“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: “What is the cost of lies?'” –Valeri Legasov, Chernobyl
On the morning of April 27, 1986, reactor 4 at Chernobyl suffered a catastrophic explosion and fire. In the immediate aftermath, fire-fighter Vasily Ignatenko is sent in as part of the response unit to put the blaze out. Meanwhile, Plant Director Bryukhanov, Chief Engineer Fomin reach an agreement to downplay the disaster as a hydrogen explosion. Valery Legasov is sent to Chernobyl to provide technical expertise on managing the disaster after briefing the Soviet leadership, and scientist Ulana Khomyuk travels to Chernobyl to investigate the cause of an unusual radiation spike she recorded. Legasov confirms that the reactor core had indeed been exposed, and after suggesting the use of a sand-boron mixture to suppress the fire, learns of the risk of a steam explosion that could further spread radioactive material. Three divers are sent in to drain the flooded basement, and a group of coal miners are tasked with tunnelling under the power plant to install a heat exchanger and migitate the risk that the melt-down could seep into the ground water. Khomyuk begins investigating the plant technicians present during the night of the disaster, learning that the reactor only exploded after the emergency shutdown was initiated. Ignatenko’s wife travels to Moscow to visit him, and learns that he is dying from radiation exposure. Liquidators begin to clean up the areas affected by the disaster and stop the spread of radioactive material, while Pripyat, a town a few kilometers from Chernobyl, is evacuated as a part of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. A team of liquidators is sent to clear the power plant’s roof of the graphite, while Khomyuk implores Legasov to tell the truth about Chernobyl. At the IAEA in Vienna, Legasov goes with the official government version of what happened and Chernobyl, but during the trial for Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin, Legasov reveals that the KGB had suppressed information about the RBMK reactor’s flaws. He is stripped of his duties for his efforts, and committed suicide two years after the disaster. HBO’s Chernobyl very quickly became an acclaimed series after its release, and despite liberties taken with the accuracy, remains a highly gripping and compelling drama portraying the Chernobyl disaster, which is the most devastating nuclear accident in history.
Chernobyl is categorised as a historical drama, and while the series does merit praise for its authenticity and ability to capture the human aspect of the Chernobyl disaster, one of the series greatest strengths is that it also exudes elements of a horror. The horror genre is characterised by the protagonist’s powerlessness to change their situation and plays on the audience’s fear of what will happen next. In order to accommodate this, homicidal maniacs, supernatural phenomenon or cryptids are present. The fear in a horror movie often lies in suspense, counting on a foe remaining unseen in order to inflict maximum terror when it does arrive. While Chernobyl may not involve murderers, ghosts or monsters, the series nonetheless features all of the elements of a horror. The full scope of the disaster is left unknown in the first episode – after the explosion occurs, parts of the plant’s interior goes dark as wiring is severed, and walls begin crumbling. Injured technicians begin vomiting and suffer from nausea, while those who can stand desperately try to save their coworkers. Firemen sent to the scene remain unaware of the disaster’s true nature and are exposed to radiation from graphite channels that housed the fuel rods. The radiation emitting from exposed reactor becomes this invisible foe haunting the Ukraine landscape, indiscriminately damaging the cells of those in the area. Through the use of darkness and chaos, the interior of the power plant is transformed into a setting of horror and suspense. In this manner, Chernobyl effectively utilises horror elements to capture the idea that mankind’s worst enemy lies not with chainsaw-swinging madmen, disaster harbingers like the Mothman or vengeful spirits, but come from our own hubris and the costs of lies. These man-made monsters can be every bit as terrifying as those that are fashioned from folklore and fiction: radiation creeps up on its victims, who are powerless to evade and overcome it. The suspense and horror are lessened as Chernobyl progresses as Legasov and Shcherbina work out a containment and cleanup plan, although the ever-present threat of radiation hangs over the heads of those who venture into the affected areas.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.” –Valeri Legasov, Chernobyl
