Nuclear fission is Prometheus’s fire, updated and amplified for modernity. Under specific conditions, it’s a revolutionary source of power; out of control, it’s deadly and devastating. The first practical use of nuclear energy was as a weapon, designed for the express purpose of killing tens of thousands with the push of a button, and that legacy has enraptured humanity’s collective imagination ever since. Atomic power could save human civilization or destroy it, perhaps even accidentally, and we’ve lived under that threat for 75 years now.
That fact has led to an immense tradition of fiction about nuclear war or radiological mayhem. But somewhat paradoxically, a nuclear disaster, in and of itself, doesn’t make for particularly interesting television or film. You can’t fight radiation the way you can fire, or hide from it like you can a tornado. In the trailer for HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, which premieres Monday night, Jared Harris’s Valery Legasov compares a radioactive atom to a bullet. Indeed, radiation kills instantly, though the process of dying from radiation poisoning can take anywhere from days to decades. By the time a nuclear accident happens, there’s nothing to do but limit the damage it causes.
A nuclear meltdown is not only more alien and irresistible than a natural disaster, it’s entirely anthropogenic. Fires, storms, and earthquakes occurred before industrialized society and will continue to occur after it ends. They can be written off on some level as acts of God, even when they’re caused, intensified, or exacerbated by human carelessness or malfeasance. Not so with a nuclear meltdown; nothing like it exists in nature. It doesn’t matter that nuclear power plants have a better safety record than fossil fuel power plants for the same reason it doesn’t matter that air travel is safer than driving: The deaths in those accidents are caused by something we all know humans weren’t designed to do.
There’s a story to be told about the heroic self-sacrifice of the firefighters, rescue workers, and other liquidators, as they came to be called, who died in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl meltdown. K-19: The Widowmaker told essentially this story aboard a submarine, as handsome, idealistic young sailors motivated by patriotism and a sense of duty stepped up to mitigate a nuclear disaster in progress; we saw them melted from the inside out for their trouble. But there’s no man-versus-nature story when there’s nothing natural about a nuclear power plant. Someone must be to blame.
Chernobyl will no doubt show the first responders and their gruesome deaths, but the biggest names attached to the project are actors playing scientists (Emily Watson and Harris, testing the limits of latter-day Soviet nebbishness) and politicians (Stellan Skarsgard in full politburo smarm as Boris Shcherbina and David Dencik as Mikhail Gorbachev). The Chernobyl meltdown was a unique accident but a systematic failure. The reason nuclear power, and air travel for that matter, is relatively safe is that extraordinary safety measures are instituted in order for consumers to enjoy the benefit of an inherently dangerous activity. But even safety systems as complex as those governing a nuclear power plant are not infallible. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 1979, a faulty valve at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania released radioactive coolant into the atmosphere, the most infamous civilian nuclear incident in American history. The sociologist Charles Perrow used Three Mile Island as a case study in the formation of normal accident theory, which posits that in a sufficiently complex system, some unanticipated combination of circumstances will eventually cause a failure.
The proximate cause of the Chernobyl meltdown was user error—the sloppy execution of a safety test, and the decision to continue the test after the reactor had been placed in an unstable configuration. The test was originally scheduled for midday, but was postponed and conducted in the middle of the night, through a shift change. Better management might have avoided disaster by calling the test off. Once the meltdown was underway, it took a day and a half to evacuate surrounding towns. The meltdown went unacknowledged by Soviet authorities until sensors at a power plant in Sweden detected elevated radiation levels. Even then, the government refused to acknowledge the Chernobyl accident until the Swedes threatened to alert the IAEA. Scenes in the Chernobyl trailer of the frantic scientist (Harris) attempting to persuade an oblivious politician (Skarsgard) of the gravity of the situation indicate the delayed evacuation and attempted cover-up will be at the heart of the miniseries.
There’s a tendency in Western media to portray Chernobyl as a specifically Soviet disaster, the result of ramshackle Russian engineering and latter-day Soviet governmental denialism. In a 2016 New Yorker article, “The Battles of Chernobyl,” historian Alex Wellerstein wrote: “To condemn the design of the RBMK-1000, much less nuclear technology itself, was to criticize Soviet know-how and jeopardize other economically necessary reactors of the same type. Human error was the only politically viable explanation.”
But while Chernobyl was a specifically Soviet disaster, it wasn’t uniquely Soviet. Ambitious engineering projects fail due to carelessness and sloppiness all over the world. Chernobyl is one of two nuclear accidents to be rated a Level 7—“major accident”—on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The other took place in 2011 in Japan. And while the Three Mile Island malfunction was less deadly than Chernobyl, it was also caused by a combination of operator error and design defects, and it also took more than a day for the surrounding area to be evacuated, while different government agencies sent out contradictory information. Just as complex systems tend to break down, powerful people with a vested interest in the system working a certain way will stick their heads in the sand when it doesn’t.
Chernobyl immediately preceded the institution of glasnost, Gorbachev’s policy of openness, transparency, and friendliness with the West—relatively speaking—that itself immediately preceded the fall of the USSR. Gorbachev was left in the bizarre historical position of having served as general secretary of the Communist Party and a Pizza Hut pitchman in the same decade.
But even as the international cleanup effort enters its fourth decade, and even after the Ukrainian government opened the 30-kilometer quarantine zone to tourists, the legacy of the initial cover-up continues. Legasov, the chemist who led the Chernobyl investigation, took his own life on the second anniversary of the accident, leaving behind more questions than answers. In 1999, Belarusian physician Yury Bandazhevsky was sentenced to eight years in prison, supposedly for taking bribes from parents of prospective students—he says the Belarusian government was trying to stop and discredit his research into the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster.
The trailer for Chernobyl features lingering shots of people dying of radiation poisoning, of the stricken no. 4 reactor burning, of a bird falling out of the sky, all in the slate-gray overcast color palette American filmmakers use to convey the concept of “Eastern bloc,” with the soundtrack of a creepy Russian voice calling for attention over a loudspeaker. Those stark images, that ingrained nuclear terror, are the hook. We’ll see which historical or cultural path Chernobyl follows once it gets viewers to bite; no story of a nuclear accident is only about the accident itself.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.