Chernobyl – Stunning HBO Docudrama about nuclear disaster

[Note: Portions of this also appear in my review of HBO’s Chernobyl, available at Electric Review ]

The glowbugs aren’t going to be happy. Any time there is an online discussion of nuclear power, they show up, insisting that everything we think we know is a result of anti-technology hysteria and ignorance. The tone often is extremely condescending; I’ve been asked if I knew the sun was radioactive, or if I knew the difference between an atom and a molecule. Some are just trolls, others are there to try to massage the conversation about nuclear power, make it more industry-friendly.

I find them annoying, so I’m not entirely upset that they are consternated when something comes along, such as The China Syndrome, or more pertinent to reality, the Fukushima disaster, to mess with their cultish servility to the god of fission.

One of the more legitimate beefs the glowbugs have with the Jane Fonda/Jack Lemmon movie is that the accident happened because a water pressure gauge got stuck, resulting in a reassuring but incorrect reading. Lemmon gets suspicious and taps the gauge, which corrects, revealing the true reading, and at that point it is ON, baby.

Pretty silly, I agree, but that’s Hollywood.

The terrifying thing is that what happened at Chernobyl was nearly as silly. The control rods at the type of reactor at Chernobyl had graphite tips, and in a sequence of events very carefully described in the fifth and final episode, this led to a massive power spike when the system was put in emergency shutdown, resulting in instant vaporization of the coolant and precipitating an ‘impossible’ explosion.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was a nation in deep decay: not just the economic, industrial and military sectors, but in the leadership, which consisted of fearful, strutting groups of apparatchiks whose deepest instincts are to lie and downplay news that would upset the party leaders.

Comforting lies, when they become a way of life become a way of death. When the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant happened on April 25th, 1986, valuable time was lost from misinformation; that this type of reactor core could not physically explode, and that the emissions from the ruined plant were a hazardous but survivable 3.6 roentgens per hour.

High-end dosimeters were destroyed or missing in the rubble, so only the low-end ones could measure the radioactivity levels; and those maxed out at 3.6 roentgens per hour. The actual emissions were closer to 20,000 roentgens per hour. Between incorrect engineering theory and the mistaken readings, plant managers initially concluded that the core was intact, and that it was probably a hydrogen explosion. They dismissed highly radioactive chunks of graphite lying in the parking lot, used as cladding for the control rods, as being just charred concrete.

Lies that stem from ignorance, confusion and panic are understandable. As the catastrophe unfolded, the lies became systematic, deliberate, designed to protect a political system deemed incapable of error.

Another, similar plant in Lithuania, the Ignalina plant, very narrowly escaped a similar catastrophe in 1983, and had the people at Chernobyl been informed of this, they might have avoided the steps that led to the meltdown. Had the political system not intervened, the discovery of the graphic-tip design flaw would have been known to the engineers at Chernobyl. But it was classified as a state secret.

Even after people on the ground realized the enormity of the Chernobyl disaster, Moscow kept getting comforting lies from below for another couple of days. In another time and in another place, the national leader might have been hearing happy chirps about how Chernobyl was emitting isotopes of freedom. It’s a matter of blind luck that the meltdown didn’t reach ground water, producing a reaction that would have killed all chordate life forms for 600 miles around and permanently poisoning most of Europe and a large chunk of Asia, making them uninhabitable.

It wasn’t the first nuclear disaster in the USSR. In 1957, a reactor near a small town called Kyshtym had its cooling system fail and blew. Bad as the Soviet government was in 1986, it was even worse back then. The plant was dumping contaminated water and waste directly into a nearby lake. The government refused to acknowledge the accident, even as they slowly began evacuating towns in the area, some as long as two years (!) after the event. They eventually declared the exclusion zone a Natural Preserve (!) that was closed to the public, as it is to this day.

It came to light later that a secret city of some quarter million people, Chelyabinsk, was nearby, and heavily contaminated. In 1977 Soviet dissident and exile Zhores Medvedev wrote Hazards of Nuclear Power which mentioned the disaster and was subsequently derided, not only by the Soviet government but by western nuclear industry ‘experts’ (the glowbugs of that era). Medvedev then wrote Soviet Science, which provided irrefutable proof of the event. The Soviet government lied. So did the American nuclear industry and its government councils.

A statistical analysis made in 1997 revealed that the region irradiated by the Kyshtym disaster resulted in some 8,000 deaths from cancer above what might be expected. Medvedev’s first writing of the accident has anecdotal accountings of hundreds of people suffering severe radiation burns in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 20,000.

So the response of the Soviet government in the Gorbachev era was actually an improvement of sorts. They held a show trial to try and blame the event on ‘operator error’ and Valery Legasov, in charge of dealing with the immediate aftermath of the disaster, told the stunned court of the design flaw. The Soviet government responded by ghosting him, leaving him his title and his office but entirely isolating him from all other professionals in his field.

He recited everything he knew on to audio tape and smuggled it out to the scientific community, and that’s the only reason we know exactly what went wrong at Chernobyl. The Soviet government quietly re-engineered the design flaw over the next several years in order to maintain their perfection and restore their virginity.

There are estimates that between 9,000 and 22,000 died as a result of Chernobyl. The official death toll remains 31, and glowbugs here dispute even that low number, clinging to an ideology that nuclear power is incapable of error and that anyone who says otherwise is clearly an enemy to physics. They must maintain their pure virginity, you understand.

There are hundreds of nuclear power plants around the world (including 11 surviving sister plants to Chernobyl) and that while they might be safe, they are not fool-proof, and people with vested interests will disregard inconvenient truths for comforting lies. I expect to hear a chorus of derisive disapproval from western glowbugs, with the industry flaks being contemptible and the sincere believers dangerous.

The western world is rapidly falling into a dangerous mindset of authoritarianism and ideological rigidity, not dissimilar to the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and Gorbachev. That makes the horrible potential toll of accidents far higher than they need to be, and HBO’s Chernobyl serves as a warning that we should maintain a deep, healthy skepticism about any project where politicians have invested power and prestige; if the news isn’t great, then they will start lying.

At your expense.

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