Chernobyl: The Cost of Lies
Chernobyl is a television mini-series co-produced by HBO and Sky about the very serious nuclear accident at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, located 18 kilometers northeast of the city of Chernobyl and 16 kilometers from the border between Ukraine and Belarus.
The man-made disaster, among the worst in history, rated a level 7 (out of 7) on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES). It occurred at 01.23:40 on April 26, 1986. Eighteen seconds earlier, a computerized control system called “Skala” had recorded the start of a reactor Scram (emergency stop), which unintentionally triggered the explosion. The Scram started when one of the staff pressed the “AZ-5” button, which was meant to shut down the reactor. Instead, it caused an explosion.
The miniseries was written and produced by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad). The Chernobyl actors, who have earned nominations for the 2019 Emmy Awards, are: Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men), Stellan Skarsgård (Melancholia, Good Will Hunting) and Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie, Breaking the Waves). She has already received an Oscar nomination. The first episode was aired on May 6, followed by the next four. It tells of the dramatic sacrifices made by more than 600,000 people to save Europe from an unimaginable disaster.
In the opinion of 150,000 viewers, Chernobyl was the best miniseries of 2019. On the Movie Database site (IMDb) it got the best score of all time. It still is rated at 9.7 points, against, for example, the 9.4 reached by Game of Thrones.
How did it get so much popular support? Gonzalo Cordero, writing for Esquire, expressed an interesting opinion on the subject: “You only need to see a few minutes to understand it: with its mixture of vintage images and its horror film tricks, a plot wrapped in Soviet politics and conspiracies, Chernobyl draws you in, taking you into the heart of the nuclear disaster (the fear and discomfort that you feel are similar to that experienced in the zombie apocalypse) and then captures you by the documentary truthfulness with which it weaves together the management of the disaster that started on April 26, 1986. And it ends up winning you over by awakening an absorbing interest in nuclear energy, its operation and its dangers. This is surrounded by a network of perfectly woven lies, which finds echoes in the current era of fake news. There is also the dehumanized and ruined background that characterizes at a geopolitical level the historical stage on which heroism and commitment to truth, to the homeland and to humanity take on a new dimension.”
The following assessment is convincing:: “Chernobyl brings us personally to the heart of the nuclear disaster. It does this despite some rather obvious elements that can be criticized. The Russian media, for example, point out that some officials and the Russian system of government of the time were caricatured with a strong ideological connotation. So they are making a kind of ‘counter-series’ with their own version of the facts.”
Information about what really happened in the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was manipulated from the outset. And although the conflict of opinions about the facts and the ways of assessing and interpreting them is a reality to which, for better or for worse, we are becoming accustomed in this post-truth era, in the case of the Chernobyl disaster manipulation acquires a particular character on which we will focus our reflections.
Let us take, for example, the data on the victims. The two workers who died after the explosion of the reactor, to which were added another 29 people – mainly firefighters, who died shortly after because of acute radiation syndrome – are an indisputable statistic. On the other hand, some sources assert an increase in the number of victims from acute radiation to 54.
Then there are the many “long-term” victims, those who have suffered and continue to suffer from different types of diseases produced by radiation. Here the disagreement widens. The methods used to quantify victims are based on numerical models, and projections differ. In 2005, the World Health Organization, together with the governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, raised the likely number of deaths related to the effects of radiation in the medium and long term to 4,000. Subsequently, victims who were likely exposed to lower radiation levels were included, and thus the figure increased further to 9,000 people. Other numerical models predict that cancer deaths will reach 16,000, possibly more.
The figures differ, but this is understandable because it is the very nature of radioactivity – its effects expand and last over time. This makes it difficult to quantify the potential damage to life and requires constant improvement in the technology and standards by which its effects are measured. We are faced with a reality that affects our own ability to measure what has gotten out of hand. When we reach these levels, it is not enough to improve the scientific “models” with which the data are interpreted, but a more radical, philosophical reflection is required, not only on the “quantifiable form” of a phenomenon, but on its very existence, on its dynamism, which in this case proves to be “anti-life.”
