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Last Updated : Jun 11, 2019 03:43 PM IST | Source:

Review | HBO's Chernobyl: It's relevant, urgent and devastating; and you must watch it now

The Chernobyl plant was an RBMK type reactor near Pripyat in Soviet Ukraine whose very core exploded due to unforeseen reasons and led to leakage of radioactive material in the area

Nayanika Chakraborty @nayanika_c

“Altogether, 50 million curies of radiation were released by the Chernobyl explosion, the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs. All that was required for such catastrophic fallout was the escape of less than 5 percent of the reactor’s nuclear fuel. Originally, it had contained more than 250 pounds of enriched uranium — enough to pollute and devastate most of Europe. And if the other three reactors of the Chernobyl power plant had been damaged by the explosion of the first, then hardly any living and breathing organisms would have remained on the planet.” — Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy.

These lines by author Serhei Plokhy are enough to instill shock and horror. And yet, it only barely encompasses the effect of one of the world's worst man-made catastrophes.

HBO's new mini-series Chernobyl, which presents a compelling drama of the 1986 disaster, has now surpassed shows such as Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad to become IMDb's all-time highest-rated show.


Here are some reasons why you should watch Chernobyl right now.

Haunting story-telling

The Chernobyl plant was an RBMK type reactor near Pripyat in Soviet Ukraine whose core exploded due to unforeseen reasons and led to leakage of large amounts of radioactive material in the area. At one point, it threatened the lives of millions through airborne radiation and potential contamination of groundwater. The after-effects were felt as far as Norway.

Created and written by Craig Mazin, Chernobyl chronicles the real-life events leading to the fateful disaster in April 1986 and its aftermath. The unfolding of this terrible tragedy is told in five tightly-knit, deliberately paced and flawlessly executed episodes. The tone is set from the get-go — a man, identified later as Valery Legasov, deputy director of Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, records a series of confessions on tape before hanging himself. All this while a cat carries on with its business.

Unrelenting and unforgiving

In another poignant scene, an elderly lady is milking her cow when she is asked by a soldier to vacate the area. She laughs off the suggestion, recounting how the harshest of circumstances — Lenin's forces, Stalin's famine and Hitler's invasion — hadn’t driven her out of her home. What happens next is chilling.

One would think that all citizens of Pripyat were evacuated immediately after the catastrophe. However, managers of the plant and Soviet bureaucrats had initially tried everything in their power to cover up the incident. They refused to even acknowledge that a disaster had occurred. Nobody thought a nuclear reactor was even capable of exploding, leading higher-ups to believe that they could lie their way out of this.

In one of the episodes, Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina can be seen telling Legasov, "The official position of the state is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union." The myth had to be perpetuated so that the empire could go on.

In fact, the initial estimates of radiation leak were estimated at 3.6 roentgens -- "not great but not terrible" -- because that was the maximum range on the meters (the actual measure stood at 20,000).

The Soviet Union in 1986 was dying. Competition with an economically-developed United States and an ill-timed Afghanistan invasion had weakened the empire. The Chernobyl incident was the first of its kind on the planet and its containment required unprecedented resources from an already bankrupt nation. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, had once said that the Chernobyl disaster “was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later”.

It was a matter of survival for Soviet authorities. But, it was innocent civilians who ultimately paid the price for this survival, going about their lives as usual, without knowing they were being exposed to fatal radiation.

Chernobyl provides an unrelenting insight into how these colossal mistakes were made and why so many failed to recognize a clear and present danger.

'For all who suffered and sacrificed'

The finale episode of the series ends with a taut line: “In the memory of all who suffered and sacrificed.”

The episodes are replete with stories of sacrifice and selflessness. The 3,000-odd liquidators sent to the roof of the reactor to clear the radioactive debris -- no rover could stand the radiation without malfunctioning. The miners who dug a tunnel under the plant, having to work naked due to the unbearable heat. Those tasked with killing pets in affected villages. And thousands of those who were forced to walk into a minefield of health hazards, many facing certain death. All of them doomed, despite their sacrifices, or rather because of them.


Chernobyl may have happened over three decades ago, but its relevance lives on.

Pripyat is still an uninhabitable ghost city, and survivors continue to live with side effects brought on by radiation leakage. Moreover, the incident is one of the first to showcase humanity’s effect on planet Earth. Now, it's climate change and global warming — arguably the most pressing issues of our times.

Valery Legosav asks us in episode 1, “What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.” This is truly resonant with the world we live in right now.

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First Published on Jun 11, 2019 03:43 pm
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