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The Enduring Horror of Chernobyl

The new HBO series raises the specter of an uninhabitable continent.


From the beginning, viewers of HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl know more than the characters themselves about what’s to come—like Titanic, its very name is a spoiler. And so the opening scenes are shocking for what they don’t contain: no deafening boom, no crowds running screaming from a shower of glowing rubble. Instead the disaster’s unfolding is muffled by bureaucracy, as the lead engineer at the power plant insists crossly that there may have been some lesser industrial accident, but that the core of the reactor has not exploded—it can’t have.

On a podcast the accompanies the miniseries, its creator Craig Mazin talks to the radio personality Peter Sagal about this disconnect. “If you or I were somewhere, and someone said ‘there’s a fire at the nuclear power plant, but it’s not the core, it’s just a fire—do you want to go see?’ We would say No! Are you insane?” So it’s particularly harrowing to watch the people in the nearby town of Pripyat gather on a bridge to watch the fire glow, the power-plant workers slog through irradiated water in flooded chambers, the fire-fighters spraying their hoses into a radioactive fire in their shirtsleeves. The situation is a perfect vehicle for suspense, which Alfred Hitchcock famously described as arising when the audience knows something the characters don’t. Our understanding of the risks associated with nuclear energy is shaped by what’s about to happen to the people of Chernobyl—but they haven’t lived through it yet.

A few of these people stand out in the story. Some have remarkable insight: Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is a chemist who, in this retelling, is one of the first people to realize that the core of the nuclear reactor itself has exploded, when he reads a report that chunks of a black shiny mineral are littered around the site. The material is graphite—used to slow the speed of fast neutrons to allow for nuclear fission—and was only present inside the reactor core. Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist working hundreds of miles from Chernobyl, figures out what has happened when some equipment in her distant lab registers extra radiation. (Legasov is a historical character; Khomyuk is a composite character, who, Mazin says, is intended to represent many of the scientists who took risks to work at Chernobyl after the explosion.)

Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), the wife of one of the fire-fighters who was called to the power plant immediately, thinking he was putting out an ordinary fire on a roof, gets more screen time than most, and unlike the scientists and bureaucrats, she’s noteworthy not for her knowledge, or her obstinacy, but her pure feeling. Her husband and the other firefighters quickly get sick with radiation poisoning and are taken to a Moscow hospital. When she follows, and maneuvers her way into the restricted ward to see him, experiencing several heartbreaking medical consequences, Lyudmilla—who is also based on a real person—is a powerful reminder of what the disaster did to individual families.

But nuclear energy itself is perhaps the show’s most developed character—it’s certainly the one that undergoes the most dramatic narrative arc. It is constantly talked about, its nature endlessly debated and described. It had been a necessity. Posters in the towns around Chernobyl refer to “the friendly atom”; one reads “Our goal is the happiness of all mankind.” Even as crews scramble to contain the radioactive material and prevent a meltdown that would poison the groundwater and render Ukraine uninhabitable forever, the other three reactors at the power station are still running—the nation needs the energy. It becomes a demon. And like any good horror-story monster, it is both dangerous and poorly understood.

“Every atom of uranium-2-3-5 is like a bullet, traveling at nearly the speed of light, penetrating nearly everything in its path: woods, metal, concrete, flesh. Every gram of U-235 holds over a billion trillion of these bullets. That’s in one gram,” Legasov tells a not-sufficiently-alarmed Gorbachev. He imagines what a full meltdown would bring, if the remaining material can’t be contained: “Winds will carry radioactive particles across the entire continent, rain will bring them down on us. That’s three million billion trillion bullets in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.” Because radioactivity is almost supernaturally persistent, he points out too that these bullets won’t stop firing for 50,000 years. It’s subtle—the only difference that the firefighters notice is that the air tastes of metal. It’s capricious—for some, exposure leads to the comparatively gentle fate of a future cancer; others’ bodies will liquify in a matter of days. It operates with zombie logic, by which anyone who is poisoned becomes poisonous themselves.