Real dialogues and dynamics
It is the spoken words and the faces of Chernobyl, the firsthand accounts that draw us into the heart of the drama, not the special effects to which we have grown accustomed. The dynamism that moves the dialogues radiates from the nuclear reactor: it is a reality created by human hands – and over which we have lost control – that sets in motion the dialogue between politics and science. And it forces them to face up to each other.
A significant example of this dialogue between politics and science is, in our view, the one that takes place between President Mikhail Gorbachev, scientist Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), and Boris Shcherbina, the Vice-President of the Council of Ministers of Gorbachev (played by Stellan Skarsgård). When the President of the USSR concludes the meeting, having been informed that the danger of the nuclear power plant is under control, Legasov raises his voice shouting: “No!”
Shcherbina intervenes and tries to silence him, despite the fact that it was he who requested the presence of the scientist at the cabinet meeting. But Gorbachev silences him, saying he wants to listen to the scientist.
Legasov: “There is graphite on the ground.”
Shcherbina, interrupting him: “A tank has exploded, there is debris, how important can that be?”
Legasov, without being intimidated: “There is only one place in the entire plant where graphite can be found. Inside the core. If there is graphite on the ground outside, it means that it was not a tank that exploded, but that the core is uncovered. A Rbmk reactor uses uranium-235 as its fuel. Each atom of U-235 is like a bullet, which travels almost at the speed of light, penetrating everything it encounters: wood, metal, concrete, human organs. Each gram of U-235 contains one billion trillion of these bullets, this in one gram. There are over three million grams in Chernobyl, and now they’re burning. The wind will carry radioactive particles across the entire continent. The rain will spill them on us. There are three million billion trillion bullets in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat. Most of these bullets won’t disappear for at least 100 years, some of them for 50,000 years.”
Gorbachev: “And this apprehension of yours is entirely based on the description of detritus?”
At this point, Gorbachev decides to send Shcherbina to see with his own eyes what happened and inform him. The scientist will have to accompany him. The Vice-President of the Council reacts to this statement with a grimace, and Gorbachev asks him: “Do you know how a nuclear reactor works?” Shcherbina says no, and the president adds: “[If you don’t have the scientist with you,] then how will you know what you’re looking at?”
The dialogue is interesting because it contains the core of the film. It is a dialogue between politics and science, which have to confront each other on the ground of reality, and not only on that of ideas. Scientists are used to dealing with natural reality in their laboratories, in a context where they can experiment with it, creating the right conditions. Politicians are accustomed to influencing social reality, directing it according to general ideas and interests. Chernobyl has as a subject of discussion a reality that resists any kind of experiment and manipulation. And not only does it resist these, but it threatens life and social structures to an extreme degree of danger. To “see” this reality they will have to go there in person. And they will find something that will change their lives and their way of thinking and working.
The soldier, the grandmother and the cow
We humans have no senses that can “perceive” ionizing radiation. We feel the effects, both short and long term, since they produce chemical changes in our cells and damage our DNA. There are, however, various types of instruments that can capture and measure the amount of radiation absorbed by matter.
In this series they use Geiger counters (now obsolete) which emit that frightening sound characteristic of the background music of Chernobyl and that, along with the other protracted sound that mimics the noise produced by a reactor, give the feeling of the almost physical presence of radioactivity. These counters estimate the radiation in Röntgen (R), a unit of measurement that establishes “the radiation dose in the environment to which you are exposed” for the duration of your contact with the radioactive material. Currently, the reference is to Sievert (Sv), which measures the dose of radiation absorbed by living matter, corrected by the possible biological effects produced. But what we want to do here is to confirm that there are “realities” for which we do not have a “sense.” And since the concepts we think of come from the senses, we cannot think of them properly without help.
