HBO's "Chernobyl" and the Legacy of Soviet Nuclear Programs in Context

A scene from the HBO miniseries, Chernobyl.

I, apparently along with many others the world over, keenly watched the five dramatic episodes of HBO’s recent miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster. Perhaps more than many viewers who simply turned to it after the end of Game of Thrones or while searching for something interesting to watch on a rainy night, I however had a long-brewing and vested interest. Nuclear history and Soviet Russia in general are two of my areas of expertise as a journalist and I’ve read most of what has been published to date in Russian and English alike about Chernobyl. And like many Russian and Russian-American viewers, I was delighted by the extremely high degree of authenticity in the show’s production values. Like Netflix, HBO has the money in the bank to spend on its shows when it wants to and was thus able to fund sets which recreated not only every detail of the No. 4 reactor’s control room, but to provide offices, conference rooms, and hospital wards which were very faithful to how these places would have appeared in the Soviet 1980s. Costumes, too, were first-rate as were incidental props such as telephones. There was a clear push—at least at the level of material culture and technological authenticity—on the part of the show’s director and producers to get things right. 

The acting was hard to fault, as well. All the main characters were based on real people involved in the cause of the disaster and/or its aftermath, with the exception of Belarusian nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk who was a completely fictional character, designed by the scriptwriters to represent all the many Soviet scientists and engineers who were either consulted in the official inquiry on the accident or who sensed the official investigation would leave some issues untouched and dared to come forward with information germane to the graphite-tipped control rods which precipitated the fateful explosion of the No. 4 reactor. A few other key liberties were taken with the script: the courtroom scenes in the final episode where the reactor supervisors are put on trial for their misdeeds were dramatized in a manner which the show acknowledges deviates markedly from reality, but was done for the sake of a tidier and more-compelling narrative. 

What fictionalizations and deviations the miniseries provides I find little fault with: overall it’s a very well-produced and powerful work of drama and it met my main concerns, given my background, insofar as it depicted life in the USSR with great accuracy and it also largely shied away from broad generalizations or commentary on nuclear power. The latter was an especial concern prior to watching the show, as I expect it has been for many of you reading this column. Too often, when anything bad of a nuclear nature transpires, anyone in journalism much less the business of entertainment (where you can take ample liberties with a story) who wishes to deal with the topic uses the opportunity to make general proclamations on the nuclear industry. Thankfully, Chernobyl did not take this route. There was however a strong focus on the culture of official lies in the Soviet Union and how many in power felt it better to tell tall tales, hide key facts, and redact what could not be fully erased than share honest information which happened to be embarrassing to the State. 

A Soviet postage stamp from the early 1980s celebrating Soviet nuclear research and industry.

I’ve written on this blog numerous times about the Soviet domestic nuclear program back when I maintained the blog regularly. Chernobyl admittedly caused me to make this rare post even though I no longer post on a normal basis here. The reason being, I wanted to reach an audience who probably cares more than the typical person about how nuclear history is viewed, and what its portrayals mean on a broader sociocultural level. My first post ever for the blog detailed how an otherwise bright and rational friend of mine was scared of nuclear power to the point of not even wanting to drive remotely near a nuclear power plant. His impression of nuclear was entirely based on the media and for that matter, mostly fictional movies and television like the China Syndrome. I realized he was far from alone. Chernobyl, due to its popularity with millennials who comprise a large share of the viewing public of HBO nowadays, is in a rather unique position. If you are a millennial, you either were very young in 1986 when  the Chernobyl disaster took place, if you were even indeed born at all. Unlike a dramatic portrayal of, say, 9/11 or recent air disasters or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of these people who are young adults now have little frame of reference for Chernobyl. The miniseries will most likely be their first real introduction to what happened, and also quite possibly their last. When someone mentions the disaster a decade from now for any reason, their recollection of it may be fully based on this miniseries. 

For that reason if no other, it is essential that the miniseries is accurate (which, overall, it is) and also that it is properly put in the greater context of Soviet nuclear enterprises and how those enterprises were viewed in the West at the time. For that matter, how Russia’s treatment of nuclear power was viewed by the other SSRs, too. Chernobyl was a location in the Ukraine and most of the radiation released affected with greatest peril parts of the Ukraine and neighboring Belarus which was also an SSR under the USSR and now is (like Ukraine) an independent nation. The fact that Ukraine and Belarus were always treated somewhat as second-class by the Russians who controlled the USSR only made the terrible effects of Chernobyl on these regions all the worse as it had to have seemed as if Russia itself got off basically Scot-free for damages due to mistakes made by Russian engineers and administrators. 

