In 1986, the world held its breath as a nuclear plant in the USSR was on the brink of a meltdown. Desperately, the Soviet Union attempted to control both the accident at Chernobyl and the news of what happened there. While much blame was leveled at the USSR for failing to inform the world of the true extent of the disaster, a nuclear plant disaster in 1978 in the United States at Three Mile Island had shown that no nation, democracy or not, was willing to face the consequences of a nuclear plant meltdown. The reasons for their recalcitrance can be summed up neatly in a phrase coined by Herman Kahn, a cold warrior, who used it to describe thinking about nuclear war - thinking about the unthinkable.
The new HBO limited series, Chernobyl, takes us to the core of the disaster by looking at it through the eyes of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. It is Legasov who has to explain the true extent of the disaster to the Soviet officials (and to us) and how it might be ameliorated. Harris is best known for his work on Mad Men (Lane Pryce) and The Crown (King George VI) and turns in an excellent performance as a man who is torn between what he knows and what he is allowed to tell.
The story begins with Legasov making a tape recording of his version of what went wrong at Chernobyl, then killing himself (this is true). From there, we go back to Chernobyl on the day it happened and watch the scientists and technicians set in motion the disaster.
Nuclear reactors work just like coal power plants work - a fuel (coal or uranium) is used to heat water to make steam which in turn drives a turbine that makes electricity. The big difference is that if something goes wrong at a coal power plant, there is local damage, but no more. Uranium has unique properties that make it far more dangerous than coal. Uranium produces radiation and radiation is deadly. You cannot see, smell or taste it, but you can die from it.
Before Chernobyl, it was thought that a nuclear reactor could not explode. The fact is that it cannot explode like a nuclear bomb, but it can explode like dynamite, and that is what happened at Chernobyl, spreading radioactive debris all around the plant and radioactive smoke for thousands of miles.
Chernobyl, created by Craig Mazin, tells its story by concentrating on those who were there. They can be placed into three categories: the government officials who try to conceal the extent of the disaster, scientists who are trying to prevent the disaster from spreading and victims.
The government contingent is headed by Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård ). He tries to control the message by telling his superiors that all will be well very soon, but the scope of the disaster changes him and he starts working with Legasov to prevent the meltdown which will radiate the entire water supply of the Ukraine (50 million people and now an independent country) by melting down into the groundwater.
Like much of nuclear science in the modern times, radiation is difficult to understand. It is something that can be seen only in its effects, but those effects are horrific. The victims' story is told through the eyes of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), wife of a local firefighter, Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis). When the firemen arrived at Chernobyl on the date of the accident, they did not wear any special equipment and thought that they were putting out a large fire. Within an hour, all were suffering from extreme radiation exposure. Ignatenko ends up suffering a death that is difficult to explain (Legasov tries to explain it to Soviet authorities) and more difficult to witness.
Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson in another stellar performance) is a scientist who forces her way into the small group of scientists and apparatchiks who are dealing with the crisis. She prevents them from making a huge mistake which would have led to a complete meltdown, then is charged with writing a report about how the accident occured after interviewing those who were running the plant when it happened. Those men are dying, quickly, so her interviews serve the dual purpose of providing information on how the disaster happened and, also, allowing the audience to witness the effects of radiation poisoning. These scenes are difficult to watch. It is Khomyak who sees that the hospital treating the victims has allowed Ignatenko's pregnant wife to visit and actually lie next to him in bed. They had no idea of how dangerous and communicable radiation poisoning is.
In the end, Chernobyl is a great story about our modern times. We have discovered the wonders of nuclear fission to not only make bombs but, also, to make energy. There is little doubt that it will be nuclear energy which will power our attempts to reach out beyond our own solar system, but until we can better cope with the potential disasters, nuclear power is more a danger than a benefit.