The film dramatizes this problem in a moving way in the scene in which a soldier who is working on evacuating locals and tracing and eliminating contaminated animals of the region (dogs, cats, flocks…) so that they do not reproduce, enters a farm and finds an elderly woman who is milking her only cow. The soldier tells the woman to get out of there. Here it should be pointed out that cesium-137, highly radioactive, deposits itself in a particularly abundant way in the fodder that the cows eat and contaminates the milk. The old lady says she does not want to be evacuated. Her argument is that she has already gone through various wars and all sorts of dangerous situations and has “seen everything.” So, of course, she will not leave now “for something she doesn’t see,” the radioactivity that she has been told about, and that does not have immediate effects. The soldier, in response, kills her cow.
The need for a new paradigm
Confronted with a “natural” reality we make judgements based on what we see. And that is why, following the natural model, we tend to do the same with regard to the reality created by humans. When a nuclear reactor produces electricity, it is a wonderful thing… as long as it works well, as Legasov says at some point in his expert testimony to a court investigating who might be the culprits. But when this reality created by us gets out of hand, when it leaves the laboratory, we must think of it in a more complex way.
This means that any assessment must start with an evaluation of the data that only measuring devices provide us with, and of biological effects that are only perceived in the long term, and which therefore also need a translation into something perceivable, mediated by mathematical models. In this way we can establish a particular concept that synthesizes the scientific and existential perspective (the degree of mortality), bypassing the perceptible and formal one: 12,000 R/h kills you in three minutes.
It is a difficult fact to accept. People who manipulate facts for economic or political gain try to divert attention, for example by showing that right now planet Earth is not “as threatened as suggested,” or to direct attention to formal data, discussing figures and proposing other alternatives. But the correct way of thinking about these realities is to link numbers and cancer, numbers and death. The death of people close to me and my death, not death in general, if such a concept existed, if it were possible to “quantify” personal deaths. The new paradigm is scientific-existential. This individual way of thinking comes naturally to us when we read the data of a medical analysis and connect the numbers and abbreviations, for example, with cancer. Chernobyl teaches us how to read the health of the planet Earth in this context.
Absorbed radiation as a metaphor for lies
Another aspect, besides the immediate imperceptibility of radioactivity, is the fact that it primarily affects the “softer” tissues, which absorb more of it. The series tells us about it, embodying it in the story of two characters: the fireman Vasily Ignatenko and his wife Lyudmilla. He was one of the “firefighters,” among the first to rush to put out the fire. He died shortly after, afflicted with pains caused by radiation that destroyed all his organs. His wife, who had gone to take care of him even though she was pregnant, “so he doesn’t die alone” (as she says in the series to the doctor who tries to stop her), was saved because the child she was carrying absorbed all the radiation.
This leads scientist Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) – a character invented to represent the large number of scientists who worked to discover the truth – to say at a key moment in the series: “We live in a country where children must die to save their mothers. To hell with his deal and to hell with our lives! Someone must tell the truth so that it doesn’t happen again.”
This property of radioactivity to leave non-biological structures intact and to destroy biological ones from the inside, starting from the most permeable and fragile parts, awakens in scientists the compelling urgency to tell the truth, a truth that cannot be immediately verified and that could be associated with causes that remain unnamed and mysterious in some way. Legasov expresses this concept in the sentence with which he closes the recording of his testimony before committing suicide: “If once I feared the price of truth, now I just ask: what is the cost of lies?” It is a price that is paid in the long term and remains separated from its causes, in the same way that Scripture states that the wages of sin is death.
The success of Chernobyl rests in creating a metaphor for lies, linking its power to that of radioactive matter. The lie is not only a lie: it is like the hum still active in the basement of the Lenin power station in Chernobyl; it is like the cesium-127 that has settled on the fields of the region and has lasted for 30 years; it is like the plutonium … that will last 24,000 years.
