On April 26, 1986, at 1:23am, a routine, late-night safety test at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet state of Ukraine went wildly wrong and led to an explosion and fire. Early reports fed to the residents of the nearby town of Pripyat downplayed the event. Only after Swedish researchers noticed elevated levels of radiation nearly 700 miles away and American satellites photographed the plant did Soviet authorities admit the scale of the disaster: Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor had had a meltdown and released 400 times more radioactive material than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. These particles were now raining down over Eastern Europe and would later lead to more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer and possibly birth defects and other illnesses. Today, a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone surrounds the former nuclear site, which will be uninhabitable to humans for decades to come.
But the story of the Chernobyl disaster goes much deeper, and HBO’s gripping five-part miniseries Chernobyl exposes the previously hidden details of the tragedy. It’s a tale rife with national posturing and pride, corruption, coverups, secrecy and, ultimately, death. Chernobyl also introduces the hidden heroes of the disaster: brave citizens who demanded transparency from the Soviet government, selfless residents who cleaned up after the tragedy at their own peril, and heroes whose sacrifices prevented an even larger catastrophe. “You think you know what happened at Chernobyl, but you have no idea,” says Kary Antholis, HBO’s former president of miniseries.
Chernobyl stars Jared Harris as physicist Valery Legasov, chosen by the Kremlin to investigate the incident and help remediate its damage. “He was someone who was tasked with trying to solve the problem, trying to figure out, ‘How do you put a runaway nuclear meltdown out?’ Which no one had dealt with before — it never happened before,” Harris says. “It was his task to figure out how you put the genie back in the bottle.”
Emily Watson also stars as nuclear scientist Ulana Khomyuk, who joined the investigation after uncovering an incomprehensible threat lurking in the radioactive rubble — the potential for a second explosion that would turn much of Eastern Europe into a nuclear wasteland. “My character is actually a composite, in a way,” says Watson. “She’s a tribute to many of the scientists who worked in and around the disaster trying to prevent it from getting worse, and to try to find out what happened.” Stellan Skarsgård appears as Boris Shcherbina, a staunch Communist responsible for leading the USSR government commission in the wake of the disaster.
To understand how and why the secrets of Chernobyl have stayed hidden for so long, it’s important to remember that the events happened in the Soviet Union in the mid 1980s when the Communist government was still responsible for a culture of disinformation, although Mikhail Gorbachev was trying to change that with his glasnost (openness) policy. “Our power comes from the perception of our power,” says Gorbachev in the miniseries’ second episode.
“It’s very natural in American storytelling for the little guy to speak up and speak out and tell the truth. And this is a society where you don’t do that because it’s a totalitarian state and you’re putting your life in danger,” explains Watson.
Series executive producer and writer Craig Mazin shares that his exhaustive research for Chernobyl included diving deep into official reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, scouring blueprints of the facility, and poring through historical books and firsthand reports of the disaster’s survivors. “This is as close to reality as we can get and still be able to tell the story in five episodes,” he says. “It was our obsession.”
His obsession was partially due to a desire to share the stories of those who had been silenced by the Soviet regime. “Chernobyl was the product of intentionally terrible decisions designed to protect a system that was inherently corrupt and inhumane, and it was also the result of individual humans doing the things that individual humans often do,” he says. “What I found so oddly beautiful about the stories that I read was that in response to what I would consider to be the worst of human behavior, we saw the best of human behavior. Only humans could have made Chernobyl happen; only humans could have solved the problem of Chernobyl. The nobility, the quiet nobility, of hundreds of thousands of people, names of whom we will not know, is remarkable.”
Harris reveals that the reality and real peril of the former USSR’s nuclear age came into focus when a day of shooting at a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Lithuania was delayed while they removed the facility’s spent — but still radioactive — fuel. “This wasn’t a functioning power plant — it wasn’t producing energy — but it still had a reactor that was right behind that wall, and it was the exact same one as at Chernobyl,” he shares. “That was a bit unnerving because one of the things in the story is, initially when people have the danger of being exposed to radiation explained to them, it’s terrifying. But you quickly become sort of immune to it because there’s no immediate effect. So, you sort of forget that it’s there.”
Mazin is glad to tell the stories of the unknown heroes who worked in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and demanded changes in nuclear safety that are still in place today. And despite the consequences of Chernobyl and, more recently, Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, Mazin says that he’s not afraid of nuclear power. “In a strange way, researching this story made me feel slightly more comfortable about the nuclear power industry — at least here in the West.”
Chernobyl > HBO > Mondays at 8/7c beginning May 6