belorussia, joining the Dnieper, one of the major rivers of Europe. Coal miners are enlisted from the Tula mines to excavate a tunnel under the reactor, to be filled with concrete to strengthen the foundation, and a thirty-kilometre exclusion zone is set up around Chernobyl. A team of hunters is sent into the zone to kill and dispose of all animals that have been contaminated, and 4000 men are recruited to clear the radioactive nuclear graphite off the reactor roof by hand, in ninety-second shifts.

Legasov and Khomyuk discover that, in addition to the human errors of the reactor technicians, there was a profound design flaw in the reactor control rods, covered up through deceptive paperwork and redaction, and that this flaw is still present in the ten other nuclear reactors in the Soviet Union. Although Soviet authorities attempt to conceal the enormity of the catastrophe from the outside world, NASA satellite imagery exposes it, and the disaster becomes world news. Legasov is sent to address the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, but, with threats of KGB reprisals and damage to his career, he delivers a Party-approved, sanitised report of the events.

However, Legasov’s conscience weighs heavily on him and, with the encouragement of Khomyuk, and awareness that he has suffered radiation poisoning himself and has only a short time to live, he decides to tell the complete truth at a trial of the senior technicians in charge of the Chernobyl reactor, who are now being blamed for the accident. Legasov reveals the suppressed information publicly and is arrested by the KGB and forbidden to speak further about the disaster. On the second anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Legasov apparently hangs himself, but not before hiding secret audio tapes outlining everything that has happened.

The creator and screenwriter of the series, Craig Mazin, graduated magna cum laude in psychology from Princeton University. For much of his source material, he relied on Belarusian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s book, Voices from Chernobyl, based on recollections of people who lived in Pripyat during the 1980s. Mazin says: “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance and suppression of criticism are dangerous.”

The director, Johan Renck, is a Swedish singer-songwriter who has produced music videos for Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, Beyoncé and others. Similarly, Ridley Scott made his reputation in the 1970s shooting television commercials, including Chanel No. 5, before creating his first masterpiece, The Duellists, followed by Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and The Martian. Johan Renck is a director to watch if this series is any indication.

Renck has also directed single episodes of Breaking Bad and Bates Motel, but turned down similar offers for Homeland and Game of Thrones, confessing that single-episode work was unrewarding. In an interview with Christina Radish of Collider, he said:

I thought I knew a lot about Chernobyl, but it turns out that I knew nothing … [there is] nothing traditional television about it. It is basically a long movie, chopped into five parts … the mini-series format [is] the best of both worlds. It’s character-driven and plot-driven, at the same time … there’s no box office angst there, meaning that … you have a lot of creative freedom …

Jared Harris, who plays Valery Legasov, is the son of the actor Richard Harris, and played King George VI in The Crown and Captain Francis Crozier in The Terror, the brilliant series about Franklin’s failed Arctic expedition. Harris said: “There is source material available on Chernobyl, but there’s not a lot about Legasov. The Soviets threatened to write him out of the history because he spoke out, and they very successfully followed through on that threat.” Emily Watson, who plays Ulana Khomyuk, told Christina Radish that it was a thrill:

to play somebody who is a real truth ninja, who is in that repressive society where speaking your mind and speaking the truth is dangerous to your life, and then still decides, “Well, the fate of the world is hanging in the balance and the truth has to be told, and I’m going after it.”

Chernobyl took four months to make and was shot primarily in Lithuania, with some final scenes done in Ukraine. Producers obtained access to the decommissioned Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, which, due to design similarities, was nicknamed “Chernobyl’s Sister”. Henry Fountain, science writer for the New York Times, who visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 2014, wrote: “The first thing to understand about the HBO mini-series … is that a lot of it is made up. But here’s the second, and more important, thing: It doesn’t really matter.” But Michael Shellenberger, of Forbes, believes the series gets too many things wrong:

The most egregious of Chernobyl sensationalism is the depiction of radiation as contagious, like a virus. The scientist-hero played by Emily Watson physically drags away the pregnant wife of a Chernobyl firefighter dying from Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). “Get out! Get out of here!” Watson screams, as though every second the woman is with her husband she is poisoning her baby. But radiation is not contagious. Once someone has removed their clothes and been washed, as the firefighters were in real life, and in Chernobyl, the radioactivity is internalized. It is conceivable that blood, urine, or sweat from a victim of ARS could result in some amount of harmful exposure (not infection) but there is no scientific evidence that such a thing occurred during the treatment of Chernobyl victims. There is a human cost to these misrepresentations. The notion that people exposed to radiation are contagious was used to terrify, stigmatize, and isolate people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl, and again in Fukushima.

Legasov actually left journals, not audio tapes. But as Jared Harris says, “that’s not as cinematic as audio tapes”. The character of Khomyuk, the Minsk nuclear physicist, was a compilation of dozens of people who worked on the problem. Masha Geesen said in the New Yorker, “The problem is not just that Khomyuk is a fiction; it’s that the kind of expert knowledge she represents is a fiction.”

Shellenberger says:

In reality, Chernobyl proves why nuclear is the safest way to make electricity. In the worst nuclear power accidents, relatively small amounts of particulate matter escape, harming only a handful of people. During the rest of the time, nuclear plants are reducing exposure to air pollution, by replacing fossil fuels and biomass. It’s for this reason that nuclear energy has saved nearly two million lives to date …

In the end, HBO’s Chernobyl gets nuclear wrong for the same reason humankind as a whole has been getting it wrong for over 60 years, which is that we’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants.

