Until around a month ago, people knew little of the events that occurred at Chernobyl some 33 years ago. While many could tell you that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered from a critical nuclear catastrophe, few could explain or understand the range of the meltdown. The HBO adaptation of this horrific sequence provides insight to that fateful day.
Chernobyl, the five-part miniseries, articulates a point that many fail to see while thinking of the nuclear accident: that the communist Government of the Soviet Union plays perhaps the largest role in this disaster. To understand this, we must provide a brief background into the decisions surrounding this failed plant.
To the surprise of nobody, the West designed their nuclear reactors with more safety in mind than those in the Soviet Union. The USSR used an exclusive type of reactor titled an RBMK-1000. Unlike nuclear plants found here, the RBMK-1000s created something called a “positive void coefficient” which created an excess of steam, causing a spike in power. The flawed design also utilized control rods with graphite tips.
The containment vessel also consisted of a small concrete shield around the core. In the West, reactors typically shield the containment vessel, which shields the core to ensure the safety of all. The Soviet Union tried cutting costs by making their own safety, or lack thereof, codes for their reactors.
Control rods, composed mainly of boron, exist to halt nuclear fission. Graphite, however, generates a stronger reaction. While the tips may only touch the core for seconds before the boron, those mere seconds, coupled with the aforementioned errors, proved long enough to cause the worst nuclear reactor accident in human history.
THE FATAL SAFETY TEST
A safety test scheduled for April 25th, 1986 of the Fourth Reactor at Chernobyl bred this behemoth. A planned test on April 25th delayed due to a need for power in Kiev, Ukraine. Plant executives ordered for the night crew to undertake the test. The power station, already at unreasonably low power levels, faced danger. The RBMK reactor could run at no lower than 700 megawatts. They needed this minimum power level to burn xenon gas, for if not, the xenon would suffocate the core and strike disaster. Unfortunately for the operators at Chernobyl, the plant dipped into the double digits, creating an unprecedented problem for them. After a few minutes of modifying the controls, they stabilized power at 200 megawatts.
The shift supervisor, Anatoly Dyatlov, forced the operators to continue with the test despite these gross miscalculations. In classic Soviet-style, Dyatlov ignored all warnings and rebuttals from staff. At 1:23 AM on April 26th, 1986, Chernobyl Reactor No. 4 blew the roof off and exposed the deadly core to our vulnerable world.
SOVIET COVER UP
The disgusting results of the Chernobyl explosion pale in comparison to the disastrous mishandling of the incident by the Soviet government. While first responders clearly could not understand the entirety of the damage, and unknowingly walked into their death (see Vasily Ignatenko), the communist government refused to listen to experts on nuclear physics and let many oblivious citizens of neighboring Pripyat absorb lethal doses of radiation for nearly 36 hours following the accident.
The Soviet Union only admitted to Chernobyl once reactor operators in Sweden registered high radiation levels despite no problems in their plant on April 28th, 1986. Although the world quickly discovered the horror due to Sweden, General Secretary of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev refused to acknowledge Chernobyl on the global stage until May 16, 1986, a full 18 days later. Even in this interview, he still parrots false narratives meant to discredit Western research and legitimize the Soviet Republic.
Gorbachev appointed a committee to tackle the Chernobyl epidemic, headed by Boris Shcherbina. Shcherbina then summoned nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, along with other scientists, to help him understand the scope of the accident. Legasov called upon his vast knowledge of nuclear physics to try to teach those around him of the dangers of radiation. The Soviet Union effectively blocked out his statements as they didn’t align with their false idea of what actually happened.
JUSTICE IS SERVED?
In perhaps the only instance of remote justice regarding Chernobyl, Anatoly Dyatlov, Viktor Bryukhanov (plant director), and Nikolai Fomin (chief engineer) all received ten years hard labor for criminal mismanagement on that fateful day. The sentencing of these three men waited until over a year later, however. Soviets involved with the construction and coverup of Chernobyl, unsurprisingly, faced no prison time.
The Soviet Union, a heavily centralized government that forbade truth and scrutinized transparency caused the permanent evacuation of tens of thousands and created a nuclear wasteland that will remain uninhabitable for the next 50,000 years. The evils of socialism and communism extend far past Pripyat. Socialist governments continue to hide the truth from their citizens. As stated by Jared Harris, who portrayed Valery Legasov in HBO’s rendition of Chernobyl, “The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all”.
I highly recommend watching Chernobyl. While it may not show 100% historical accuracy, the show creates an intense theatrical experience while highlighting the evils of the Soviet government regarding Chernobyl. Most modifications to the truth remain symbolic in nature, such as the miners removing their clothes, or the role of Ulana Khomyuk, a fictional character who represents the plethora of scientists that aided Legasov and Shcherbina.
Mikhail Gorbachev himself explicitly states that Chernobyl “was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union”. The sickening reality of this disaster, coupled with the weak coverup led to a gradual increase in freedom of the press.
Some scenes depict the graphic reality of radiation poisoning to the degree of Chernobyl. Despite the availability for more grotesque moments, the series stays true to its purpose and only briefly displays the men with terrible radiation sickness. Some foul language appears, but overall, the directors effectively construed their message: that the Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear snowball that got worse with every lie told.
Photo courtesy of AwOiSoAk KaOsIoWa
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