On April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at a Soviet nuclear power station in northern Ukraine exploded. As with almost everything in Soviet history, that is about all anyone can agree on, but it was enough. The worst nuclear accident on record, Chernobyl released the equivalent of 350 atomic bombs exploded over Japan. The Soviet state rushed to deal with the crisis, sacrificing untold numbers of men and materiel to contain the catastrophe, while at the same time hiding it from local and international scrutiny. But the damage was already done. The accident exposed the rot, corruption, and deception at the foundation of the Soviet state. Some believe the accident precipitated the collapse of communism and dissolution of the Soviet Union even if precious little evidence supports that. But few doubt that Chernobyl is devastating as a real-world metaphor for all that was wrong with 20th-century communism.
A recent HBO miniseries, “Chernobyl,” based largely on the works of Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich and the newly published “Midnight in Chernobyl” by Adam Higginbotham, visually documents the disaster. Higginbotham writes the first comprehensive narrative of the catastrophe in English. Alexievich’s 1997 work documents the individual toll of the catastrophe in intimate, human terms. Together, they provide a rich account of this extreme event in human history about which, they amply demonstrate, we still know so little.
Consisting of four RBMK-1000 reactors, the Chernobyl power station contributed to an expanding electrical grid fueling the Soviet economy with much-needed electricity. The RBMK-1000 was a second-generation power generator. The Soviets were the first to field commercial nuclear reactors and the RBMK-1000 was only a generation beyond the earlier “piles” that enriched uranium or produced plutonium for the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals after World War II.
The Soviet Union leapt ahead, in part, by cutting corners on design, safety, and quality. Reactor engineering and construction were recklessly shoddy. Soviet scientists knew this after the construction of the first few plants but issued no modifications or warnings. Not surprisingly, Reactor #1 at Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) itself careened toward an accident just months before the infamous meltdown in April 1986. That was just one of several nuclear accidents across the Soviet Union that have only recently come to light and that Higginbotham reports as a prelude to the Chernobyl catastrophe.
Soviet reactors were a physical manifestation of all that was wrong with its system of government. The RBMK-1000 was enormous. The core itself was larger than entire Western reactor systems, redundant containment units included. It was so large that often the reactivity in one part of the core seemed to operate independently from the rest. Technicians often couldn’t even measure what has happening deep in the fuel rods. The reason for the size was not simply the Soviet mania for gigantism; the uranium fuel was not as refined or enriched. In addition to being much larger, this systemic flaw made the reactor dangerously unstable at low outputs.
Chernobyl nuclear power station had four reactors, each protected from the environment only by a steel-reinforced concrete pad and a huge, 2,000-ton cap on the reactor that threaded the fuel rods, moderators, and cooling water into the core. By contrast, most Western reactors had at least three containment structures to protect against explosion or meltdown. The Chernobyl’s obsolete design was water-cooled and graphite-moderated, meaning that the hot fuel rods were nestled in columns of highly flammable graphite, essentially pure carbon. Instead of flooding the core with water the RBMK used what was in effect a giant radiator, instead of a pool, to cool the fuel. Each flaw contributed to the accident.
All industrial accidents, from airplane crashes to oil refinery fires, result from a cascade of equipment failures and human error. No single glitch or misapprehension is the direct cause, but all of them in order can lead to an accident. Chernobyl is no different, although in this case unlike others the system of government and its paranoid ruling culture were also contributing factors.
The miniseries views this disaster cascade as the story’s central mystery to solve: when the reactor careened out of control during a safety test, the shutdown order acted not as a brake but as a detonator. Soviet scientists and engineers had observed this phenomenon in other reactors of the same type but did nothing to remedy the flaw. A shutdown, or SCRAM, is supposed to kill the nuclear reaction by flooding the core with neutron absorbers like boron. In the case of the RBMK-1000 reactor, the AZ-5 button lowered graphite-tipped boron-clad control rods, initially displacing water as a neutron absorber, speeding up instead of slowing down the reaction.
At Chernobyl, that initial heat spike instantly vaporized the cooling water. This in turn released an explosive force that destroyed the fuel rods and moderator channels and ruptured the reactor container. Fresh air then poured into the breach, combining hydrogen and oxygen with super-heated graphite, which caused a second explosion that destroyed the reactor and its building. The force of the explosion was so great that it knocked the 2,000-ton lid off the reactor. It fell back at a 15-degree angle, both exposing the core to the outside while protecting it from a direct attack. Tons of uranium fuel and radioactive graphite were blown free of the building. Some of this was instantly vaporized and floated away on the wind. Meanwhile, hundreds of tons of fuel and graphite caught fire inside the reactor, spewing more contamination across eastern and northern Europe for nearly two weeks until the fire burned itself out.