While Shcherbina directs the cleanup and containment efforts, Legasov and Khomyuk’s pursuit of the cause of the disaster leads them to the understanding that the RBMK type eactor used the Chernobyl plant had several intrinsic flaws. These flaws were redacted, and in conjunction with the arrogance of deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, resulted in the willful decision to bypass normal safety procedures. The reactor core, suffering from xenon poisoning as a result of having been run at a lower power level, began stalling, and Dyatlov ordered the power raised. However, when the power suddenly spiked, technician Akimov initiated an emergency shut-down. The graphite-tipped control rods would actually increase power, overwhelming the reactor and blowing the lid off, allowing oxygen to come into contact with the super-heated fuel rods, triggering a fire and explosion. Legasov recounts these discoveries to a Soviet court with a bitter finality, remarking that the sum of the design flaws, and Dyatlov’s disregard for protocol for the sake of his personal gain resulted in the disaster. In short, lies created the RMBK reactor’s flaws, and lies resulted in the disaster. Legasov’s biting remarks about the cost of lies at Chernobyl are vividly portrayed as the aftermath of the disaster: the rupture of a reactor and release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, contamination of thousands of square kilometres of land, and necessitated the mobilisation of a large amount of resources, both human and material, to contain it. The liquidators, miners, fire-fighters and others who worked tireless to prevent the catastrophe from expanding were only met with health issues or even death, despite their efforts. Vast tracts of land remain uninhabitable to this day. Through its imagery, Chernobyl shows the human cost of the disaster, the results that occur when individuals allow complacency and their own egos to drive their decisions. It is therefore especially poignant when one considers Legasov’s suicide at Chernobyl‘s beginning: despite all of the good he did, all of the expertise he had and the chance to work with Shcherbina, a party official who came to respect Legasov for his actions, none of it would amount to anything in the end, as society would prefer to live with its lies rather than address the truth.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Chernobyl‘s opening is as brutal as it is chilling; after Legasov records his thoughts on the situation onto cassette tapes, he hangs himself. Legasov is shown as committing suicide precisely two years after the explosion, whereas in reality, Legasov committed suicide a few days after the fact. The introduction sets the tone for the remainder of the series, a grim portrayal of the odds that Legasov, Shcherbina and Khomyuk were up against in trying to contain the disaster and prevent another occurrence.
- Long, narrow, dimly-lit corridors are a staple of horror movies. Koji Suzuki’s Dark Water and Ju-On use dark hallways to juxtapose the idea that despite the long sight-lines, darkness obscures an unknown and unseen terror. In Chernobyl, in the minutes after the reactor explodes, it is complete chaos as technicians find themselves in a damaged facility and Dyatlov openly denying that the RBMK reactor could explode. There are no onyrō here, but the terror of radiation and a facility whose structure has been compromised by the explosion.
- The first episode creates a sense of dread and suspense that matches any horror movie, although the enemy here is radiation and lies, so there are no jump scares. The atmosphere was so heavy that it was tangible to me when I first watched the scene: from staff trying to rescue one another, to firefighters, the sense of unease and doubt comes from the fact that no one’s really sure what just went down.
- By morning, a radioactive plume is hanging over the power plant, a result of the fires now burning thanks to the high temperatures generated by the fuel rods. The strikingly calm morning is contrasted with the disaster, and after one episode, I found myself hooked. The series released while I was attending F8, and I ended up watching it on Saturday evenings, one episode at a time, during May and June, until I finished the series.
- While the radioactive smoke reaches ominously towards Pripyat, the forests below begin dying off. This is a reference to the Red Forest, a ten square kilometre area of pine trees that absorbed much radiation in the aftermath of the disaster and turned a ginger colour before dying. The forest has since been bulldozed and buried, but the soil above remains one of the most contaminated areas in the exclusion zone.
- In Minsk, Belarus, scientist Ulana Khomyuk observes an unusually high amount of radiation and initially assumes it to be a nearby leak, but upon hearing it could be Chernobyl and realising communications have been lost, she resolves to get into the field herself. Khomyuk was not a real person, but instead, represents the scientists who were involved in the investigation surrounding the disaster.
- The scene of the medical staff dumping the irradiated clothing of firefighters and first responders to the hospital basement depicts the chaos nurses had in treating those who were affected by radiation poisoning. While the official protocol was to wash down and dress the victims in new clothing, the affected were taken into the building, and their clothing was removed, discarded into rooms in the basement where they continue to lie today. Urban explorers usually dare not venture into the basement, since the clothes are still highly radioactive.