People who were not yet alive during the later years of the Cold War, and I was a young child myself, probably have a fuzzy understanding at best of what that time was like for average Americans, and presumably, average Russians. While it was not the apex of tensions as during the 1950s and Vietnam era, those tensions still ran plenty high. Although I was quite young, I do remember believing that the Soviets might attack any old day. We also believed thanks to G.I. Joe cartoons and Hollywood movies that the USSR was basically a huge militaristic society and additionally, they used nuclear power for everything. We viewed them as evil, but technologically advanced and powerful. To an extent, we were not totally off the track on this, either. 

Prior to that fateful night in April of 1986 at Chernobyl, the Soviets were in fact having greater success in integrating nuclear technologies into their society than we had in America. While in the 1950s both superpowers promoted nuclear power heavily—in America of that time think of the Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative—by the 1970s the luster of nuclear in the US was becoming tarnished, and not entirely fairly, either. The environmental movement and general growing distrust of the government and large corporations stemming from the 1960s swung the anti-nuke movement into action in the seventies and then the film The China Syndrome (1979) and incident at Three Mile Island (also in 1979) drew the public towards a decidedly negative view of nuclear power for peaceful aims. In the early 1980s, the film Silkwood based on the life of whistleblower Karen Silkwood, also became popular and added to the prevalent fear of nuclear power.

In the USSR, these problems did not exist, for better or worse. The state controlled the media and only favorable stories were run, so doubts about the safety of Soviet nuclear systems were not shared with the public. Anyone, even knowledgable scientists (as Chernobyl very well portrays) who questioned the official story of a totally-safe, fully-assured, Soviet program of nuclear power was silenced. Certainly, these strictures of the Soviet Union were, in terms of lack of freedoms of speech and of the press, horrible things and a key difference between the USSR and US where such freedoms are a cornerstone of our national values. However, it was not a heavy-handed state control alone which allowed nuclear endeavors in the USSR to flourish, but to the credit of the Soviet people, they continued in a mode of patriotism that was badly bruised by the Vietnam era in the US. Soviet citizens, despite the state-run media, did know a thing or two of the realities of their existence and scientists certainly knew what was and was not working out in nuclear and other high-tech industries. And yet the Soviet people maintained the wide-eyed optimism that America had in the Eisenhower era. 

One of the greatest secrets—and most deeply-felt embarrassments—of the Soviet Union was that the USSR lacked the money, commerce, and prosperity of the United States and her Western European allies. The average Soviet citizen did not enjoy a quality of life anywhere close to his American or British or French counterpart. He would not see such a quality of middle-class life until around the second presidential term of Vladimir Putin, who brought the Russian economy to a level that allowed the everyday Russian citizen to enjoy greater wealth and comfort than he had ever in the vast history of the USSR and imperial Russia before it. Technology was widely believed to be the only real answer to the USSR’s sad state of lagging behind its Western peers. For one thing, the  USSR was so enormous that technologies in terms of air transport, trains, pipelines, and the like were essential to uniting and harassing this huge geographical expanse. For another, the great promise of Soviet industry was hitched to the staggering wealth of natural resources the nation possessed and only with ample technology could those resources be most-efficiently extracted and applied to useful ends. 

 


The Soviets imagined nuclear as nearly a solve-all solution, and envisioned even nuclear-powered locomotives as seen in this design from the 1950s.

So the USSR went forth with nuclear power, applying it to novel problems such as using nuclear-powered civilian ice breakers to ply the difficult, ice-filled, routes of the Arctic and open its northernmost ports to trade. Many of those same routes had lighthouses and beacons to guide the way which were powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators. Factories were productive due to cheap and efficient, reliable, nuclear power. All of this, in itself, was truly wonderful. It was hugely promising for the Soviets and their scientists and engineers can only be commended for producing systems dedicated to a vision of national and civic advancement, however, much of the technology itself was flawed. Chernobyl makes this point well: as one lead character remarks, the Soviets did it on the cheap. Where-ever corners could be cut in the service of saving a ruble, it was done. While the Soviets had their own equals to the NRC and Department of Energy, these ministries did not (as also well-depicted in the miniseries) regulate safety as well as they ought to have nor were they above lying or sweeping embarrassing facts under the rug. 

