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Chernobyl and its message of hope

Anybody who has watched the stunning HBO series will have noticed its bleakness, sadness and despair at what happened. Not so much probably felt more hopeful for the future, quite the contrary. Understandably.

I did instead. I noticed a strong message of hope from the heroic acts done after the disaster and at the same time one for us, for today.

I’m not going to spoiler the exact scenes of the shows but only talking in general about the nuclear incident, which is (should?) well known. No fear of reading then if you haven’t watched the series yet.

Chernobyl, the ugly parts

Well, most of it is ugly. For many watchers, all of it is ugly, depressing, discomforting, and hopeless. It is a punch in the stomach, it is a window on the most depressing aspects of the human greediness, incompetence and arrivism. Horrible deaths due to radiations, soldiers killing animals, people torn from their homes, forever, still born babies. There’s a lot of horrific images, it is not an easy view by any standard, but a superbly filmed mini-series. At times it looks identical to the reality. Thoroughly worth your time.

The Chernobyl disaster was the perfect example of a tragedy that could have easily been avoided, if the original scientists developing the RBMK class of nuclear reactors took enough care to fix its design flaws, if the operators of the central had followed exactly all the procedures and not relied on the famous “AZ-5” button to cut the nuclear reaction immediately and were instead more cautious, less focused on themselves (their image, their career, their arrogance). It could have it all been avoided. Politicians after it could have listened to the words of the protagonist, Valeriy Legasov, and took the safest measures instead of considering it a minor incident. Thousands of people would have been saved by that only, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and in the following years, by less exposure to the radiations.

Chernobyl, the series, depicts a world where politics ignored the scientists in favour of their own gain, image and career, and tried till the very end to hide their faults and blame it all on the handful of central’s technicians who were there at the moment of the failed test. It was the easiest way of course, “sacrificing” the career and life of a few people in order to save their own face and what they believed in, that a Soviet reactor couldn’t have any faults of its own and then, obviously, the mistakes were all humans. The State was above human mistakes, the State had to prevail.

When a belief, in this case in the Communist State, overrides what is the plain truth, disasters can occur. We have to watch for the evidence, all the time, and not make ourselves blind to it because it goes against our beliefs. Sounds much easier said than done, I agree, but that’s what the scientific community strive to achieve. In the case of Chernobyl it wasn’t enough as politicians ignored them for their own beliefs and held accountable only a tiny portion of them, the smaller fishes of course, the disposable ones.

Graffiti in Chernobyl
Graffiti in Chernobyl

One of the positive messages I took from the series is that we should keep accountable the politicians of being able to see the truth, the evidence, the proofs that the scientists can furnish us and develop solutions based off those, not off what they believe it is the truth. Because, inevitably, that won’t be. It will be skewed on their political ideas, and will only partially work. Lives can depend on this accountability, as for Chernobyl. But it is not the only positive message I took from the series.

Humanity can be amazing

Despite all the mistakes, the incompetence, the political affairs and ideologies, one thing shined in the 5 episodes of Chernobyl: humanity.

Throughout them we watch people committing mistakes and horrible things, like killing all the animals in the evacuation area around the nuclear power plant to not let them contaminate the ground and other animals after. They had to, and were also often forced to but could have resisted. They mostly didn’t.

Doctors from Kiew
Doctors from Kiew

The amount of courageous acts and sacrifices stunned me, unexpectedly so. I was expecting instead a series about the crimes and horrors of the Chernobyl disaster, which in part is but it is to me not the main focus; instead most of Chernobyl was focused on the positive acts that the people of the Soviet Union did.

The first firefighters coming at the reactor in flame in the minutes after it exploded were inundated with radiations, without any protection at all. Yet they did what they could to keep the flames at bay and cool the reactor, well aware that they were going to die very soon. Some did.

The helicopters which were charged to drop sand, lead, clay and boron over the reactor to reduce the nuclear reaction, were flying over it, among smoke and radiation levels well above those of an atomic bomb. Yet they did it anyway.

The miners who were called to dig a large hole under the reactor in order to pour liquid nitrogen in it and cool off the reactor as quickly as possible, worked without protection, at high temperatures and mere meters below the reactor still burning. They weren’t equipped against the radiations, they dug anyway.

The 3 men who offered to open the water pumps in order to prevent a steam explosion, had to walk through contaminated water for meters to reach the valves. They did it at high risk of dying of radiations. They waded in the contaminated water anyway. They were Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov.