- One aspect of Chernobyl that I greatly enjoyed was the changing dynamic between Legasov and Shcherbina. Shcherbina, a party official. Initially, Shcherbina starts out mistrustful of Legasov and regards him as expendable, even threatening to order him shot if the pilot does not fly over the exposed reactor, but Legasov’s commitment to the truth and knowledge impresses him. Over time, Shcherbina develops a professional respect for Legasov, vouching for him and offering him advice.
- With my assignment in Denver and Winnipeg last year, I empathise with Legasov. Being sent with a unique skillset somewhere to manage a crisis, with few friends and numerous opponents, was not an enjoyable experience. Like Legasov remarks, for all the good that was done, people will continue to only focus on the damage and forget about the unsung heroes that preventing things from becoming much worse. In my case, the app that I deployed to the App Store is still there, although it has not been updated in more than a year.
- Legasov lodges at the Polissya Hotel: it is one of the tallest buildings in Pripyat and was built to accommodate visitors to the power plant. I know the hotel best for being featured in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare‘s most famous missions, where Price and MacMillan sneak through the fields surrounding Pripyat to use the hotel as a vantage point for assassinating Zakhaev. These missions remain two of the most memorable for me in any first person shooter, right alongside Halo: Combat Evolved‘s “Silent Cartographer”, “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” of Half-Life 2 and the original DOOM‘s first mission.
- Legasov’s plan begins moving into action as helicopters begin dropping a sand-boron mixture onto the fire. This mixture is deemed a temporary solution: boron absorbs neutrons and the sand acts as a fire retardant. While there was indeed a helicopter crash at Chernobyl, it was not from radioactive fumes overwhelming the helicopter pilots. Chernobyl is authentic, but not realistic in the series: the series takes creative liberties in order to tie some events together better to fit the story and theme, and so, cannot be said to be an entirely faithful account of all events. The sand and boron, for instance, actually never made it into the reactor and therefore had a negligible impact in impeding the fire.
- While some may hold this as a fault against Chernobyl, I personally don’t have any qualms with deviation from reality. Here, a woman looks on as bus after bus (after bus) drives by, heading towards Pripyat with the aim of evacuating its residents. Pripyat was originally a town of around fifty thousand people, built to accommodate the Chernobyl plant’s workers, technicians and engineers, as well as support staff and their families. Compared to most Soviet cities, Pripyat was well-appointed, with restaurants, culture centres, and an aquatic centre, amongst other things.
- A day after the disaster, Pripyat was completely evacuated as a precaution. Residents were told they would be returning home soon, and as such, they left most of their belongings behind. Today, Pripyat stands empty, a ghost town that nature has begun reclaiming. The deserted town is popular amongst tourists, and while the radiation here is largely not of concern, there are pockets that could pose health risks for visitors.
- Legasov’s strongest trait in Chernobyl is an unwavering desire to do his job well and respect the truth: while the Soviet party members and Mikhail Gorbachev himself are shown as preferring false hope to the truth, Legasov plows forwards with his assessments and proposals of containment, as well as openly pointing out the risks of inaction. He and Khomyuk report on the potential for a massive steam explosion to occur should the molten reactor come into contact with the water that has seeped into the basement.
- Thus begins one of the most terrifying moments in Chernobyl: three men volunteer to enter the flooded, highly-radioactive basement and open the sluice gate that will let the water drain outside and be pumped away. Wading into a pitch-black, partially-flooded corridor, the men’s dosimeters begin emitting an overwhelming amount of noise, signalling to viewers just how radioactive it is down there. As the push onwards, the intense radiation causes their flashlights to fail. There are no spectres or monsters down here, but it was nonetheless a terrifying moment. In the end, however, they do manage to get the gates opened, and return to the surface alive.
- The pressures of the containment and investigation take their tolls on both Legasov and Shcherbina: Legasov in particular is under KGB surveillance, since his role in disaster management puts him in contact with secrets surrounding the RBMK reactor. While Chernobyl is a brilliant drama, the creative liberties the series takes are not representative of a late 1980s Soviet Union – Shcherbina did not have the authority to order Legasov shot, for instance.
- Besides Legasov, Khomyuk and Shcherbina, the story of Ignatenko’s wife is also told. After Ignatenko is exposed to a high dose of radiation, he is hospitalised and sent to a facility in Moscow for care, but soon dies. His pregnant wife comes into contact with him and loses her child shortly after: while she felt that this might have been from exposure to Ignatenko, this could not have been the cause of the child’s death, since those exposed to radiation are not necessarily radioactive.
