Chernobyl is a 5-part drama series produced by HBO/Sky TV. It tells the story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in April 1986. The series shows us how the disaster occurred, its immediate and long-term effects on the lives of many, the heroic efforts of the Soviet people in preventing a disaster from becoming something far worse, and the search to uncover the truth as to how it was allowed to happen at all. We view events through the eyes of three main protagonists: Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) – the scientist given the twin tasks of dealing with the consequences of the disaster and investigating its causes. Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård) – a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who accompanies Legasov to Chernobyl, and Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) – a fictional character created to represent the team of scientists who helped Legasov manage the situation.
After a brief flash-forward to the suicide of Legasov, we are given no time to get to know the characters as we are plunged straight into the control room at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, where a routine safety test goes wrong and the unthinkable happens: the core of reactor #4 explodes. All of the radiation measurements taken by plant employees in the immediate aftermath of the accident were reported at 3.6 roentgens, but it was soon acknowledged that this was the maximum reading possible on the devices at hand. “Not great, not terrible” is the verdict of at least two people, one of these being deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov. Dyatlov steadfastly refuses to believe that he is dealing with anything but a failed test, ordering his team to pump in water to cool the reactor core. “There is no core,” his astounded engineers continually tell him. Later, when the true level of radiation is measured, it is revealed to be 15,000 roentgens every hour – or twice the level of radiation released by the bomb dropped in Hiroshima.
As the first episode progresses, we witness the efforts of the local firefighters to put out the initial fire, and of the plant engineers hopelessly trying to minimise any leak. We see the residents of Pripyat, a town specifically built to house the employees of Chernobyl, come out to watch as the fire at the plant blazes on the horizon. Meanwhile, the plant director and manager (Viktor Bryukhanov and Nikolai Fomin) insist that everything is under control, joining Dyatlov in their unswerving faith in the Soviet system.
When the Soviet government meet to discuss the accident, it is generally agreed that everything is under control. Boris Shcherbina jokes that the reported radiation level is so low that Chernobyl would be a good place to go if anybody was due an X-ray. There are laughs around the table, and the meeting is quickly adjourned. However, Valery Legasov, patiently waiting his turn, voices his objection, pointing out that everything is far from OK. His arguments and obvious expertise are sufficient to convince General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to dispatch him to the disaster zone, Shcherbina tasked with overseeing the project.
Chernobyl is not an easy watch. There are scenes that are downright horrific, but it’s a story that deserves telling. For every brutal scene, there is an act of heroism, and in each case, you’ll find yourself asking whether you’d have been able to act in the same way. For the most part, these were ordinary people asked to deal with extraordinary circumstances. When three volunteers are required to don diving gear and swim in the radiated waters of the doomed plant to open a valve, meaning almost certain death, they ask why they should do it. Shcherbina’s response is, “If you don’t, millions will die.” Three men step forward. When a team of miners is approached to dig a tunnel through the concrete below the reactor, and excavate a space large enough to house the heat exchanger that is vital to preventing a catastrophic meltdown in the reactor core, they work for weeks in extreme conditions to get the job done. Later, when the worst-case scenario has been averted, teams of men work in 90-second bursts to run out onto the roof of the reactor so that they can shovel the highly-toxic pieces of the graphite, that once covered the reactor core, over the edge in preparation for sealing the leak.
The firefighters who first responded are seen recovering from their burns in the hospital. But what at first appears to be superficial damage turns out to be something far worse. Just as Legasov had explained to stoic Shcherbina, initial recovery is followed by severe blistering of the skin and unimaginable pain as the body’s organs decompose, with death arriving shortly afterwards. We see firefighters and plant workers alike suffering in this way, the makeup department sparing us nothing in depicting the true horrors of death by radiation. Their bodies are laid in what looked like metallic coffins (presumably lead-lined), and buried in a mass grave filled with concrete. Later in the series, the bodies of radiated animals, hunted down and shot by a group of soldiers, suffer the same fate, except without the coffins.
