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.
“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?