On December 2nd 1942, Enrico Fermi, a Nobel Prize winning American-Italian physicist, announced the world’s first man-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in a makeshift Nuclear Reactor called the Chicago Pile – 1 (CP-1). Getting its name from Fermi’s amusing description of it as – “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers”, CP-1 was considered to be the crowning achievement of America’s war efforts during the Second World War where an inadvertent race had been triggered to gain Nuclear supremacy. Despite its build, that could not be called verily reliable, CP-1 was tested in a densely populated area with a child’s curiosity who had not seen, or could envisage, the destructive power that it held in its hands. Since then, there have been as many as 99 nuclear accidents throughout the world. No less than 57 disasters have occurred after Chernobyl, 56 of which occurred in USA alone. However, interestingly, in most of these disasters, there have been almost no human casualties. It is, however, not the financial impact but the very morbidity of the Chernobyl disaster (Ukraine, USSR) that makes it irrefutably the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind. The radiation leak that occurred thereafter claimed over 50 lives who were directly involved in containing the leak, and over 4000 lives who were indirectly impacted by fallout and contagion.
Also read: List of Nuclear Accidents by Country
HBO’s historical drama Chernobyl is written for screen and created by Craig Mazin whose filmography as a writer is a wide departure from the foreboding intensity of the show. Mazin’s credits include some of the most entertaining comedies in recent years such as The Hangover – Parts 2 & 3, Superhero Movie, and Identity Thief among others. His portrayal of the disaster begins right in the midst of the RBMK reactor core breakdown, as a group of nuclear engineers try to alleviate the impending danger that it could pose. Besides the physical manifestation of the peril, it is the bureaucratic hierarchy that leaves you horrified by its nonchalance. In order to understand this frustratingly strange behavior by the officials who keep denying the gravity of the situation, you would first need to understand the political construct of the USSR.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Real photos)
Governed by a single Communist Party, the United Soviet Socialist Republic was a stage for tumultuous political upheavals that shaped and formed the foundation of the nation that Russia is today. What started out in 1917 as a revolution to overthrow Aristocracy and put power into the hands of the masses, soon convoluted into a totalitarian regime under Joseph Stalin who brought not only rapid industrialization, but also a corrosive political paranoia which exists to this day. During the Cold War, this paranoia assumed massive proportions where propaganda became the sole prerogative for the state whose aim was to create the perception of power. Every single state machinery was diverted towards a maniacal control and suppression of information that could show their weakness even in the slightest.
Haunting scenes from HBO’s Chernobyl
The sequence of events is shown through the involvement of a re-knowned Soviet Chemist named Valery Legasov who is brought in at the behest of the state to investigate the situation and provide a report to the officials. As Legasov got to the task, he uncovered disturbing lapses in management, and an unsettling charade of misinformation that the Nuclear Plant officials had concocted in order to hide the real extent of the disaster from their superiors. Instead of the 20,000 Roentgen of lethal radiation that was in the air, they had reported a meagre 3.6 Roentgen presenting a picture that everything was under control and there was no need of any sort of evacuation of the residents in and around the Pripyat region. Little did they realise that they may very well contain information but radiation was not something they could confine within a closed box. As Legasov explains to a Party official who is assigned to the situation – “Every atom of Uranium is like a bullet, penetrating everything in its path – metals, concrete, flesh…” Jared Harris, who shares an uncanny likeness to Legasov, takes his character through a journey from disbelief, to anger, to resignation, and finally to resolve. Through his conversations with the upper echelons of the regime, he realizes that if he didn’t do it, it could well wipe USSR off the face of the earth. With the sympathetic Party official Boris Scherbina, played by Stellan Skarsgard, and a young nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, Legasov mobilizes workers to help stop the radiation from leaking even further. While Legasov and Scherbina oversee the efforts, Khomyuk interviews the Engineers of the plant, who by now are on the verge of death from acute radiation sickness.
The story of Chernobyl is not just a cautionary tale, but also a tale of immense sacrifice and bravery by the common working class who, despite knowing the horrors of radiation sickness, took up the dirty task of clearing out the irradiated debris from the plant with little to no protection on their bodies. These were firemen, miners, army cadets, who were young men with wives and families and full lives ahead of them. Johan Renck’s direction complemented with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score brings the haunting imagery alive on the screen. Hildur uses sound from the harrowing ticking of the Geiger Counters to make you feel the impending sense of doom which works beautifully. There are sequences where we see the simple residents of Pripyat curiously wondering about “that fire” at the plant. They are nonplussed by the highly radioactive ash that starts falling over them, regarding it one would a benign snowflake. We watch children play in the ash-heaps and blowing it on each other. As a viewer, you feel like dragging them out of the way when you know for sure that all of them would be dead within a week. Societies are evacuated as Pripyat becomes a ghost-town. Cadets are assigned to shoot all live animals in the vicinity to avoid any further contagion. In a particularly haunting scene, a truckload of dead bodies of dogs are dumped into a grave as concrete is spilled over it. The bodies of the workers who die eventually are put into lead-lined coffins and buried unceremoniously in a mass-grave.
Chernobyl Cast vs Real life
Chernobyl would be remembered not just as the worst nuclear disaster in history, but also a disaster of governance that cared little for its people who eventually, and willingly, laid down their lives to save their compatriots. In a poignant scene which put a spotlight on the glaring differences in human rights in the USSR versus other humanitarian states, someone mentions that children in Frankfurt have been asked to stay indoors due to possible radiation. While Frankfurt was 1800 kms away from the scene, people in Pripyat who lived at just a stone’s throw away had barely been evacuated. HBO’s limited series is a lesson not just toward nuclear safety and precaution, but also towards the devastation that may be brought by toxic nationalism and the hubris of pseudo-power..