- The soundtrack in Chernobyl adds much to the already-exceptional atmosphere: composed by Icelandic musician Hildur Guðnadóttir, the soundtrack makes use of actual sounds from a nuclear power plant to create an incredibly unsettling tenour, giving a tangible sense of what the radiation and uncertainty feels like. Guðnadóttir’s work is genius, and for her exceptional work, she was nominated for an Emmy. She also scored the incidental music to The Joker.
- Khomyuk’s efforts to find the truth sees her interviewing Akimov, Toptunov and Dyatlov: the former two tell a consistent story as the other engineers who were in the control room on the night of the explosion, but Dyatlov is uncooperative and belligerent. The real Dyatlov was perhaps as unpleasant as the Chernobyl portrayal, and he allegedly did threaten subordinates with dismissal if they did not carry out his orders. Dyatlov was ultimately sentenced to ten years in prison and was released after three, dying of heart failure from exposure to radiation.
- When rovers deployed to clear the roof of its radioactive debris fail, human cleaners are forced to hit the roof and manually remove the rubble. They are afforded only 90 seconds of work time before they are swapped out, and after an ardous effort, manage to clear the rooftops. A Sarcophagus was constructed to temporarily entomb the structure and prevent wind from dispersing the contaminants, but this structure was only intended to last three decades. In 1996, it was found the Sarcophagus was beyond repair, and two years later, the New Safe Confinement project was approved. This engineering marvel was not designed to just cover the site, but also has a pair of cranes that allow for the destroyed reactor to be dismantled. Construction on the project began in 2010 and finished last year, in 2018.
- One of the conflicts in Chernobyl is Legasov’s loyalty to his discipline pitted against his loyalty to the party. When he is sent to Vienna, he initially lies about Chernobyl and gives the impression that the other RBMK reactors remain safe to operate. However, Khomyuk, having gone to great lengths to figure out what happened at Chernobyl, implores Legasov to be truthful during the Chernobyl trial.
- Chernobyl makes extensive use of imagery to show the scope and scale of the disaster: while the radiation is invisible, its impact can still be tangibly felt. The fields of abandoned vehicles near Pripyat are a striking example: these were vehicles that were deployed to help with containment operations, and after the disaster was deemed under control, they were left in the fields owing to their high radioactivity. The derelict vehicles remain there to this day, where more intrepid visitors have since visited. Following the release of Chernobyl, foreign interest in the area increased, and with it, tourists who desired to walk through Pripyat and see the abandoned town for themselves.
- Chernobyl is an excellent series, but despite its grim theme and horror-like presentation, the more irreverent folks have taken to discussing the series in terms of internet memes, a reductionist approach that strips the series of its weight and meaning. Chernobyl deals with a complex topic, and isolating the mini-series into individual quotes taken out of context means that the themes of truth are lost in the process. In general, I am not fond of internet memes for this reason, since it stands contrary to my synthesis-driven, big-picture approach towards things.
- The fifth and final episode of Chernobyl reveals that owing to power requirements in Kiev, the Chernobyl plant was run at half-capacity to provide energy while at the same time, preparing the reactor for Dyatlov’s safety test, where he would attempt to power the backup systems using the reactor’s residual energy. However, running the reactor at reduced capacity introduced an excess of xenon, which is a neutron moderator. The technicians struggled to control the power for the test, causing an impatient Dyatlov to order the others to raise the power at any cost.
- In the end, the sum of Dyatlov’s arrogance, and the fact that the technicians were not aware of the impact of graphite-tipped control rods, would bring about disaster. The latter was the consequence of lies, of the Soviet government suppressing the flaws inherent in the original RBMK designs. The debt that Legasov refers to is that the science behind the explosion is unyielding, irrespective of the operator’s emotions and personal opinions. Thus, to ignore it is to create a situation that becomes increasingly difficult to manage, until the point where, emotions and opinions or not, the events that science states to occur will in fact happen.
- During a break in court proceedings, Shcherbina admits to Legasov that despite his position, he is no one important and expresses open respect for Legasov, while Legasov reciprocates this respect, stating that Shcherbina’s position allowed him to act and help prevent any more loss of life. While the two may have gotten off to a rocky start, their professional relationship grows steadily stronger – the two embody the idea that politics and science can not only co-exist, but also be capable of cooperation. This was rather touching aspect about Chernobyl, and while politics and science of the contemporary period seem at odds with one another, I think that in the end, trust will always be returned to those who deal in and seek facts.
