The official death toll from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, perhaps the biggest environmental catastrophe in modern history, is 31. The actual death toll may be closer to one million.
The machinations that lead to such an absurdly low official death toll – with as much effort spent on preventing political fall-out as nuclear fall-out – and the intensive misinformation exercise that allowed the furore to blow over as quickly as the initial radioactive cloud are brought to vivid life in this new HBO / Sky Atlantic co-production. The key issues – trust in our politicians, the brutal treatment of whistleblowers and humanity destroying the natural world – could scarcely be more current.
Jared Harris plays Valery Legasov, the chief of the commission investigating the disaster and a key scientist attempting to speaking truth to powerful politicos including Mikhail Gorbachev. Having previously starred as advertising executive Lane Pryce in Mad Men and King George VI in The Crown, he knows a bit about selling a story and how power structures works…
Harris was 24 at the time. “I remember the news reports,” he says. “I remember the warnings about the cloud coming our way as it worked its way across Eastern Europe and Northern Europe and then floated across the water. And I remember being told ‘don’t drink milk’. I remember there being some issue with Welsh lamb.
“But we seemed to be focused on the cloud, and once the cloud passed us and dumped it into the Atlantic, we all forgot about it. What was apparent from working on this is that it was spewing all that shit out for months. We were misled then on this idea that it was this one big cloud and once it passed we were going to be fine.”
The new drama has a very effective way of communicating the scale of the Chernobyl disaster to a non-science audience, as Legasov tries to describe what is unfolding to politicians and arse-covering power plant executives. “It’s like three million billion bullets floating in the wind,” is one nightmarish vision. “It’s like two times the Hiroshima blast every hour for potentially 100 years” is another colourful example.
“That was an attempt to take it away from science and put it in terms that we can get our head around. Basically, if you can get an actor to understand it, you can get anyone to understand it,” says Harris. Now, he claims, “I definitely feel that since then I can explain how nuclear reactors work and what went wrong with Chernobyl and why it went wrong.”
And the impact on the area?
“The reactor site will be good for 100 years and then the containment structure over it will degrade and they will have to figure out what to do with it again. But the halflife of the uranium from Chernobyl is 25,000 years. And if you think of recorded history, we have fairly good records of civilisation going back to 3000BC. So it will be five times what human beings have managed to record in their civilisation so far before it is no longer a threat.”
Cripes. The drama, though, cleverly begins with the intimate, emotional stories of individual firefighters, miners, citizens of nearby Pripyat. Images of families gathering on a bridge (that subsequently became known as the Bridge of Death as there were no survivors) to view the unfolding disaster at the power plant and children dancing in the dust as politicians gaze down from an office, deciding whether to evacuate the area, are haunting.
When the public no longer expect to get the truth, that is a very dangerous place to get to
Legasov’s moral compass is sent haywire as decisions about whether to send two people to their death knowing it could save thousands land on his desk.
“Legasov gets drawn into that world of lying for political necessity. As opposed, of course, to the scientist’s search which is always for the truth and facts and what is provable,” says Harris, who is currently filming new Marvel film Morbius in London alongside his co-star from The Crown, Matt Smith.
“What fascinated me about that scene was just how quickly Gorbachev makes that calculation. There is something kind of sickening about it.”
Another Legasov line from episode one sounds tailor-made to speak to modern politics: “If you hear enough lies, you no longer recognise the truth”.
“When the public no longer expect to get the truth, that is a very dangerous place to get to. And I feel as though that is more accurately what this story is speaking towards,” says Harris, whose co-stars on Chernobyl include Emily Watson, Jessie Buckley and Stellan Skarsgård.
“We are at a point where people don’t believe, they don’t trust the government, they don’t trust experts – that is part of the way they discredited the whole Remain campaign, with [Michael] Gove saying people were fed up with so-called experts – the idea that any facts that don’t align with your opinion can be dismissed as being invented or spurious or fake.
“Once that happens and they disengage with power and you can no longer hold power to account – power is at that point operating under its own guidance and its own interest. That is very dangerous.”
No whistleblower is unaware of the fact that they will be hunted down
We race through a few current hot topics. On Brexit, Harris says: “I live in the United States, but I’ve been following the whole debacle. Whether one voted one way or another, if it doesn’t happen the Tories only have themselves to blame. They have made a fucking shambles of it.”
He also speaks of the treatment of whistleblowers like his character in Chernobyl.
“They are not protected are they? And they always come to sticky ends. I feel one should have special memorials or awards for whistleblowers because they are doing it for the public good. It is a public service,” he says.
“They are not celebrated enough by the public, in whose interest they are basically ruining their lives. Because no whistleblower is unaware of the fact that they will be hunted down, chased, their characters will be assassinated if they are not literally assassinated.
“It is a dangerous decision to take. And obviously you are only going to take it if you realise something is very, very, very, very wrong.”
If we constrain the planet’s ability to sustain us, we don’t have anywhere else to go
But Harris returns to the environment when asked for his own political big issue…
“I can’t see there is a bigger one than the health of the planet. The plastic contamination of the planet and what we are doing to the health of the oceans and the natural environment – if we constrain the planet’s ability to sustain us, we don’t have anywhere else to go.
“We are dropping the ball. Our generation is dropping the ball. The generation above us is dropping the ball. You need no better statement of that than the millions of young people in one hundred countries campaigning. If that isn’t a wake-up call to the adults who are supposed to be shepherds of planet and what we are going to be passing on to the next generation then I don’t know what is.
“Again, it gets back to the questions you were asking earlier about the denial of science, the denial of information – we do seem to have an amazing ability to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that it is not happening.”
- Chernobyl will be available on Sky Atlantic and Now TV on 7th May