The Soviet nuclear-industrial apparatus was as large or larger than the American constellation of National Labs and private contractors who served them. Labs such as  the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics (VNIIEF) were as much at the top of their game as America’s leading university laboratories or places such as Sandia. Yet the drive to be ultra-productive, to never expose any negative or possibly damaging information, and to cut costs constantly even when against better technical judgement lead to many close calls and eventually, to the tragedy that was Chernobyl. 

Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor did not suffer its fate, as the anti-nuke camp would like everyone to believe, because nuclear itself is flawed or unduly dangerous but because the Soviets went about an exceptionally ambitious program of civilian use of nuclear power and atomic-based tech while doing so with poor regard for safety, especially when the safe way cost more than a less-safe approach. Of that there can be no dispute. Anti-nuke activists are almost certain to trot out the new miniseries and postulate that the same could have happened in the US or still could happen, but the facts will not bear that out. The basal science of nuclear power is sound, and it is safe, but its implementation can be shoddy, hurried, or underfunded. Investigations can be faulted by corruption or stonewalled by a lack of official cooperation. 

These things happened in the Soviet Union and the way in which they happened with Chernobyl and the resulting devastation to the Soviet Union was, by the account of no less than Mikhail Gorbachev himself, the main catalyst for change and greater openness in the USSR and eventually its downfall. For the disaster at Chernobyl was too big to conceal: the bungled losses of the Soviet space program, such as Nedelin catastrophe, were horrible losses of life but all the same transpired in the context of a military program and easily shrouded in the cloak of secrecy such programs afford. If a disaster happened somewhere remote and isolated and moreover, to a group of people—such as astronauts, scientists, and military officers—for whom danger was a given, that was one thing. But when a disaster occurred which produced radiation detectable hundreds of miles away in foreign nations like Sweden and which would eventually effect millions of Soviet citizens, this could not be hidden. 

Things had to change for another reason, too. Three Mile Island’s own mishap had happened only seven years prior and while there is criticism for some aspects of how it was handled—both in terms of the control room response and the public relations response—in many ways local and national assurances of safety were ultimately successful. President Jimmy Carter toured the TMI facility only days after the accident, for one thing, and Carter of course was himself a nuclear engineer. Carter had been trained as a naval submarine engineering officer and whatever one thinks of his politics, he was better prepared than any other president ever has been to understand the nuances of a nuclear emergency. The Three Mile Island incident did cause negative publicity for the US nuclear industry in a big way, but the incident also resulted in no loss of life and the worst possible outcomes were prevented due to teamwork and ingenuity. The Soviets on the other hand, had a fatal, catastrophic, disaster and then the fiasco of lies and subterfuge that followed. Eventually, everyone the world over knew of both incidents and could see the glaring differences in how they were handled and their outcomes. The silver lining to Three Mile Island was, yes, the US industry can also suffer mishaps, but look at how they are dealt with and look at the stark contrast with the Soviets. 

Chernobyl was not the first serious disaster in the Soviet nuclear program, with the Kyshtym disaster in the 1950s ranking as the worst prior to Chernobyl but as it happened at a facility dedicated to military plutonium production it was not as visible in the public eye plus it happened at a point when nuclear technologies were still young and improving. By 1986, a greater amount of sophistication and express safety was expected, and in that regard the failures of the Soviet system were glaring.

With Chernobyl, try though it did, the Soviet government could not deny something horrible with lasting consequences had happened. The lies were shown as such eventually, and the Soviet citizens—especially those in the Ukraine and Belarus who never had trusted the USSR very much anyways—lost faith in their government. It was not however simply a loss of trust, but a change in thinking, a change in how people at all levels saw the promise of people-first, workers-first, long touted by their government. 

