Getting a nuclear disaster right, mostly

The first thing to understand about the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” which concludes its five-part run Monday, is that a lot of it is made up. But here’s the second, and more important, thing: It doesn’t really matter.

Getting a nuclear disaster right, mostly

The explosion and fire at Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor April 26, 1986, was an extraordinarily messy and grim event, a radioactive “dirty” bomb on a scale that no one — certainly not anyone in the Soviet Union — was prepared for. It remains the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power, killing more than 30 people initially (and more in the years that followed, though the numbers are much disputed) and spreading radioactive contamination across large swaths of Soviet and European territory.

In the immediate panicked aftermath, and in the months of crisis and confusion until the completion seven months later of the concrete-and-steel sarcophagus that entombed the reactor’s lethal remains, the heroes and villains numbered in the hundreds, and the supporting cast in the hundreds of thousands.

The producers of the miniseries don’t sanitize the disaster (sometimes the gore even goes a little too far: The radiation victims are often covered in blood for some reason). Instead, they simplify. They leave the grim alone, but the demands of Hollywood, and of production budgets, take a toll on the messy.

That’s not to say there aren’t many touches of verisimilitude. The rooftop scene in which conscripts have just seconds to toss radioactive debris to the ground is as otherworldly as it must have seemed to those who were there three decades ago. And the Unit 4 control room is faithfully re-created, from the control-rod dials on the walls to the white coats and caps worn by the operators. (When I visited the adjacent Unit 3 control room five years ago, I had to wear the same odd outfit, which seemed more appropriate for a bakery than a nuclear power plant.)

But if you didn’t know much about Chernobyl you could be forgiven if, after watching, you thought the entire response and cleanup was run by two people, Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina, aided valiantly by a third, Ulana Khomyuk.

You could also be forgiven if you thought they were all real characters. Legasov and Shcherbina were real, though their roles were twisted and amplified to meet the script’s need to keep things moving. Khomyuk, on the other hand, was made out of whole cloth, and her actions strain credulity, from traveling to Chernobyl, uninvited, to investigate the accident to being in the presence of Mikhail Gorbachev at the Kremlin not much later.

The producers mention some folderol at the end, that Khomyuk was a composite character created to represent all of the scientists who helped investigate the disaster. Fine, I guess. But much of the rest of “Chernobyl” gets the simplistic Hollywood treatment, too.

There are the brave, doomed firefighters, ignorant of the radiation hazards they encountered (though nobody climbed up over the reactor debris, as portrayed in the series; they were working the roof to prevent fires from spreading to the undamaged Unit 3). The plucky, can-do miners, brought in to excavate under the reactor to stop the meltdown, stripping naked to get the job done (the series doesn’t say this, but their work ended up largely for naught). The no-nonsense helicopter pilots, risking radiation sickness to drop their loads of lead, boron and sand on the reactor (while one helicopter did crash, killing its crew, the accident happened months later, and radiation had nothing to do with it).

I could go on. Don’t get me started about that blue light from the exposed reactor shining high into the night sky in the first episode. Yes, nuclear reactors can produce a blue hue, from something called Cherenkov radiation, but no, there’s no way Unit 4 would have looked like the “Tribute in Light” in Lower Manhattan on the anniversary of Sept. 11.

In the end, though, none of this really matters. For the miniseries gets a basic truth right — that the Chernobyl disaster was more about lies, deceit and a rotting political system than it was about bad engineering or abysmal management and training (or, for that matter, about whether nuclear power is inherently good or bad).

“Chernobyl” is grim only partly because of all the destruction and death. The need to constantly lie (or cope with the lies of higher-ups) weighs on its characters as heavily as all the lead that was dropped on the reactor.

Yes, this basic truth is simplified, too, especially in the final episode, which portrays the trial of three power plant officials.

I don’t want to give away much about these scenes, though I will reveal that the geeky term “positive void coefficient” — one of the reactor’s design flaws — was uttered. (As a science writer, I was overjoyed.)

The scenes have a lot of tension, and are among the best in the whole miniseries. But they seem drawn more from American movie courtrooms than from Soviet jurisprudence. The idea of someone speaking truth to power in this court seems about as far-fetched as anything else in the whole of “Chernobyl.”

How the show gets to its truth, however, is less important than that it gets there. Viewers may come away from “Chernobyl” realizing that, together, people and machines can do awful things — like create a nuclear catastrophe for the ages. If they also come away understanding that in this case, that outcome was more the fault of a government and its apparatchiks, so much the better.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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