Review: Is HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ a call to action on climate change?

Liam Daniel/HBO

The first episode of HBO’s five-part miniseries “Chernobyl” led me to commit a classic internet mistake: seeking out medical advice from Google. After watching an hour of nuclear technicians and firefighters being invisibly poisoned by radiation, my mind was racing about all the possible sources of radiation I’m exposed to every day. Is my microwave safe? My phone? My Wi-Fi? Don’t bananas have potassium? Isn’t potassium radioactive? Should I stop eating bananas?

“Possibly the most gruesome way to die is by severe radiation poisoning,” according to Daniel Parker, the hair, makeup and prosthetics designer for “Chernobyl.” Thanks to Parker’s work, the miniseries convinces me of this fact. With horror films, I can remind myself that whatever gory, body-horror nightmare is unfolding on screen is just a special effect, a work of fiction. “Chernobyl” delivers on its special effects, but it offers no such comfort of fiction.

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“Chernobyl” follows the events leading up to, during and following the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Scientists, government officials and first responders undertook a massive effort and made seemingly impossible sacrifices in order to contain the spread of radioactive pollution, despite a forceful counter-intelligence effort from the Soviet Union to keep the accident, or at least the extent of its damage, a secret.

Denial is just as deadly as radiation.

I recommend this show not in spite of the fact that it is difficult to watch, but precisely because of its difficulty. The show gets under my skin not only because of—well, characters losing their skin—but because of the questions it raises about the trust we put in the institutions that claim to protect us. I could not watch this series without thinking of the world’s denial and inadequate response regarding climate change.

The show begins and ends with the question, “What is the cost of lies?” The drama in this show is largely compelled by the imperfect information available to the characters involved. “The cost of lies,” the show answers thoroughly over five episodes, turns out to be extremely high.

Denial is just as deadly as radiation. In the first episode, the technicians relay to their boss, the plant’s deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), that the dosimeter, which measures radiation, reads 3.6 roentgen—“not great, not terrible,” according to Dyatlov. When the technicians reply that their dosimeters do not go above 3.6 roentgen, implying that the radiation could easily be higher, he ignores them.

The core has exploded, but Dyatlov is in complete denial because, according to the information he has access to, that should be impossible. Dyatlov orders his engineers to activate a fail-safe button, but he does not know that it has a flaw. A failure in the design of Soviet nuclear plants has been redacted from all documents at his disposal. Rather than taking on the cost of fixing this flaw, the government has accepted the risk of sweeping it under the rug.

The U.S.S.R. desires a scapegoat. The obvious candidate is Dyatlov. He does deserve some blame for the disaster—he irrationally pushed the reactor beyond its limits—but to only focus on the nuclear engineers who were there on the night of the explosion ignores the institutional failures that allowed this catastrophe to take place and jeopardized millions. “Chernobyl” marks the disaster as a symptom of a negligent government, not just a negligent engineer.

Subjecting himself to the lie machine of the K.G.B. feels just as dangerous as subjecting himself to a lethal dose of radiation.

The incentives to lie to others and to oneself in “Chernobyl” are many. Dyatlov ignores and later covers up evidence that the core has exploded in order to avoid blame. The K.G.B. believes it must “contain the spread of misinformation,” concerned more about the public image of the U.S.S.R. than evacuating the citizens of the nearby city of Pripyat. Even the show’s protagonist, the nuclear scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), finds himself complacent in the lying machine because telling the whole truth would mean losing his career and possibly his life. However, in the final episode, he warns others about the reactor flaw when testifying in Dyatlov’s trial.

The moment he speaks the truth, I felt the same dread I did when characters were too close to the exposed core, radioactive graphite or heavily irradiated victims—the soundtrack plays the same distorted, dreadful hum. Subjecting himself to the lie machine of the K.G.B. feels just as dangerous as subjecting himself to a lethal dose of radiation.

It is gut-wrenching to watch every decision that characters make under the influence of lies. Every poor decision made with imperfect information has a real cost measured in human life. Though the events of the show take place in the Soviet Union circa 1986, its relevance to the here and now is not lost. This dread and frustration feels familiar in today’s political atmosphere.

Especially for my generation, climate anxiety is becoming stronger. The American Psychological Association put out a 70-page report in 2017 providing guidance on the impact of climate change on mental health. There is even an organization arguing that it is unethical to bring children into a dying world. Rising temperatures and pollution, like radiation, are especially insidious because their dangers are mostly invisible to the naked eye.