The analogy between radioactivity and lies is proportional: as in the latter, what must be correctly judged is its power. The classic example is the one that says: “Evening is to day as old age is to life.” This metaphor is intended to express the similarity of the power of the day with that of life. In our case, we could say that radioactivity is to biology as the lie is to spirituality. In other words, it is not enough to measure the lie only “in the abstract,” but it must be done as an “absorbed lie,” corrected by the effects it produces, especially in the simplest people. This metaphor has a devastating allegorical potential.
‘Bio-robot’ or reality can only be manipulated by hand
“Bio-robot,” says Legasov, who seems absorbed in his thoughts while listening to the conversation between Boris Shcherbina and the general in charge of overseeing the control of damage caused by the explosion of the nuclear reactor. The conversation takes place after the failure of the bulldozer sent from Germany to remove graphite debris from the most contaminated roof. Actually, the failure was due to the fact that the Russian government had communicated (to minimize the situation) a level of radiation much lower than the actual level, and so the robot simply “fried” within 30 seconds.
The general states that there is no way to remove the radioactive graphite scattered by the explosion on the roofs of the power plant. The three different areas needing to be cleaned up were given different names: “Katya” is the roof where radiation reaches 1,000 Röntgen/h (two hours would be fatal); on “Nina” the radiation reaches 2,000 R/h (one hour would be fatal); and the most dangerous, “Masha,” with 12,000 R/h, is (and remains) “the most dangerous place on earth.” On “Masha,” the electrical equipment used to drive the bulldozers to remove the rubble stops working. This is why Legasov intervenes by saying that the only solution is to remove the graphite by hand, just as had already been done to open the water drainage pumps. Here they are, the bio-robots: the volunteers to whom the task will be entrusted.
The extent to which they were volunteers and the extent to which they were informed of the danger they were facing by exposing themselves to such levels of radiation are still being discussed today. They only had to do it for 90 seconds each (no more than three minutes, in any case), and then leave it to others. There were 3,828 “bio-robots.” And the “cleaners” numbered between 600,000 and 800,000, including those in charge of killing animals and those who had to treat the victims, having to do everything “by hand.”
Chernobyl is the myth of the “bio-robot,” the myth that makes us see that reality can be manipulated, yes, but by hand! “Using your hands” means taking responsibility, making a decision and knowing that you are “giving your life.” Chernobyl shows us that the reality created “technically” in the reactor is not “technically” manageable. Technology creates and directs, but, once that reality leaves the laboratory (and we can say that even ideologies are laboratories… in the open air), it destroys those who want to control it. It can only be manipulated, as the word itself says, by hand.
What can change the dialogue between politics and science
The dialogue on “bio-robots” had in fact already been implicitly started before, in the third episode of the series, during a telephone conference between Shcherbina and Gorbachev, in the presence of Legasov. When the scientist spoke, insisting that a much larger area should have been evacuated, Gorbachev silenced him and said: “You are there for one reason only, do you understand? To make this stop. I don’t want questions, I want to know when this will be over.”
Legasov replied: “If you mean when Chernobyl will be completely safe, the half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years, so perhaps we should just say not within our lifetimes.”
At this point, the President of the USSR hangs up the phone.
Left alone, Shcherbina asks Legasov to take a walk, in which, alone and away from prying ears, they continue the conversation.
Shcherbina: “What will happen to our boys?”
Legasov: “Which boys? The three divers?”
Shcherbina: “The divers, the fire-fighters, the men in the control room. What will the radiation do to them, precisely?”
Legasov: “At the levels some of them were exposed to, ionizing radiation tears the cellular structure apart. Skin blisters, it turns red, then black. This is followed by a latency period. The immediate effects subside, the patient appears to be recovering, healthy even, but they aren’t. This usually lasts only for a day or two.”
Legasov: “Then cellular damage begins to manifest itself. The bone marrow dies. The immune system fails. The organs and soft tissues begin to decompose. The arteries and veins split open like sieves, to the point where you can’t even administer morphine for the pain, which is unimaginable. And then three days to three weeks, you’re dead. That is what will happen to those boys.”
