For years it was occasionally mentioned in conversations but suddenly the word “Chernobyl” began ringing in everyone’s ears because of the HBO series. Friends kept insisting “It’s incredible, shocking, terrifying… you simply have to watch it!”.
We all remembered the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine back in April 1986. In Portugal we saw it as a terrible tragedy in distant, impenetrable USSR (Soviet Union), so far away it would never reach us. Little did we know then how it might have destroyed most of Europe and life as we knew it. Back then it was springtime, I was young and in love, enjoying my first job and full of hope for the future. We followed the news of course, but the USSR censored most of the information and it was long before internet and social networks made their appearance.
Last week I sat down to watch the five episodes of the series and was enthralled. I simply could not stop.
It’s not for me to tell you exactly how or why it happened; you’ll find it in many descriptions, books and the series itself, but I would share with you my impressions.
From the beginning it’s all about secrecy, keeping the truth hidden. I suppose it was a trait of the USSR – that there was the “real” truth and the “official” one. How many times have we, in our personal lives, tried to deceive ourselves by creating an imaginary reality that would please us far more than the actual one? If this is not good for us as individuals, it may turn into tragedy where states are concerned, and I believe that’s what happened in Chernobyl. Had the true dimension of the tragedy been immediately accepted, certainly many lives would have been spared as well as other terrible consequences.
The explosion of nuclear reactor nr. 4 happens during a test that was supposed to have been run by an experienced team, but due to delay it falls on the night shift composed by some young and inexperienced engineers. Even so they warn about danger but the man in charge, deputy chief engineer Diatlov, is worried about fulfilling his superiors’ orders in the intricate web of the Soviet hierarchy and appears insensible to all warnings. Finally, when things go wrong and he pushes the emergency button that will abort the operation and invert the process (given my ignorance in the matter I would urge you to read more information about these details) there is some malfunction that leads to an explosion that finally exposes the core of the reactor – something at first no one accepts may be possible – liberating colossal amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.
I was utterly shocked at what – even to people not knowledgeable about the atomic sector – seems to be gross negligence. All over the plant workers and engineers ran in complete disarray, not following an established crisis procedure and not even donning any special anti-radiation gear. Firemen are brought to the actual site of the explosion without any protection, no masks, no suits, nothing. No wonder they died from acute radiation syndrome (ARS) in two weeks, a horrible death as we may conclude not only by watching the series (impressive make up effects) but by reading the heart-rending description of one of the victim’s wives, Lyudmila Ignatenko, as well. This young woman followed her husband, Vasyli, one of the first firemen to get to the explosion site, to hospital in Moscow and stubbornly remained by him against all efforts of the hospital staff to send her away, thus contributing to turn him into one of the most well-known heroes of Chernobyl. Her description of his suffering, of how his body was decomposed while he was still alive, how his skin fell from his body and his internal organs were expelled through his mouth every time he coughed, appear to be part of a terror movie but were unfortunately part of a very real horror story that involved thousands of characters, many of which have died while countless others still suffer from radiation effects as of today.
According to the series radiation in some places will take up to thousands of years to dissipate, something almost unimaginable – how can we human beings create something so evil and long-lasting that it will outlive us all for countless generations? Moreover, radiation is insidious for it cannot be seen. It is something in the air, inexorably invading you without your suspecting it. This revelation comes as a shock to Boris Shcherbina, the vice-president of the Council of Ministers (entrusted – by Gorbatchov himself – with the task of going to the site to “solve the problem”, as if it were that simple), when Valery Legasov, a scientist and chief of the commission investigating the disaster, bluntly tells him they will both die in five years due to the radiation they have been exposed to.
Gross negligence, lies and deceit, hiding the truth, the deliberate sacrifice of so many human lives for the greater purpose of saving millions more (there being no mechanical ways to clean debris and solve technical issues in order to prevent further disaster the crisis team had to resort to divers, miners and soldiers who were sent to the most contaminated parts of the site without being warned they were being sent to a slow, agonising death – only told they would be working for the glory of the Soviet Union and paid a few rubles), true love and courage, ingenuity and loyalty, treason and ingratitude, are all components of this story that will leave no one indifferent. At times I even felt nauseated by the cruelty of it all, as when we learn the fireman’s wife has given birth to a little girl some months after the disaster, only to lose her a few hours later – the baby absorbed all the radiation her mother had been exposed to from her husband and at the hospital; or when we see a group of soldiers shooting all domestic animals in the isolation area, so that they would not spread contamination. Most of all we follow Valery Legasov’s (and his team) heroic fight against time to minimize the effects of the disaster, and their success, only to learn that he was not considered to be politically correct. In the end one can understand why he commits suicide, depressed for all the horrors he has lived through and the certainty of the disease that is already killing him, little by little.
Chernobyl is a scary story, of how things can go horribly wrong. Decades later (2011) there was Fukushima, but even if a commission found the disaster was a foreseeable one thus possible to prevent, crisis control was there and as far as I know contamination was reduced to a minimum. I knew we were living different times, but then I believe that acceptance of reality much helped control it, unlike what had happened in the USSR years before. As we say in Portugal, it’s “no use trying to conceal the sun with a sieve”, for its rays will always come through. Reality is what it is, not what we want it to be. And it has to be dealt with. In Chernobyl, back in 1986, it took a long time for the USSR and its leaders to accept reality. At a terrible cost. Even after a solution was found – a sarcophagus was built over the remains of reactor nr. 4, that will supposedly contain contamination for 100 years – there is a debate about its effectiveness. And anyway, what will happen after that period of time, as contamination will remain for thousands of years?
I hope you enjoy watching the series as much as I did. I daresay it will linger in your mind as it has in mine. I will also try to get further information about this fascinating subject. On my bedside table, now, Nobel-award Svetlana Alexievich’s “Chernobyl Prayer”. I expect I will be having some nightmares over the coming weeks. Even so, I want to learn more. We should all try to know more – we owe it to all those who died so that we might go on living our ordinary, radiation-free lives.