A good friend sent me the DVDs for the HBO five-part-series “Chernobyl.” Most people are relatively familiar with the 1986 nuclear power plant catastrophe in the Soviet Union (present day Ukraine) by that name and lately there has been a lot of attention paid to the exclusion zone around the plant and how the environment around the plant has begun returning to a wild state without people inhabiting it. And the disaster at Chernobyl was a very important event both for the Soviet Union and for the world because of the amount of negative sentiment that this failure cast on both the Soviet Union and also the nuclear power industry. In fact, Gorbachev was said to have written in his memoirs that Chernobyl was the root cause of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But it is important to state that this film history is a dramatic representation of the events and deviates in several particulars from the actual events. And in general, the producers have amplified many of the details to make the story more compelling. Whether there is an ideological component to this amplification is of course hard to say. But whatever the motivation the dramatic effect is definitely compelling.
The main protagonist of the series is Valery Legasov, a senior Soviet scientist who takes the lead in first convincing the Soviet administration that a terrible disaster has occurred, then advising the emergency operation on how to mitigate the ongoing catastrophe and finally to expose the actual cause of the catastrophe and force the authorities to take the steps necessary to prevent another occurrence.
Other important characters include Boris Shcherbina a central government official who is reluctantly appointed to investigate and then execute the emergency actions needed to cope with the disaster on the ground; Vasily and Lyudmilla Ignatenko, a fire fighter and his wife who are among those who are exposed directly to the results of the hellish radiation levels existing at the site of the explosion; and finally, Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear scientist who in actuality didn’t exist. She is a composite of all the nuclear scientists who aided Legasov in his investigation of the causes of the Chernobyl disaster. Since most people are more or less aware of the historical event let me get down to my reactions to the series.
The first episode is as riveting as a science fiction horror film. When the explosion occurs the nuclear plant control room staff are told by the chief engineer on duty, Anatoly Dyatlov, that they are only dealing with a small fire caused by a hydrogen explosion in an auxiliary tank. It appears he is in denial and he orders his crew and the arriving fire fighters to battle the blaze as if it is a normal fire. Because of this they are effectively fed into the jaws of hell.
As Dyatlov and his superiors try to convince the Soviet officials that the disaster is a small unimportant event, Legasov starts to hear the evidence and at a meeting that includes Mikhail Gorbachev he declares that what has really occurred is the unthinkable. That the reactor core has exploded and is now strewing enriched uranium into the air, contaminating the Soviet Union and Europe for thousands of miles around and killing anyone who comes close to the source. When Boris Shcherbina objects that Legasov is just speculating Gorbachev tells him to go with Legasov to Chernobyl and get the facts.
From there the series follows this team to Chernobyl and chronicles their efforts to solve a problem that has never been seen before by humanity. Interweaved are the stories of the others whose lives have been destroyed by their proximity to the disaster. Soldiers, scientists, helicopter pilots, miners, doctors and nurses, government officials and family members. And after the action on the ground there is a trial to lay the blame for Chernobyl at someone’s feet. And it is at this trial that we finally find out exactly what went on in the control room right before the explosion and we get to see how the Soviet Union handles the truth.
It’s a harrowing story. And it is well acted. None of the actors are familiar to me but they are very good. And mixed in with the horror there are personal moments that touch the viewer. There are even a very few moments of humor. I found I had a good deal of empathy for even some of the less noble characters. They were human beings confronted with inhuman force. And some of them acquitted themselves with intelligence and bravery. That makes for a powerful story.