This past week I finished watching the gripping and educational 5-part drama Chernobyl, based upon the book by Svetlana Alexievich titled “Voices from Chernobyl”. It stars Jared Harris, who was previously in Mad Men and also played King George VI in The Crown as Elizabeth’s chain-smoking and stuttering father (of The King’s Speech fame played memorably by Colin Firth). It also stars Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson. Harris plays real-life person and nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, who along with many others was part of the clean up project that became the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in April 1986. In a few ways I see parallels with the story of Kursk, the Russian nuclear sub that had an accident and the seamen were put in a perilous position with their lives at stake due to no fault of their own. It poses the question, what would you do if your government denies the level of severity of an accident to keep up appearances, while putting others as risk while looking to fix the problem. The Kursk had the challenge of a sub being down, and the mini-sub that could connect to it to remove the trapped sailors being old and incapable of docking and locking onto it. The UK offered to help but was denied. In Chernobyl, there was highly radioactive materials sitting strewn about on the plant rooftop, and no capping measures of the radioactive steam could take place without that material being moved back into the core. Robots from Germany that were ordered to remove it were sent incorrect specs on the level of radiation that the robots would be exposed to, and they subsequently (and inevitably) failed. What results is part of the most heartbraking and painful aspects of watching what unfolds; the human toll of ordinary people who are doing their duty. Sometimes these real life heroes knew what they were doing and went in with eyes wide open. Others, sadly did not and they were told nothing. They were mostly young men, doing their mandatory military service and they ended up getting the short end of the stick as far as perilous duty. Little did they know about the risks that they were facing, that their superiors who made decisions did. Could this happen in the West? Absolutely. Pride is not limited to the Russians. Nor is human error and other everyday failings (like wanting to get a promotion and looking to push ahead with a procedure that might be called risky). It’s disturbing moreso because it has all-to-familiar human failings, and can’t be dismissed as just a Russian problem.
The series jumps around in timeline somewhat from later in the story initially and then back to the evening itself when the accident occurred. My heart goes out to every one of those first responders who did their duty (fire fighters, medical staff, those brave souls working inside the power plant). Then there is the aftermath shortly thereafter with some individual stories, and others that are longer. The political side kicks in as this issue goes up to Gorbachev and his leaders in the Kremlin. The global impact can be felt shortly thereafter as neighbouring countries begin to notice higher than normal levels of radiation. All the while one thinks about the people on site, doing clean up, and the impacts that are being done across the board (people, animals, environment etc). The final episode pulls it all together as you see what was driving the humans in charge of the test. You see the chain of events which scientifically lead to the result. And the results are devastating as you see an area surrounding the city that is cordoned off, and uninhabitable. The area covers 2600 square kilometres. People were told their leaving would be a “temporary measure”, which was 33 years ago. The official Soviet death toll of the event, unchanged to this day, is 31. In the end this series does what television and movies can do best; teach, inform, and open up communication on how things can change and be different. It also gives a glimpse into the lives of people and places you wouldn’t have been exposed to before. There are villains, there are many heroes and plenty of people that we can identify with. A show worth finding and catching if you can.