The miniseries follows a handful of true-to-life characters, including the nuclear scientist Valery Legasov played by Jared Harris, apparatchik Boris Scherbina played by Stellan Skarsgard, and Lyudmila Ignatenko, played by Jessie Buckley, the newlywed wife of a fireman who was among the first at the disaster site. Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson (likely based on Vasily Borisovich Nesterenko as interviewed by Alexievich), is an awkward composite character designed to represent the many Soviet scientists who aided the cause. It is true the narrative lacks female protagonists, but they are not entirely absent: the architect of Pripyat, the model city built to house Chernobyl workers, was a young Russian of Chinese descent named Maria Protsenko who is still alive and working in Kyiv. Similarly, the top expert in radiation medicine at Moscow Hospital #6 was Dr. Angelina Guskova. Protsenko helped organize the evacuation of Pripyat and Dr. Guskova treated dozens if not hundreds of acute radiation casualties flown in from Chernobyl.
Legasov and Scherbina do not show a distinctive character arc. It is true that Legasov hanged himself two years to the day following the accident. It is not clear why. While he declaims the damage done by a culture of secrecy, suspicion, and deceit, he does not appear wracked with guilt or hypocrisy that he toed the party line while reporting on the accident to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Scherbina, for his part, appears to be the stereotype of a blustery commissar. There is little human interest here. Considering all the compelling perspectives documented by Alexievich and Higginbotham, it is a shame that each episode doesn’t focus on a single individual, as was done in a series like “Band of Brothers”.
“You are dealing with something that never occurred on this planet before,” Legasov tells Scherbina in the miniseries. The reactor was exposed. It was on fire. The core fuel, without coolant or dampener, was melting down. Every surface surrounding the accident site was covered in lethally radioactive debris. The position immediately above the reactor was a crossfire of deadly gamma, alpha and beta radiation. The fire was too intense to douse with water which simply flashed to steam and carried off more nucleotides into the atmosphere. Liquidators had to stop the fire to get at the core, which threatened to melt down completely, burn through the containment unit and concrete pad, and enter the water table serving two million people in the Dnieper river basin and the Black Sea, including Ukraine’s largest city, Kyiv.
The Soviet commission convened to remedy the disaster determined that the first, immediate step was to smother the fire by bombarding the exposed reactor with heavy materials like lead, sand, and boron. This required a heroic effort by hundreds of aviators who had to position their helicopters directly above the fire and receive huge amounts of radiation while they dumped their suppressive loads, blindly, into the smoke. They flew hundreds of sorties. During one of the initial runs, a helicopter collided with a crane and fell from the sky like a rock; the miniseries faithfully recreates this horrifying event .
But this was simply heroic futility, one of many depressing stories from the “Battle of Chernobyl”. In the miniseries, Scherbina cheerily announces to the Politburo that the fire is out. But the reality was more prosaic and also more terrifying: the high-risk aerial attack had no effect on the fire whatsoever. After the accident site was covered by its first, faulty containment called the sarcophagus, teams entering the reactor found nothing of the several thousands of tons of material in the reactor compartment. The graphite fire burned itself out. Instead, most of the deflected cargo joined the melting fuel as a toxic, radioactive slurry known as corium that was eventually found, cooled, coagulated and hard as glass, in the plant basement.
If there was one true effective operation that actually averted a worse catastrophe, it was the work of a handful men who entered the dark, flooded suppression pool below the reactor. The water here, it was feared, could lead to an even larger steam explosion than the one that ruptured the reactor in the first place. The miniseries needlessly exaggerates the threat, claiming that the explosive yield could be as large as a hydrogen bomb. A more conservative but realistic fear was that the steam explosion could destroy the rest of the complex, including the three other fully fueled reactors at Chernobyl. The men entered with inadequate equipment and faulty dosimeters – their horrifying, claustrophobic work well-documented by the miniseries – and managed to drain the suppression pools. They received 1,000 rubles for their heroism in addition to lethal doses of radiation.
Within days of the accident, the vast resources of the Soviet state began to be mobilize. This was mostly people. Between 600,000 to 750,000 men were activated to clean up, or “liquidate,” the accident site by the end of 1986. For perspective, that is equivalent to the entire Soviet force deployed to Afghanistan over the ten-year war there. Thousands of vehicles were sent and abandoned; thousands of tons of lead, boron, liquid nitrogen, sand and water were poured into the reactor. The fallout dispersal and disparate impact on individuals made the human effects of radiation difficult to predict. Consequently, both blithe complacency and hysterical alarm ran rampant in the population.