Shcherbina: “What about us?”
Legasov: “Well, we got a steady dose, but not as much, not strong enough to kill the cells, but consistent enough to damage our DNA. So, in time, cancer. Or aplastic anemia, either way, fatal.”
Having learned that he will surely die within five years, Shcherbina realizes what is happening and changes his political vision. The scientific data and what he had to do to be able to measure them became real to him. This happens when he touches that “something” of Chernobyl that cannot be manipulated either from a technical or a political point of view, but only by paying the price of your own life. In the process, it will be his moral and political authority that will allow Legasov to declare all the truth that weighs on the Government. That is to say that the employees of the nuclear power plant were guilty because they had brought the reactor to an irreversible situation, but they were not entirely to blame. It had been hidden from them that the AZ-5 button, believed to be able to shut down the reactor at any time, in the situation to which they had brought it, instead of shutting it down, would make it explode. The Government had concealed this information for the simple reason that otherwise materials other than graphite, which was “cheaper,” would have to be used. Politicians knew the scientific data, but with an abstract knowledge, which made them choose the cheapest solutions, at least until the problems came about.
‘They work in the dark, and they see everything. Tell the truth’
The last dialogue we take into consideration is the one between Legasov and Shcherbina a moment before the head of the miners enters the vehicle that serves as headquarters. They called on them urgently to dig a tunnel under the reactor, so as to make room for a heat exchanger and thus prevent the molten core from sinking into the groundwater, endangering millions of lives. That work would have proved useless: in six weeks the melted core cooled down on its own and there was never any need to pump the liquid nitrogen into the heat exchanger. But the work exposed the workers to an overload of radiation.
Legasov, who has to talk to their boss, tells Shcherbina: “I’m not good at this, Boris, the lying.”
Shcherbina asked him, “Have you ever spent time with miners?”
“Do you want my advice? Tell the truth. These men work in the dark. They see everything.”
When they are told the truth, the miners go and do their work and give everything. They work tirelessly, knowing that this task will affect their lives. They prove, along with many others, that it is not necessary to manipulate people when a cause really concerns the common good. In this scene we see how things are reversed: the chain of lies that had led to people evading their responsibilities and delegating them to others, is now transformed into a chain of truths, starting with those who take on the most dangerous tasks and reaches into the courts and corridors of power where political decisions are taken.
The postmodern myth
There are many good stories based on real facts like those depicted in Chernobyl or even on a mere fiction. The credibility of the characters adds to their appeal, and some of them owe it to Chernobyl for rescuing them from the anonymity to which the regime had tried to relegate them. Others are created, but in such a way that in them the voices and souls of many real people who were involved in the tragedy resound. As Jorge Luis Borges says, speaking of the characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the greatest success of a literary work lies in the fact that the reader can make friends with the characters, and this does not happen “with all fictitious characters.” With Chernobyl it happens. Just as the multitude of radioactive materials that remain active in the basement of the plant is a reality so special that it has been given the name of “chernobylite,” so also the characters of the series, with their reflections and their dialogues around the dynamism of this reality that did not exist beforehand on the planet but was created by humans and that you cannot “shut down,” bring to the screen and make us relive what we can call “the myth of Chernobyl.”
Let us say that it is a postmodern myth, because it reveals to us the mystery of current reality, the mystery that seemed to be lost in the hands of the sciences that hypothesize everything and manipulate everything. Chernobyl takes us back to that level of reality to which the mind must adapt, willingly or unwillingly, and cannot manipulate or conceptualize it enough, but must resort to narrative and metaphor to understand it.
Chernobyl has been called a docudrama, but this term risks making you think of a hybrid, something halfway between documentary and drama. For us, we think that the significance of the series and its impact come from the force of reality itself and from the artistic method adopted to narrate this reality. The metaphor used to combine lies and radioactivity has an extraordinary power. Chernobyl does not fight the lie by isolating it on a purely ethical level, but by showing the inseparable union of ethical decisions when it comes to the creation of realities such as those produced in a nuclear reactor. The debt left by the lie in this technical manufacture is always paid, more sooner than later, and the payment must be executed “by hand,” with the risk of losing one’s own life.
