Horrifying yet gripping, this series is both hard to watch and compulsive viewing. HBO has produced five episodes, about seventy minutes each, which give an account of what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine in 1986.
The series starts in the home of a man, whom we later learn to be a leading Soviet nuclear physicist, in the aftermath of the disaster. It then moves inside the control room of the plant on the fateful day, when, of all things, a safety check is being conducted. A sense of dysfunction and panic pervades the room. We are taken then to the nearby high-rises where people go about their normal lives, but soon congregate on a railway bridge to watch the awe-inspiring sight of the power plant on fire and the glowing sky.
The following episodes track the initial denial of the seriousness of the disaster, followed by the reluctant but inevitable recognition that immediate and drastic action is required to limit the catastrophe. The story revolves around three figures – Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a leading Soviet nuclear physicist, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister, and a fictional character, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) who is a composite of various concerned Soviet nuclear physicists. It depicts a political system designed to protect its reputation above all other things. The bravery and sacrifice of ordinary working men and women is in stark contrast to the self-serving cowardice and incompetence of the political class and time-servers. The cost imposed on the innocents living in proximity to the plant is most vividly represented by the fate of one of the firemen initially sent on the hopeless task of putting out the fire, and his pregnant wife.
It brings to my mind the denial and obfuscation by our own incompetent, self-serving political class, incapable of even recognising, let alone addressing the clear and present dangers of climate change.
The series has had mixed reviews in Russia, where it is viewed by some as an unfair portrayal of the response to the disaster. Certainly, some of the characters appear to be one-dimensional. The use of the composite character of Ulana Khomyuk has also been criticised as misrepresenting the efforts of the wider Soviet scientific community.
Regardless of these shortcomings, this is a terrifying and timely reminder of what can go wrong when corners are cut, workers are not trained sufficiently and political imperatives override the welfare of the community. In the case of a nuclear power plant, unimaginable disaster is the inevitable result.
Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019