The Making of Nuclear Disasters: “Chernobyl”


 “Chernobyl”—the five-part miniseries—has created sensation across the world, with a record number of viewers.  It was screened on HBO and Sky Atlantic in May-June, and the last episode was on 3 June. It is also available on Hotstar. It is really an amazing experience to spend five hours before the screen (which, in fact, offer a lot of lessons for nuclear watchers). The visual narrative of the accident, its causative factors and the efforts to clean up the damage constitute the ‘core’ of the episodes.

It has been more than thirty three years since the accident first occurred in April 1986 and the effects are still being felt since then. For decades Chernobyl has been an epitome for the potential dangers of nuclear power. The world’s worst nuclear accident had a devastating effect on the surrounding area in what is now independent Ukraine and Belarus. The events of April 25-26, 1986 are now adequately documented, notwithstanding pressures of ‘state secrecy.’ A safety test went wrong, leading to an explosion that blew up part of RBMK-1000 reactor number 4, and a fire that burned for more than a week. A cloud of radiation was released into the atmosphere that spread first across the local area, and eventually over large parts of Europe. It’s estimated that the amount of radioactive material released was 400 times more than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima.

There are books and articles written on the disaster. But the five-part miniseries is much more an effective narrative than any other in place. In the miniseries, Russian scientists reveal the truth behind the explosion in Reactor 4 of the nuclear power plant, which sent out perilous radioactive material across northern Europe. The reactor itself was found to be fundamentally flawed after the Chernobyl accident. Though the ‘official casualty’ was just a two digit number (varies from 31 to 54), WHO estimated that as many as 4000 people would have died of first level radiation but other estimates say the causalities may range from 4000 to 90,000 ! The number of people evacuated was about 3 lakh and the toll of animals and birds would be unimaginable.

Though there were attempts to cover up the reasons of disaster, the Soviet leadership could not resist the pressures of opening up. Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that “the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed. …The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue. It made absolutely clear how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost, and I must say that I started to think about time in terms of pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl.”

It was, yet, so mysterious that hardly two years after the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet Union was so eager to sign a pact with India to set up nuclear plants in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu. Was it an effort to tell the world that the Soviet nuclear industry was still strong enough to withstand any pressures of the post-disaster situation? It was in 1988 that Rajiv Gandhi and Gorbachev entered into this agreement, which ran into trouble for various reasons, including the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was renegotiated again and the post-Soviet state was so ‘generous’ to help India set up plants in Koodankulam. It is yet another story that the construction got delayed due to Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011 and the following intensified agitation against the plants. Meanwhile India had signed another civil nuclear agreement with the US (123 Agreement) in 2008 for setting up several nuclear plants in India and one of the reasons for the delay in implementation was the question of “fixing the responsibility” if there an accident occurs (the liability question hung in the balance for sometime). Now that the 2+2 Dialogue held last year gave a green signal for supplying six nuclear reactors to India, the question of ‘risks’ involved in running such plants becomes more critical and relevant than  ever before. We have the experience of both Chernobyl and Fukushima before us. The veil of secrecy hung on the ‘activities’ in nuclear plants denies the citizens’ ‘right to know.’ The 1962 Atomic Energy Act itself is a testimony of secrecy in a democratic system. Nobody asked if the US ever dared to set up any nuclear power plants in the country after the Three Mile accident in Pennsylvania in1979. Nobody asked how many countries abandoned their nuclear projects after these accidents in the US, Soviet Union and Japan? Why Italy, Germany and several Scandinavian countries put a lid on their nuclear programmes? Why these ‘plants’ are being dumped in dense populated countries like India? When watching the five part “Chernobyl” miniseries, these questions keep agitating in one’s mind.

“Chernobyl” is truly a brilliant making. Johan Renck, the director, did a wonderful job in making it a success. But the real brain behind the work is Craig Mazin who spent years’ of research in its making. “Chernobyl” unveils, among many other things, the saga of workers’ sacrifice in the post-disaster mission within the plant to help avoid further disasters. These are some of the untold stories of all nuclear plants across the world. When this happens in a country of ‘workers’ socialist paradise,’ it has an added attraction—in terms of how workers themselves are ‘treated’ in such situations of contingency. Craig Mazin explains this in many interviews and podcasts. He says:  “The big lesson of Chernobyl is that you can tell yourself any story that you want. You can pretend that that truth is malleable. You can use it as a toy. But the truth doesn’t care. The truth will do what it does. What I want people to think about after seeing Chernobyl is what the cost is of going along with stories. With the stories that we’re told on either side of the ideological line. There is a cost. And what if someone says something that doesn’t fit your story? Do you change it to fit your story, or do change your story to include it?”

Craig Mazin goes further: “ We can tell ourselves stories about how climate change isn’t real. The climate doesn’t care. The floods don’t care. The winds don’t care. The ocean doesn’t care. The winds don’t care. It’ll keep doing what it does. The nuclear reactor in Chernobyl didn’t care that the Soviets insisted it was flawless. It just did what it does. I want people to start to come to grips with that. The truth isn’t a game. We don’t have control over it. We have to learn how to think critically and allow ourselves to change our minds to incorporate the truth.”

“Chernobyl” brings out many hard lessons of nuclear industry—most profoundly, the untold stories of ‘truth’ behind the politics of science and technology. In that sense, “Chernobyl” is a must watch for all. The characters of the series will never disappear from memories—Jared  Harris  as Valery Legasov, the Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute and Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina, the Council of Ministers’ Deputy Chairman and many others. “Chernobyl” is a realist-visual narrative having tremendous potential to help revisit our thinking on a man-made disaster.


This write up has also appeared in the Global South Colloquy(   

The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at [email protected]


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