The real life Lyudmilla, interviewed in the Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices of Chernobyl, recalls a nurse at the hospital where she was visiting her husband telling her “you’re sitting next to a nuclear reactor.” Her recounting is a mix of horror, grief, and love. She describes the way that his burns evolved and his wounds changed color so that “every day I met a brand-new person.” They were newlyweds before the disaster, and she said that they walked around holding hands, even for simple errands. She describes in gruesome detail the sloughing off of injured skin in the days before her husband finally died, but the gore is laced with tenderness. She says of the filmy layers of skin: “It’s all so very mine.”

The show’s story, hinging on the conflict between the political impulse toward spin and the scientific imperative to freely share facts—even inconvenient ones—is a chilling one, resonant in an age of climate change. The series doesn’t seem to be making the case that its central problems are uniquely Soviet. On the contrary, the bureaucrats’ ham-fisted propaganda efforts are frustratingly familiar: Earlier this week, for examples, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a press release rebranding the fossil fuel natural gas as “freedom gas.”

Yet the details of the drama are inevitably Cold War- and Soviet-specific, and much of the series emphasizes familiar clichés about the Soviet Union. “What’s as big as a house, burns 20 liters of fuel every hour, puts out a shit-load of smoke and noise, and cuts an apple into three pieces?” a coal-smeared leader asks his fellow miners in Episode 3, and booms with laughter deliver the punchline: “A Soviet machine made to cut apples—into four pieces!” A KGB officer explains to Legasov that yes, of course he is being followed. The soldiers charged with clearing out the exclusion zone after the explosion delight only in their generous rations of vodka. The problem that caused the explosion, it is revealed in Episode 4, emerged—at least in part—because some important information was redacted from the relevant scientific paper to satisfy some apparatchik’s obsession with secrecy and protection of the national reputation.

The lead miner who jokes about Soviet machines nevertheless leads his group in a heroic effort to dig underneath the reactor to install a cooling machine that would stop a catastrophic meltdown. (The miners, when told they can’t have fans in the hot tunnels, begin to dig naked, giving the show a moment of gratuitous nudity and a fleeting, extremely welcome moment of comic relief.) And when some of the world’s most powerful robots are ruined in the effort sweep to debris off an especially radioactive facility rooftop, someone suggests sending in “bio robots”: human beings. Troupes of men suit up for 90-second stints hauling chunks of dense radioactive rock off the edge of the roof, into the pit where it will be buried.

This, too, hews close to history. One of the men who did this work in real life, Aleksandr Kudryagin, told Alexievich: “We had good jokes. Here’s one: an American robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then breaks down. The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: ‘Private Ivanov! In two hours, you’re welcome to come down and have a cigarette break.’” Mazin told Sagal: “These pro-social messages were promoted by people who were not very pro-social at all—the Party leaders—but the people often did believe it and feel it… So I think some of this was a sense of Soviet civic duty, it is very noble and beautiful, and profoundly sad.”

It’s the hallmark of environmental disasters that their fallout is shared unequally through society. There’s a disconnect between who benefits and who suffers—and who is incentivized to fix the problem. In Chernobyl, the problem is terrifying enough to upend the usual inertia. The series is upsetting, gritty. The show’s visual spectrum runs from gray to olive, the affective one from dangerous to drab. But there is something heroic—wasteful and sad, but admirable nonetheless—in the way that so many people made giant sacrifices to prevent an even greater calamity. The firefighters, miners, and scientists who work at the site, the soldiers who patrol the evacuated ghost towns and shoot the radioactive dogs that were left behind, have the valor of soldiers in any war movie—and as in any war story, their sacrifices raise the same questions about whom society asks to make such sacrifices, and why.

They are going through personal calamities while an ever greater one hangs over them: the specter of an uninhabitable Europe, a worst-case scenario in which a continent’s water and air are filled with a poison that verges on the supernatural. Their work is brutal, strange—and the people doing it are almost impossibly brave. The tone of the show—horror, shot through with a thin vein of reverence—matches that of the recollections of Arkady Filin, one of the “liquidators” who cleaned up the exclusion zone: “We buried the forest. We sawed the trees into 1.5m pieces and packed them in Cellophane and threw them into graves.” He told Alexievich: “We buried the earth.”