The so called liquidators who were charged to remove the highly contaminated graphite pieces on the roof of the reactor, in order to be able to later cover it all, were allowed 90 seconds only to do so, because even with all the protections of the time more would have raised the risk of death too high. They were 3828 and they did it.

The volunteers and soldiers working to clean the immediate area around the reactor, evacuating people, burying the highly-radioactive objects, preventing anybody else to enter the area and covering the logistics needs of everybody, had to stay for weeks in the zone near Chernobyl, exposed for all that time to the radiations. They were 600.000. They did it.

The scientists who worked to develop a plan to manage the crisis, that exposed the truth of the design flaws of the RBMK reactors, had to do it either by staying weeks in the immediate proximity of the Chernobyl reactor, like Legasov himself, or by challenging the powerful dictatorship and politic system of the Soviet Union. They did because they felt that the truth had to be known for this to never happen again. Some paid with their lives, Legasov himself included. But did it nonetheless.

Chernobyl masks
Chernobyl masks

You see the pattern. For a few tens of persons who were negligent, inefficient, incompetent and downright dishonest, thousands more were available to collaborate, work and die to just contain the disaster, as they couldn’t fix it. Nobody could. And they knew it. As they knew it could cost their life.

The same belief on the State and the Party who blinded the politicians to the truth of the design flaws and the disaster just occurred, moved normal citizens in risking everything to help. It is extraordinary that they did under those circumstances and with the extreme danger they were putting themselves in. If this is not a positive message, I don’t know what else is.

We don’t know exactly how many of them died. From 31, the official count, to various thousands in the years after the disaster. Perhaps it won’t ever be known. It is worth our time though to remember them, some of their names are on this Wikipedia article. I find it extremely hopeful to read of their sacrifice. Humanity can do extraordinary things.

Chernobyl and today’s climate change

The series end with these words of Legasov, worth quoting in full:

To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It 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?

That struck me as a message to us, to today, to what is a parallel of a looming disaster that we are still ignoring: climate change. We have been having scores of scientists telling us that it is happening, it is mostly our fault and we can fix it, for decades. Yet politicians and ourselves are doing little, too little yet to save ourselves and our planet. Like in Chernobyl’s ending, we have the Legasovs of today looking at the truth and telling us, bluntly, that we should listen. We have also had activists doing it, for years, the latest and perhaps more famous being Greta Thunberg.

We are not in the Soviet Union. We don’t have KGB spying on us. We don’t have limited access to the informations and what is happening in the world. We don’t have a party that is willing to kill or send its own citizens to the gulags just to prevent them to tell the truth.

Quite the opposite. We know. We have been exposed to the truth of climate change for a while now, but what have we done? Cutting our plastic usage and using an electric car is commendable but not enough. Have we kept our politicians accountable on their environmental policies? Did we vote for those who care about our Earth? Do we criticize and reproach those of our friends and relatives ignoring the environmental issues? Do we prefer buying from companies more respectful of the environment, even if that means not having that snack or drink we love so much? Do we make everything we possibly can in limiting our impact on the environment, and I truly mean everything? That includes renouncing to what we would like to do, or doing it differently.

It doesn’t seem so. It is unfortunately not enough. We are living like in the years preceding the Chernobyl disaster. Only, this time, we know there’s gonna be one, a big one. We know that no matter our courage and sacrifice, it could not be enough to contain it if it were to happen. It is going to be much bigger than Chernobyl’s. There won’t be heroes digging under, flying over or wading through an exposed nuclear reactor. The whole Earth will be like that reactor. In a different and more gradual way but we know it is the truth.

We are heading to pay that cost of lies that Legasov cited. It will be way more costly than Chernobyl, and more definitive. We can’t afford it and we know. But we still have the chance to prevent it, that is our advantage today. That’s the hopeful message we can learn from Chernobyl. It is doable for us because we know. We only need to start acting now. No heroes of tomorrow, but good citizens of today. That will suffice.

We can still do it, but, are we doing it?

Pink Floyd’s Marooned official video – partly shot in Pripyat

Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.

3 Comments

  • Sarah

    I think this is very true. Yes, we don’t live in the USSR with its maniacal dedication to keeping up appearances, but governments still withhold information, and still put people in charge who don’t necessarily have the best interests at heart.

    Huge fan of the series, and this post!

    • Gianluca Fiore

      Exactly. We are better off but only slightly and unfortunately these disasters can still happen. We have to be vigilant and require our politicians to put in charge knowledgeable and honest persons in critical roles.

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