Chernobyl: A disaster which was waiting in the wings
June 11, 2019
“What is the cost of lies? It is not that we mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.”
These are the lines spoken at the beginning of Chernobyl and they form the core of the story. Chernobyl is a five-part miniseries created by HBO, currently streaming on Hotstar Premium. I was in school when I heard of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. A nuclear reactor had exploded in Ukraine in the Soviet Union on 26 April 1986. What were the implications of this accident? We hardly knew then.
As I watched the first episode, I could feel my guts churning. There was a physical pain I felt and eventually I was whimpering at the scale of the tragedy. How could people and a government be so callous and bull-headed? Denial. That was the first response to everything that had gone amiss. Unwillingness even to believe dosimeter readings showing spiralling radiation levels. And worse, massive cover-up in line with the then Soviet policy of secrecy and propaganda. Imagine not willing to evacuate people from the site of the disaster until the next day.
This docudrama recreates the tragedy. And it does it remarkably well. It is not an easy job: to explain the physics behind a nuclear reactor, to explain what went wrong in non-technical terms, and then to show the impact of pressing a few buttons at the wrong time. But script writer Craig Mazin does an amazing job. As does director Johan Renck. The human factor is at the core of this story. Whether it is gross incompetence and brute hierarchy, whether it is the quiet fortitude of those who served in the disaster zone knowing what they were in for– the human spirit dominates the whole story.
Early in the series, a firefighter lifts a piece of rubble curiously, wondering what it is. Moments later he is howling in pain as his hand is almost melting down with the radiation injury caused by graphite. His colleague senses something is terribly wrong. Yet when the line of duty demands, he walks into the fire-scene bravely. A nuclear physicist fully aware of the implications of remaining in Chernobyl on his lifespan, stays on and tries his best to contain the disaster. Four hundred miners work at 50 degrees C, stripped of their clothes, exposing themselves to lethal radiation. If this isn’t heroism what is?
Some characters are real. Others have been fictionalized to represent a group of people. But the series captures the essence of disaster through poignant visuals. A pregnant woman seeing her husband die painfully; a crowd of onlookers admiring the colours of the fire from a railroad, unaware of the dangers they are exposing themselves to; a pile of firefighter uniforms exposed to alarming radioactivity dumped in the basement of a hospital to this day; a young soldier being sent to exterminate friendly pet animals in the exclusion zone; a series of bland looking Soviet apartment buildings suddenly abandoned for months; children on their way to school inhaling death. They are chilling images which will remain with you long after you have watched them.
Science can be a friend. But when human ambition forgets the boundaries of right and wrong, disaster is lurking in the shadows. This was just one tragedy. Many more are waiting to happen. Because truth no longer seems important to us. As I watched this series, it made me aware of how we are being sucked into a whirlpool of lies and cover-up operations, how our lives are at the mercy of untruths that we are constantly being fed through propaganda, and how close we are to the verge of exterminating our entire race.
A few days ago, Sarang Bombatkar, one of my former students, sent me a frantic long message in the middle of the night, urging me to see this series. Now that I have seen it, I know what kept him awake all night. This is a series to be shown to every school student. For they ought to know how science can enslave us, when we let it fall into the wrong hands.