This aspect of the story of Chernobyl has been easy enough for political pundits, social scientists, and even the general public to grasp and it—alongside the horrors of the cancers and birth defects which were the sad legacy of the disaster—is how the story normally has been told. It’s the narrative the new miniseries also follows, and though the effort to be true to actual events (mostly, at least) and the high production design values are very commendable, the overarching backstory of the nuclear technology in the USSR is once again ignored. Ironically, the fictional character of Ulana Khomyuk goes perhaps furtherest to suggest the depth and scope of nuclear industry in the USSR because she at various moments in the show mentions various institutes, labs, and power plants across the vast Soviet landscape. Also, when we first meet her, she is in her laboratory in Belarus with a graduate student so we get a sense of the work being done to promote and better the technologies requisite for Soviet nuclear industry. 

And that aspect needs very much to be understood and in tandem, the fact the US invested itself in terms of expectations and resources in nuclear as profoundly and with greater financial backing and greater safety than the Soviets did. That is why the US never suffered an accident equal to Chernobyl: accidents are of course unintentional but they can largely be prevented and in American nuclear industry, they have largely been prevented due to resolute safety. An analogy I would offer is, car crashes are always possible, but driving a Volvo at 70 mph on a sunny day on an open highway is far less likely to lead to an accident than driving a Corvette which happens to need new brakes on a rainy day at 120 mph on bad roads. The same applies to nuclear: it is an arena of technology as safe as you make it safe. 

I have worked for over a decade as a journalist but I have a degree in architectural history, which has greatly informed how I research and write about any sort of technology and the social construction of technology, including how people look at technology in a given society. Chernobyl’s tragic disaster was a watershed moment in the twentieth century’s history of technology, but like the loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, for non-technology journalists, it’s always the human meaning which is foremost in such a disaster. On the one hand, it should of course be the human loss which is most-considered, most-honored. But on the other, these disasters too easily can be taken out of extended context and the optics of viewing them too often are purely emotional ones. The Soviet Union built an impressive array of nuclear applications in their military and civil realms, but great risk lurked under the surface for them because of a culture of secrecy and cost-cutting, plus an imperative to almost never shut down or suspend a suspect unit or technology in order to rectify its problems—the dependency on nuclear power was just too great to remove anything from operation. With Chernobyl, as the miniseries illustrates, this also was a factor because Ukrainian factories were demanding power and the tests ate Chernobyl No. 4 had to be carried out at night with a far less-experienced crew when those factories were not at full production. 

For its part, the Russian entertainment complex plans to produce its own alternative miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster but with the plot that American spies were responsible in some capacity for it. That view chimes in with the Kremlin’s discontent over the HBO miniseries (newsflash: they’re not amused) and there long has been in Russia the rumor a CIA operative was lurking about the power plant in days prior to the accident. Maybe this fantasy will make for riveting fiction, but it’s laughable as a serious theory: if indeed a CIA or other Western spy was anywhere near Chernobyl, he would have been pursued and caught and if not, the plant would have gone into lock-down and the tests carried forth would not have been performed. Even though there was an imperative to keep the plant operating, the threat of a foreign agent would have superseded it, no doubt. Beyond all that, we know how the accident happened and absolutely nothing of what transpired was anything that a saboteur could have even caused. 

The Soviet Union’s nuclear legacy is not always tragic as with Chernobyl, as the Soviets did pioneer some impressive technologies and Russia still has arguably incorporated more uses of nuclear/atomic tech into everyday society in a beneficial manner than any other nation, although oversight still is weak in many areas. The radioisotope thermonuclear generators mentioned which power light beacons are a good example: the concept at hand and what it could accomplish insofar as a peaceful use of the atom, that 1950s dream, is commendable but many of these units have not been maintained  well and some have been dangerously vandalized or scraped for their metal. 

I hope that, especially for younger people, the miniseries will be a catalyst to learn more about the Cold War, the USSR and Russia, and nuclear technologies but I hope it will not instead inspire undue fear of nuclear power. Hopefully, tech-savvy millennials will see the merit in actually researching the whole story of nuclear in the USSR and elsewhere and understand how and why the tragedy at Chernobyl transpired. HBO’s Chernobyl is not as the network produced and released it anti-nuclear or really even anti-Soviet/anti-Russian, but it deserves understanding in a broader historical context. 