- One of my biggest dislikes are people who would go to the length of propagating a lie in order to avoid looking like a hypocrite: there is some ingrained belief in society that hypocrisy is the worst human fault of all, and that it is a sin to merely hold seemingly contradictory thoughts. In order to retain their social stock, it must therefore be acceptable to lie with the aim of appearing consistent. However, lying has worse consequences than being a hypocrite: Chernobyl shows that by allowing untruths to seep into a system, it becomes impossible to differentiate between fact and fiction.
- At the end of the day, hypocrisy is judged by the gap between one’s actions and words, rather than different words held by an individual (as many on the internet appear to believe), and therefore, the act of calling someone a hypocrite is a logical fallacy. I have significantly more respect for those who adhere to the truth, drawing conclusions with a combination of facts and my own judgement. I won’t think poorly of someone who holds moderate, contradictory thoughts or those who change their mind on something, but to lie and distort the truth (especially with emotions) is something that is unacceptable.
- Legasov’s explanations of what precisely went wrong in the control room and reactor on the morning of the accident ends with the reactor exploding: the first episode only shows the explosion in implicit terms, with Ignatenko seeing the explosion from the distance in his Pripyat apartment, and the aftermath shown in the reactor room. This created an incredibly powerful sense of unease that would have not been present had the explosion been shown close-up as it was in the finale. This was a solid choice, and on the whole, Chernobyl represents what is possible in terms of cinematography with respect to how changing the ordering and perspective of an event can have a clear impact on atmospherics.
- I realise that this post on Chernobyl is probably one of the most pessimistic talks I’ve ever written, and stands in stark contrast with what I had espoused for my eighth anniversary post, no less. However, this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Chernobyl – the opposite of that is true, as I deeply enjoyed watching this series for its incredible atmospherics, solid performances and a theme that, while relevant to the disaster itself, also can be applicable to society. I strongly recommend this HBO mini-series to all of my readers: besides providing an account of the people who worked tirelessly to migitate the disaster’s effects and contain it, Chernobyl is also about as close to a horror movie as one can get without any jump scares or onryō.
Legasov’s words extend far beyond Chernobyl and speak about the bleakness of society’s current attitudes towards facts and truth. The spread of misinformation on social media means that the truth is the first casualty: from the Trump administration’s adverse reaction to facts, to the dissemination of skewed and incomplete information from the Hong Kong Anti-Extradition riots, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. Even in the workplace, lies and complacency can become a problem: I have experience with this first hand. A year ago, I was originally brought in to validate and verify the existing functionality, as well as bring a few remaining work items to completion, for a mobile application for a computational oncology company. This company had sourced its development work to a consultancy in Winnipeg, and my involvement required working with a senior application developer who was rather similar to Dyatlov in stature and style: unpleasant and arrogant, this developer would constantly inform management that the lack of progress was a problem on my end, in order to cover up his own inability to implement a functional series of endpoints for the mobile app to utilise, and justified the complex, six-step registration system as a requirement for HIPAA compliance even if it came at the expense of usability. Despite the constant delays this senior application developer created through their incompetence and blame-shifting, I managed to complete my assignment of ensuring the mobile app was functional, successfully deployed to the App Store. I went on my way, and this senior application developer was dismissed, although like Legasov’s thoughts about Dyatlov’s punishment, I feel that his penalty was far too light: said developer would later find secure employment at a large insurance firm across the way from the hotel I stayed at while working on the project. Chernobyl offers viewers a glimpse as to what lies can do, and it is terrifying to suppose that those who would spread falsehoods continue to do so for their own gain, even in the knowledge that the cost of lies renders a debt that must be paid for in blood. It is an unfortunate state of things that lies and misinformation are as rampant as they are in society, but ultimately, as Legasov states in Chernobyl‘s ending, the truth will always be around and resist all efforts to bury it. This is an encouraging thought, since it means that for all the damage lies have done, the truth will endure and have its day eventually. For my readers, then, I would therefore ask a modicum of scepticism when reading about things, as well as always exercising one’s own judgement before accepting a claim – while respect for the truth continues to erode, we nonetheless have a responsibility to observe and respect it.