It is shocking, even in retrospect, how ill-prepared the Soviet Union was for this accident. The country’s defense policy explicitly prepared to fight and win a nuclear war. But basic equipment such as personal protective gear, hardened vehicles, ventilators, and working dosimeters were in short supply for this one incident. The government was entirely unprepared for an accident of this scale, which released the equivalent of fuel of some 350 atomic bombs of the kind dropped on Japan in World War II. Soviet citizens appear to have swallowed their own propaganda about the “peaceful atom”: not even the workers at Pripyat thought a reactor fire much cause for concern. Only dedicated nuclear scientists raised the alarm.
The commission tried to use robotic vehicles to clean up the accident and scout the site. These included off-the-shelf Soviet rovers designed for the moon and equipment bought on the sly from the West. They all proved to be inadequate as radiation quickly fried their delicate electronics. But in order to build the containment sarcophagus to isolate the damage, adjoining surfaces to Reactor #4 had to be cleared of radioactive fuel and graphite. With the robots failing, the job fell again to men – “biorobots” – who worked the roof in 90-second shifts, their groins and heads protected by strips of lead. This was truly heroic and important work, as containing the accident site required access to these surfaces.
The sarcophagus itself was a paragon of Soviet engineering, built quickly and inadequately. No sooner than it was constructed than it began to fail. One of its support beams rested on the damaged wall of the reactor chamber; the steel rebar began to rust immediately and the roof leaked water. Only some 30 years later was the largest moving structure ever built, the New Safe Confinement, erected over the sarcophagus, to start the deconstruction and cleanup that will end no sooner than 2065.
Higginbotham poignantly notes the sarcophagus and New Safe Confinement are effectively the tomb of one of the few documented deaths of the accident. It is widely assumed that Valery Khodemchuk, a coolant pump operator, was instantly killed the moment the reactor exploded. His body remains inside, somewhere – perhaps to be recovered later more than 80 years after he died.
Narrative liberties aside, the attention to detail and verisimilitude in the miniseries is extraordinary, from the Mi-8 workhorse helicopters to the ineffective “petal” cloth respirators, black overalls and lead strips lashed to men’s bodies. The film shows you the reactor explosion and takes you onto the roof with the biorobots in a mad, claustrophobic scramble with deadly materials on a surface so alien it might as well be the moon. The entire miniseries is an extraordinary replication of a time and place that no longer exist. (Lithuania stands in for much of the Ukrainian steppe, including the model city of Pripyat.)
The miniseries’ producers have obviously watched some of the great Soviet director Andrei Tartovsky’s work. His lingering camera focus of organic shapes seen in the original Solaris and his ominous pans across sinister landscapes in Stalker are echoed in the miniseries (along with Tartovsky’s most-recent avatar, Annihilation). The disaster site, and in particular the relentless smoke that rises from the reactor, combined with a similarly eerie soundtrack, conveys something dark and otherworldly, a mystery we will never fully comprehend.
Indeed, aspects of the disaster have now entered legend, even myth. Observers have long noted that the English translation of Chernobyl, wormwood, is a biblical allusion to the end of days. The exact time of the accident, at 01:23:45, has a chilling, almost planned precision to it. Several witnesses, as documented in Svetlana Alexievich’s narrative account, report seeing a bright blue beam of light ascending from the reactor, presumably the ionized atmosphere exposed to the reactor core. People taste metal near the accident, feel the pin-pricks of radiation on their face, smell the sweet scent of ozone. It is conventional wisdom among the liquidators that alcohol blocks radiation, and the more the better. Alexievich documents gothic rumors swirling around the accident: summary burial of radiation victims, massive evacuations, the accident caused by “cosmophysical forces,” river pikes without heads or tails, radioactive wolves and foxes playing with village children, children born with yellow liquid in their veins instead of blood.
Real questions remain. We will never know how many people died following the accident. Alexievich’s anecdotal approach documents ample death, sickness, deformations, and disease. But without a public health baseline, which the Soviet Union and the succeeding states of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all neglected to document, we can only make educated guesses about the final casualty count.
It may well be true, as Mikhail Gorbachev stated long after the Soviet Union collapsed and in a furious tirade against Gorbachev that Alexievich documents, that Chernobyl was the beginning of the fall. As the apotheosis of the Soviet experiment, it seems to have destroyed any lasting faith in the system among the Soviet people. But that is as impossible to prove as the final death toll from the accident, in which case it remains the greatest object lesson of the 20th century.