Chernobyl’s message is that we can “create” without limits, but not “control” without limits. Therefore, it is necessary to have someone who takes responsibility and personally guarantees – without diluting responsibility in the anonymity of technical issues – the debts constituted by human or natural failures, which always occur and will always occur (a point that can be statistically proven).
The challenge, then, is to find ways to exercise power over power itself, as Romano Guardini well said. Being irresponsible in the use of natural things is criminal, but being irresponsible in the use of the things we have created is doubly criminal.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 11, art. 3, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1910.3
. Cf. E. De Gorgot, “Lo digo ya: ‘Chernobyl’ va a ser la mejor serie del 2019” in Jot down (www.jotdown.es/2019/05/lo-digo-ya-chernobyl-va-a-ser-la-mejor-serie-del-2019), May 2019.
. G. Cordero, “Series 2019: ranking de las mejores y calendario de estrenos” in Esquire (www.esquire.com/es/actualidad/tv/g25537690/mejores-series-2019-netflix-movistar-hbo-amazon), July 22, 2019.
. See P. Armelli, “Chernobyl, la Russia vuole girare una contro-serie tv con la sua versione dei fatti” in Wired (www.wired.it/play/televisione/2019/06/07/chernobyl-serie-tv-sky-hbo-russia/?refresh_ce=), June 7, 2019.
. Cf. E. Cardis et Al., “Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident” in International Journal of Cancer (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16628547), September 15, 2006.
. Valery Legasov was a distinguished scientist, a key member of the government commission charged with investigating the causes of the accident. Two years and a day later he hanged himself in his house. He left several records in which he denounced the design shortcomings of the plant and other examplesof incompetence, which the system tried to hide for years.
. Boris Shcherbina was a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and Vice-President of the Council of Ministers. President Gorbachev entrusted him with the management of the crisis and sent him to the place. The irradiation prematurely ended his life in 1990, as Legasov had predicted.
. Radiation can be non-ionizing – that of light, radio waves or what we perceive as heat – or ionizing, when it has enough energy to remove an electron from an atom or molecule, and cause its ionization. The harmful effects of ionizing radiation on a living organism are mainly due to the energy absorbed by the cells and tissues that form it. This energy is absorbed by ionization and atomic excitation, and produces the chemical decomposition of the molecules present. The cells can be increased or reduced in volume, they can die, they can undergo genetic mutations leading to cancer, even in the latent state.
. The difference is that Röntgen units measure radioactivity in the environment, Gray (Gy) as absorbed by any material, while Sievert corrects these data by measuring the damage that occurs in the biological material.
. Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 2015, reported her moving testimony in the book Prayer for Chernobyl (Rome, Editions e/o, 2002).
. When Pope Francis affirms that murmurs and concealment are acts of terrorism, he is “measuring” the damage they produce, taking into account these complex categories of measurement. We can add that these are not limited acts of terrorism, but rather nuclear, radioactive terrorism.
. Alexei Ananenko, Valery Bezpalov and Boris Baranov were the three volunteers who entered the contaminated water, accumulated to extinguish the fire, and opened the pumps that allowed it to evacuate. If they had not done so, there would most likely have been a new explosion, the harmful consequences of which for the region and for Europe would have been much greater, especially if radioactive water had been filtered together with corium, contaminating the groundwater of Kiev, which flows into the Black Sea. Some say that these three heroes prevented the deaths of millions of people; others, on the other hand, since that possibility did not come true, treat the issue as one of many.
. See the documentary entitled Chernobyl 3.828 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfDa8tR25dk).
. J. L. Borges, “Mi entrañable señor Cervantes” in Revista de Artes y Humanidades UNICA, Vol. 6, No. 12, January-April 2005, 221-230.