“You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to understand what happened at Chernobyl,” Legasov states in his opening remarks at the trial of those deemed responsible. The final episode makes for compelling television, as Legasov calmly lays out his findings, explaining for those assembled and the viewer alike, just how Chernobyl’s #4 reactor suffered such a catastrophic failure. The trial is intercut with scenes in the control room immediately before and after the accident. Earlier, we’d seen Dyatlov under pressure from the plant’s director to perform the safety test. Now, despite repeated warnings from his senior engineer, Dyatlov orders that the test be carried out, threatening his team with the sack if they fail to comply with his instructions. This scene, allied with Legasov’s analysis, makes sense of the chaotic scenes with which the series started. Near the end of the trial, Legasov points out the inherent flaw in the design of the Boron control rods that formed part of the system’s failsafe system, concluding that if human error was partly to blame, it was only one part of the chain that led to the disaster.
Whilst the whole production is superb, for me, the professional relationship that develops between Legasov and Shcherbina, Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård superb in their respective roles, is most noteworthy. Shcherbina is initially sceptical of Legasov’s claims that they are dealing with a disaster on an unprecedented scale, but slowly comes to realise the truth in the scientist’s words. One of the most sobering scenes in the whole series occurs when Legasov is dismayed that Pripyat has not been evacuated, meaning that so many civilians remain in close proximity to the plant. “We’re staying here,” states Shcherbina, the implication being that if they were okay, then the general population would be as well. “Yes, but we’ll be dead in five years,” Legasov replies matter-of-factly. There is no response from Shcherbina, the look on his face telling the viewer everything about his feelings. Later in the scene, the politician receives a phone call informing him that the world now knows about the disaster. “They are afraid to let their kids outside. In Germany,” he says in astonishment as he looks out of the window to see Soviet kids passing by, ignorant to the fact that they are living next to a damaged reactor leaking radiation.
During a break in the trial, Shcherbina laments the fact that he is a nobody – a servant of the state sent to deal with the aftermath of an incident that no one believed was a big issue – “an inconsequential man who has stood next to those who matter” as he tells Legasov. Legasov responds by pointing out that he is just a scientist doing a job that any of his colleagues could have done. Whilst it was him they heard, it was actually Shcherbina who they listened to – the man who made the difference by supplying the almost impossible number of men and vast quantity of materials required for the clean-up operation.
Emily Watson is also excellent in her role as Ulana Khomyuk. As noted in the informative slideshow that closes the final episode, the character of Ulana Khomyuk is fictional but was created to represent the team of scientists who assisted Legasov. It’s shocking to learn that some of these scientists were imprisoned and silenced for speaking out against the Soviet hierarchy’s official explanation of what happened.
Filmed in Lithuania, the production has mastered that concrete-under-grey-skies look that we associate with the Soviet-era. The producers also took the decision to film the actors using their normal voices, and whilst it may seem odd hearing a Scottish miner or a Yorkshire fireman, it is probably better than having the integrity of the series ruined by potential comedy attempts at Russian/Ukrainian accents. Series writer Craig Mazin also wrote the flawless script, and uses it to hammer home the point that in addition to the guilt of key individuals, it was the system that failed. Spend any time reading about the background of this production and you will note that pretty much everything that you are seeing on your screen – all those horrific images, the heroic deeds, the denial from those in charge of overseeing and running the plant – is as accurate as it can be, based on interviews with those who lived, and in most cases died, at Chernobyl. Yes, there are some fictionalised elements of the series, but as Mazin points out:
“We never changed anything to make it more dramatic than it was, to hype anything, to amp it up. For us, this is a story about truth. The last thing we wanted to do was fall into the same trap that liars fall into. This is very much a well-researched factual dramatic representation.”
Growing up in the 1980s, there was always the possibility of a nuclear war. Admittedly, this fear was distant and for most of the time, you could push it to the back of your mind. Chernobyl was the fear of a nuclear disaster made real. Not a war, or as a result of some surprise attack by a foreign power, but a terrible consequence of poor decisions made within a system. An oppressive political system where fear of others in the chain of command was enough to compel people to take the wrong actions, and a physical system designed so that there was no effective failsafe against such actions. The Chernobyl disaster was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. I still have a vivid recollection of sitting in the college library, reading about it in the newspaper in the days following the incident, and its significance is one of the reasons why I chose it as a key point in the backstory of one of my characters in my fictional novel. Now it has a well-researched and brilliantly produced television series to honour those who suffered. Make no mistake, this is a landmark piece of television that demands viewing.