by Niall Walker
HBO's nuclear warning tale comes in the midst of an upsurge in plant production across the world.
The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants, doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this at last is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now, I only ask: what is the cost of lies?
- Valery Legasov, Chernobyl (2019)
Anatoly Dyatlov, greying and angst-ridden, shifts in his chair. In front of a hostile Soviet judiciary, as well as the world’s scientific community, his flaws in managing the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on the 26th April 1986 are laid bare. He feels the consequences taking root inside, choking his breathe. Yet, unexpectedly, he is granted a reprieve.
Chernobyl , the new HBO miniseries illuminating the top of the IMDb listings, offers a crafted, meticulous retelling of that fateful night. Yet it is the moment its protagonist - Soviet scientist and chief investigator into the disaster Valery Legasov - must point the finger of blame that the show's success is truly felt. For it is turned with a humble, wholly articulate bravery, in the direction of the Soviet state itself.
The cost of lies
Dyatlov joins Homer Simpson in the uncongested pantheon of famous nuclear power plant workers. His comrade-scorning callousness may not match his yellow counterpart's loveable paternalism, but each is defined by their relatable humanity. Two men, sleeping at the controls, are counterposed by the awesome power of the machines they wield; emblems of a system which makes ants the guardians of giants.
Millions of pounds have been spent by the nuclear industry to resuscitate its public image. In Britain, our sub-atomic renaissance has been led by Tony Blair, snake-oil salesman in chief, who announced in typically biblical fashion that nuclear was ‘back on the agenda with a vengeance’. Marketing points to its low-carbon footprint; of greater, genuinely-impermeable safety regulations; we are even promised trees for the area surrounding the plants.
HBO's nuclear warning tale thus comes in the midst of an upsurge in plant production across the world. Britain's own production currently centres around Hinkley Point C, joint owned and funded by French and Chinese firms EDF and CGN, being constructed on the Somerset moors. EDF, who will manage the site, have a history of falsifying reports, and their operational management of the Hinkley project has drawn warnings from the nuclear watchdog.
Hinckley Point is a product of its age. Regulation of the energy sector is facing a wave of government cuts, while public subsidies have propped up the questionable financing of a supposedly private venture. Yet the project's instability - and general invisibility to the public at large - bear a fateful resemblance to those dramatised in Chernobyl.
On the 26th April 1986, bleary-eyed firefighters were summoned to a fire, towering over reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The scene is candidly re-enacted; their children, waking up behind them in the towns marvel at the colours in the sky. Nurses attend to an influx of patients with what they presume to be burn marks. All are unaware of the tragedy now filtering in to their lungs.
Yet despite HBO's best attempts, we remain largely a society blinded in our understanding of nuclear energy, and of its utilisation in our society. It is possible to watch Chernobyl with a sense of detachment: the isotopes are burning up, after all, and the Soviet Union and the 80s now seem like distant lights in the rear-view mirror. Surely our own governing bodies will never make such mistakes again?
Outside the court, as he prepares to give the testimony which will alienate him from the Russian state, Legasov takes a seat alongside Boris Scherbina, vice-chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers. Boris is one of a number of potentially blame-appropriating characters which Chernobyl successfully exonerates.
Introduced as a ruthless, bumbling party official, he is perspicacious enough to cede to Legasov’s intellectual authority as the drama unfolds. Here, under an old oak, both ridden with radiation poisoning, the two discuss the situation with the stoical detachment that learning the cause of your death must bring. As a caterpillar crawls across his little finger, this former apparatchik of the politburo stops and simply watches in wonder. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Today, in the evacuated zone surrounding Chernobyl, a flourishing ecosystem of flora and fauna provide a metaphor to our own inconsequentiality. In the irradiated shadows of one of modernity’s most destructive nightmares, wildlife crawls from its hiding spots, and provides us with a glimpse in to a future that is humanless. What is the cost of our lies? What is the cost of our follies, of our recklessness and bravado? Chernobyl warns us about the violence and destruction that lies in the energies we wield, but we must remember that, for now, the most harm we can do is to ourselves.
Niall Walker is the Founder of The Radical Art Review. Reach him via radicalartreview [at] gmail.com