Though the events of the show take place in the Soviet Union circa 1986, its relevance to the here and now is not lost.

We have had decades to do something about climate change, yet we have done next to nothing. The cost is only growing. “When the truth offends,” says Legasov in the finale of “Chernobyl,” “we lie and lie until we can no longer remember that it’s even there, but it is still there.

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” Legasov continues. “Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”

In the case of climate change, that debt will be paid not by the generation of current world leaders, but by my generation and by the generations following me. That debt is already tragically being paid by the poor, as Pope Francis notes in “Laudato Si.’”

Reading every headline about this administration’s climate change denial and setbacks feels like watching a character in “Chernobyl” push a reactor core to disaster, enter an irradiated area with no protection or halt the evacuation of endangered citizens.

Scientists say we only have 11 years left to enact drastic changes and prevent irreversible damage to the climate. That is not to say we can reverse the damage already done to those who are being displaced from rising ocean levels, suffering health problems from pollution, or being killed by heat waves or irregular weather. Still, we are at an important crossroads.

Though the Chernobyl disaster cost thousands of lives, it could have been millions. The show explores the effort to contain the radiation, the sacrifices required and the lies that had to be overcome to accomplish that mission.

Will we address the truth and steer away from disaster, or will we continue to push our planet to its breaking point, only to find there is no fail-safe button?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Alan Johnstone
2 months 2 weeks ago

First, HBO Chernobyl is fiction and it is fiction just as M.A.S.H and Good Morning, Vietnam! are; fiction set in a certain environment and artistic commentary on the circumstances therein.

Second, whether or not the individuals who crafted it did so as a call to address climate change does nothing to justify that call.

Clear precise thinking is required after being exposed to propaganda media as that means of communication has the power, and so often is used to, bypass truth, wisdom and prudence and appeal to fallible sentiments and emotions.

Define the issue exactly so correct measures are used to attend to it.
This issue is whether or not the human use of fossil fuel releases a gas into the atmosphere with the power to change the climate rapidly, drastically and by itself alone.
Truth tellers call this alleged human induced dangerous rapid global warming.
It is not truthfully to be addressed as climate change, destructive weather events, sea level inundation or the new label, climate catastrophe.

The only testimony that the earth is on the path to rapid overheating is from misinterpretation of a period when there was small, slow luke-warming in some parts of the earth, where the thermometers were. It has been more than twenty years since that warming has stopped, the temperature has levelled off but a biased UN funded body charged with the task of proving global warming has been making excuse after excuse, invented, as to why it is just a pause.
One bit of nonsense is to guess that the heat is going into the oceans, disproved by real scientist but denounced by the IPCC.
The IPCC issues periodic predictions, each prediction was based on computer models and not scientific data and each prediction was wrong - when the date arrived what they said would have happened had not happened. Their predictions have always been wrong and always too, too high.

I sympathise with you young people and children, adults are scaring you on purpose to advance their plans which have nothing to do with saving the planet but all to do with one-world government holding power over all use of commercial energy.
When we were young, war babies and baby boomers, we lived with the Cold War threat that any hour of the day or night world-wide nuclear war would kill us. Many of us turned to sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in anger and despair.
That threat was real, but now much less acute but still possible. Maybe only the prayers for peace are keeping it at bay.

As Jesus says, do not be afraid.
The baby-boomers have instilled a phobia about nuclear energy and cite Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl , Fukushima as panic-inducing proof that it is too dangerous to use.
21st century science and engineering have solved the problems raised by those VERY RARE mishaps and Chernobyl is chosen as propaganda because of it having the highest death rate but it was greatly worsened as the inhumane socialist society sent men into harm's-way poorly protected after having built a substandard system operated by careless people.

Almighty God has been spinning the planets around the sun for billions of years and controlling the environment of our earth for all that time too and has not left his handiwork, and our fate, in our puny and inexpert hands.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 2 weeks ago

If self-deluding nonsense had gravitational pull, your comment would form a black hole. Dozens of professional scientific societies accept the reality that human use of fossil fuels is resetting the global thermostat. When the self serving me generation dies away, maybe the political inertia that prevents us from fully tackling this physical problem will be gone. Unfortunately, by that time, a lot of suffering will be hard wired in. I wish I could tell the author of the article that the future belongs to the young. Unfortunately, the mentally decrepit old farts still have the deed.

