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Chernobyl Has Blown Up Twice

Photograph Source: Carl Montgomery – CC BY 2.0

As we contemplate somewhat ruefully how someone heretofore best known for scripting The Hangover (parts 2 and 3) has managed to loft the truth about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster into the stratosphere, whilst we have slogged for decades to get the issue attention, there is some comfort to be had.

Yes, Chernobyl has blown up twice — first the reactor and now the eponymous 5-part HBO/Sky miniseries — and the nuclear industry and its pundits are absolutely freaking out. They have gone into Mega Propaganda Overdrive because the drama was so popular they are terrified that millions of people will now realize that nuclear power is Actually Dangerous.

The pro-nukers have even resorted to saying that the Chernobyl series is “fiction.” No one is calling two other recent dramas — Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman — fiction. Both films might have taken a little liberty with their subjects’ lives — rock stars Freddy Mercury and Elton John respectively— but these stories are not “fiction.” Chernobyl created a composite character out of many for Emily Watson to play, to streamline the action and lend clarity to the story. But Chernobyl wasn’t fiction, either. It was a dramatization of real events.

Still the nuclear lobby bang on about how such a thing could never happen again — ignoring the fact that it did, in 2011 in Japan. It was old Soviet technology, career-climbing bureaucrats and a closed, secretive governmental system that was to blame for Chernobyl they say. Even the show’s creative force and writer, Craig Mazin, he of two Hangovers, felt obliged to insist publicly that the show was not meant to be anti-nuclear and nor is he.

This latter position — given all Mazin must have learned during his years of meticulous research — has surprised some. How could he possibly arrive at such a conclusion?

It’s a rookie error.

Yes, Mazin studied the Chernobyl story in depth. He read Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich and Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, by Serhii Plokhy. He became extremely well-versed in what transpired during and immediately after the accident, and the heroic actions of those who saved the world from an even worse outcome.

But unlike those of us in the anti-nuclear movement — and those aforementioned years of slog — Mazin is not an expert in nuclear power outside of what he knows about Chernobyl and the old Soviet Union. He did not spend years studying the US nuclear cabal, or Japan’s. Those weren’t topics relevant to his rightfully heralded masterpiece. He didn’t need to look.

So, as a rookie, Mazin never found out that a captured nuclear regulator, a nuclear industry that routinely takes safety shortcuts to save money, and a government whose officials bang the drum for nuclear power without knowing the slightest thing about its risks, all exist right here, right now in the USA. And in Japan. And likely anywhere where nuclear power operates. And of course an autocratic, unpredictable and secretive government isn’t exactly a Soviet exclusive either. Especially now.

The Fukushima Daiichi reactors that exploded and melted down in Japan in 2011 were not old Soviet designs, they were American — the GE Mark I Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), a reactor so dangerous that even GE’s own engineers said it should never be built. That was back in the 1970s. Now the 28 remaining GE Mark I and II BWRs still going in the US are old and consequently at an even more dangerous phase. Their containments are so tiny that in the event of a serious accident you have to vent their radioactive inventory into the atmosphere to save them.

Fukushima wasn’t as serious as Chernobyl, but a lot of that was luck. The wind was blowing out to sea that day. Then prime minister, Naoto Kan, didn’t let Tepco pull its workforce from the disaster site — which would have led to major meltdowns there, forcing abandonment of the site, leading to radioactive contamination of the nearby Fukushima Daiini reactor site, which in turn would have had to have been abandoned, leading to those reactors melting down…..and so on.

It’s amusing, therefore, to see Matt Wald telling a reporter for a story about the Chernobyl series in which I was also quoted, that a Chernobyl could never happen in the US. For years, we had to contend with Wald’s bias as he masqueraded as a reporter at the New York Times on, yes, the nuclear beat. I vividly remember a private screening by HBO of Rory Kennedy’s documentary about Indian Point, at which I came upon Wald sitting cozily side-by-side with then NRC Commissioner, Edward McGaffigan. McGaffigan, who after the screening inexplicably called the HBO women hosting the event, “bitches,” cast a verbal slur in my direction as well, at which the two of them contentedly smirked.  When Wald left the Times to become the Senior Communications Advisor for the Nuclear Energy Institute — the position he currently holds at the industry’s lobbying arm — none of us in the anti-nuclear movement was the least bit surprised.

But I digress. Back to Chernobyl. The series is the highest rated TV show of all time on IMDb’s ranking. That seems incredible as well as wonderful. I know why I tuned in. But I would love to know why so many other people — who almost certainly have only ever had at best a mild curiosity about the Chernobyl disaster — did too. And in such great numbers. It was brilliantly cast with great actors, although not household names, even though they should be and might be now. It was dark and depressing. The final episode had to explain what a positive void coefficient was. Not exactly Game of Thrones. But apparently more popular. As I said, incredible.

So cпасибо and очень хорош to Craig Mazin for doing such a masterful job, whatever he thinks about nuclear power. It’s not his issue, and by now he’s probably moved on to other things, even though the panicked nuclear lobby have almost certainly pleaded with him to speak out publicly and reassure us that nuclear power is safe. If he does, then he will indeed be back in the realm of fiction.

This article first appeared on Beyond Nuclear.

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