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Not sure what you mean by accurate, the miniseries completely misrepresents the dangers of radiation. A good review in Forbes is at  

    www.forbes.com/.../

    www.forbes.com/.../

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    PS - this was Jim Conca

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    The miniseries does help in putting light on the actual root cause of the accident at Chernobyl (ie the soviet bureaucracy), but the effect of radiation on people and its consequences were exaggerated to the highest extend possible and were depicted unscientifically.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    It's just Ukraine, not THE Ukraine.  The latter is the pejorative way Russian Soviets referred to their periphery. You use it correctly sometimes, but not always.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    I find the blog very thoughtful and well written.  I have been involved in oversight of commercial generation of nuclear power in the U.S. for over 40 years and am now semi-retired.  It was the bad design of the Chernobyl reactors, the mis-belief that beyond design bases accidents could never occur in Japan, and the type of emergency procedures/lack of fundamental thermal-hydraulics and thermodynamics training at TMI that led to these events.  None of them had to have led to core damage events.  I believe that in the U.S., the lessons of these events have been imparted and measures implemented (especially after 9/11 and Fukushima) to deal with the unexpected.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    This was Glenn Kelly.

  • I am pleased many people seem to have read this blog post, whether they agree with all my statements and conclusions or not. What I mean by "accurate", is that for a miniseries based upon historical events, HBO did an impressive job of getting a lot of things historically accurate, including incidentals such as costuming. There are places where they totally deviated from actual history and other places where they took a more dramatic, maybe even overly-dramatic, license. However, as these things go, they did an impressive job. I have a degree in architectural history so I am very discerning and skeptical in how I approach fictionalized versions of any event or period in history. Could it have been more accurate? Sure. But for a miniseries meant for popular consumption, they did I feel a good job, and they also did not paint nuclear power as the "bad guy": they rightly painted flaws in the Soviet system as the bad guy.

    Regarding my use of "the Ukraine" vs "Ukraine", I write also for the Russian media and tend to follow Russian conventions. I do realize that some Ukrainians consider this biased, and I mean no offense. Here, I used "the Ukraine" to refer more to when it was still an SSR. I can however see why anyone who is pro-Ukrainian would differ.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Maybe, but the miniseries has caused a huge backlash against nuclear energy. Nuclear energy may not have been painted as the "bad guy", but radiation and its effects was still portrayed unscientifically, and the magnitude of the disaster was amplified. News articles talking about the miniseries talk about those dramatisations of the event and its aftermath as if they were facts. Many people I've talked to or seen on social media have become doubtful about nuclear energy as a result, or entrenched further their antinuclear beliefs. It's done a huge amount of damage

  • Which, in part, is why I wrote this article, although I know most who read it outright will be in the industry and therefore I'm preaching to the choir here. I share your concern that the miniseries—which has become quite popular—will be weaponized so to speak by the anti-nuke folks. So I wanted to be one of the voices saying, look, what happened in the USSR was unique and a product of that culture, that government, not something that could happen in the US or really anywhere today. And look carefully at the miniseries: it shows that, too. Its heroes are scientists and engineers who are not opposed to nuclear power at all, but opposed to carelessly cutting corners, government cover-ups, and the like.

    Also it's essential people understand that when you make a fictionalized drama based on real-life events, to make it compelling for the average viewer, you need it to have suspense, to be dramatic. That's why I bring up that I have a degree in history yet work as a journalist, because I know all too well what a historian looks for vs what a journalist looks for are different things, and beyond that what a movie director or screen-writer seeks and what the general public seeks in reality-based (fictionalized) entertainment are also different. And that's something I may write a separate blog post about actually. While I think we as a society are getting better at being skeptical about our news as well as entertainment, we really have to be discerning. Of course, a day in the office on a sitcom will be far funnier than in real life; of course a day as a cop may be far more suspenseful and less routine in a movie than in real life, and the public needs to understand that with disaster-based fiction, this also is true. But on the other hand, if HBO had produced a dry documentary with some great actors in it, few people would have made it past watching the first hour.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    It's really off the subject here, but President Carter allowed his nuclear credentials to be exaggerated.  The death of his father led to his separation from the Navy before the training that would have qualified him for command of a nuclear submarine.   His Navy Academy education included power plant engineering, and he had been introduced to reactor theory, but he was not a nuclear engineer.