Bradley Pritts
2 months 2 weeks ago

Dear Mr. Seay: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I watched the Chernobyl series and, as you did, found it struck hard at my emotions. I would suggest, though, somewhat different conclusions.

First, I would consider that the film speaks volumes about the disregard for truth that characterized the Communist/ Socialist bloc. Chernobyl was an sad but important event that led to the collapse of the USSR, the Warsaw Pact, and Communism generally. It is frightening to me (as a 64 year old who grew up during the Cold War) to see the number of people ready to bring socialism (even if shrouded in euphemisms like "Democratic Socialism") to the USA.

A second recommendation would be to look more critically at the "science" that has been advanced regarding global climate change. Many experts still disagree on the role of natural processes in climate change. The popular press by its nature tends to focus on the most radical and distressing predictions... following the observation that "if it bleeds, it leads". Take a closer look at how well (or, actually, how poorly) the IGCC models have performed when "back checked" against actual climate data. I'm an engineer with statistical training, and I wouldn't make a 5 year decision based on these models, much less believing them over a 25 year timeframe.

Finally, consider that overall, there are many reasons for optimism. Our global society has made great strides on reducing global hunger - particularly in China and India. In the USA, we actually have problems where our poor struggle not with hunger, but obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure! Given the tradeoff of feeding poor people today vs. taking a risk 25 years out, I'll opt for the people today!

with best regards, Brad

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 2 weeks ago

I don't know where you are getting your misinformation from but the earth is warmer. The land masses are warmer. The poles are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the earth. The oceans are warmer. There is an increase in extreme events, both drought and flooding. Warm temperature records are being set at twice the rate of cold temperature readings. Hurricanes ramp up from nothing to factor fours overnight, feeding not only on warm surface sea temperatures but the increased depth of those temperatures. Go to the website of the American Institute of Physics. You'll learn the science and the history of the science.

But your mention of socialism makes me think that ideology is more important to you than science.
To Mr. Seay, don't let the naysayers here deflect you one nanoradian. They are all attitude and no science. You're right and you should organize to save yourself and others of your generation from the mistakes and self-centeredness of mine.

Judith Jordan
2 months 2 weeks ago

Bradley Pritts---

There are a variety of reasons why the poor are often obese, but it is not from access to good, healthy food.

Poverty areas often lack quality, fresh food. The inexpensive alternatives tend to be low in nutritional value and high in preservatives, fats, salt and refined sugar. Or, what is often called Food Deserts. These neighborhoods frequently lack full-service grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

According to USDA, “vehicle access is perhaps the most important determinant of whether or not a family can access affordable and nutritious food” (Ver Ploeg et al., 2009). The poor are less likely to have vehicles.

Low-income people are disproportionately exposed to more marketing and advertising for obesity-promoting products. (Powell et al., 2014; Yancey et al., 2009).

The “feast or famine” is especially a problem for low-income parents, particularly mothers, who often restrict their own food and nutrition to protect their children from hunger (Dammann & Smith, 2009; Edin et al., 2013).

The poor often have a sedentary lifestyle. Some factors are violent areas overlap with poor areas, preventing people from being active outside; there are fewer parks and athletic facilities available in poor areas; and they cannot afford a gym.

The poor tend to have a lack of access to basic health care.

All the above contribute to the poor’s struggles, not with healthy food, but with obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Scott Cooper
2 months 2 weeks ago

Some great comments here thus far... save one.
Mr. Kopacz, I’ll give you some credit for your clever opening sentence, despite its totally inappropriate application to Mr. Johnstone’s very appropriate and spot-on comments regarding the issue of climate change, global warming, or whatever term the media and politicians choose to call it next week. But please remember that history clearly shows us that self-deluding nonsense can oftentimes be embraced by the establishment majority as well, even if they are dozens of professional scientific societies, and that our past is littered with the bones of what was once the “reality” and the conventional wisdom of many a fallen society.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 1 week ago

Here's a problem with your meme. CO2 climate warming WAS the outside minority "heroic" view for many years until the 1960's. As is usual, the minority opinion became the majority opinion due to the preponderance of advances in scientific knowledge supporting it. Your meme can be applied to make heroes of flat earth believers. It is epistomologically useless except for those too lazy to explore the science but wanting to massage their minds and others into insouciance. CO2 is a greenhouse trace gas that permeates the atmosphere and stabilizes the system. Ignoring the effect of increasing CO2 or trying to minimize it is criminal. Civilization will fall if it ignores it. It is the most important challenge facing the US and the world.

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