Verne Gay, of Newsday, wrote, “Mazin has created something both beautiful and startling here. It’s also a deeply human portrait of a people most … have been taught to dehumanize for far too long.” Russian President Boris Yelstin posthumously bestowed the Hero of the Russian Federation award on Valery Legasov in 1996, for “courage and heroism”.

A member of the actual Chernobyl staff, engineer Oleksiy Breus, states he entered the building only hours after the accident and considers the portrayal of the three primary control room workers—plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, chief engineer Nikolai Fomin and deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov—as a “blatant lie … my concern is that many of the survivors, families of the personnel, will feel hurt watching this series”. In particular, Mazin has portrayed Dyatlov as an insufferable bully, but in an interview Breus said Dyatlov was “sometimes tough, but never demonic”:

The operators were afraid of [Dyatlov]. When he was present at the block, it created tension for everyone. But no matter how strict he was, he was still a high-level professional … the miners are shown as tough guys who are not afraid of anything, but not the power plant workers … there are many stereotypes shown, typical of Western portrayal of the Soviet Union … vodka, KGB everywhere.

Stanislav Natanzon, a newscaster at the news channel Russia-24, quipped, “The only things missing are the bears and accordions!”

Mazin and Renck may not have had the opportunity to interview many survivors from Chernobyl, but the Chernobyl Museum’s deputy director, Anna Korolevskaya, was one of the consultants for the series. Perhaps the boldness of this program, televised to the whole world, will enable many of the people who experienced the catastrophe first-hand to have the courage to come forward at last.

The number of casualties from Chernobyl is disputed. A United Nations study puts it at 4000 and a Greenpeace study at 200,000; the official Russian Federation figure is thirty-one.

In 1986, a massive steel and concrete sarcophagus was built to enclose the debris of No. 4 reactor, with enough concrete to fill more than a third of a skyscraper. The sarcophagus was designed to have a life-span of thirty years so, in 2016, a new safe confinement shelter was constructed and slid over the existing structure, at a cost of 810 million euros. The highly radioactive and concentrated remains of the core of Reactor No. 4, a two-metre mass of corium, known as the Elephant’s Foot, is still generating dangerous and unapproachable heat and very slowly melting into the base of the power plant. It is continually monitored but could be radioactive for the next 20,000 years.

The name Chernobyl is derived from the Ukrainian for wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, the dominant ingredient in absinthe. Chernobyl was the crown village of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the thirteenth century, transferred to Poland in the sixteenth century and annexed by Russia in 1793.

Jews arrived during the Polish colonisation and, by the eighteenth century, it had become a centre for Hasidic Judaism. The Jewish population was decimated during the pogroms of 1905 and 1919, and during Stalin’s collectivisation campaign of the 1930s, and completely eliminated during the Nazi occupation of 1941.

Chernobyl is today officially classified as a “ghost city”, but within fifteen months of the explosion, 75 per cent of the land was again under cultivation by the government. For years afterwards, people from Europe were afraid to buy food from the area. A few people still reside in houses with signs stating, “Owner of this house lives here”, and studies show that there are more animals in the area than there were before; the wolf population alone is seven times higher than in neighbouring reserves.

In 2011, the cores of three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant melted down after an earthquake and tsunami. Twelve miles around the plant were declared a permanent exclusion zone.

Our youngest son and his family live in Tokyo and we were very concerned for their safety. His Japanese mother-in-law went as a volunteer to Fukushima to help survivors, and our son and I downloaded real-time “geiger counter” apps for our iPhones which enabled us to monitor the radiation levels in Tokyo daily. We discussed the idea of them moving to Australia but they wanted to stay and support their extended Japanese family. Tom Engelhardt wrote in Huffpost:

Japan’s then-prime minister, Naoto Kan, has only recently admitted that he was so worried by the unraveling catastrophe and the swirl of misinformation around it that he almost ordered the evacuation of Tokyo, the capital, and all other areas within 160 miles of the plant. The country, he said, “came within a ‘paper-thin margin’ of a nuclear disaster requiring the evacuation of 50 million people”.

The Russian Marxist-Leninist political party, Communists of Russia, officially registered in 2012, and the main rival to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which considers itself the successor to the old ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union, has urged a ban on the Chernobyl series, calling it “disgusting”.      

Jamie Dettmer, of Voice of America, says:

Historians later came to credit the Chernobyl disaster as a catalyst in forcing the decaying Soviet government to be more transparent—an openness called glasnost, which paved the way to reform and the subsequent Soviet collapse.

According to IndieWire, “the Communists of Russia [are] seeking a libel lawsuit [arguing] the show is in violation of Article 129 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.” This makes one curious if Anna Korolevskaya of the Chernobyl Museum, or any of the other Russian advisers who helped the American producers, got a door-knock from the FSB (as the KGB is called now).

On a lighter note, the Moscow Times has reported that the Kremlin was angry that Americans had made a film about Chernobyl before they did, and that Russian state TV is currently planning its own version of the story, in which a CIA operative is at the heart of the core meltdown.

  • IainC

    Great work as usual Joe. Please write a book! A novelette! Anything!
    “…the Kremlin was angry that Americans had made a film about Chernobyl before they did”
    Russia did make a film about Chernobyl, which I saw and greatly admired, from the nineties I think. It was called Raspad (collapse, break-up). I remember the final scene where a chopper takes a sobbing woman to safety leaving her dying child behind, set to a haunting classical piece.

  • Martin Carey

    Great tip, thanks for this. I was able to catch this recently and really enjoyed it It’s amazing despite the seriousness of the situation the greatest imperative was to stick to the party line. The reactor was a great achievement of Soviet engineering and it was impossible that an explosion could occur.

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