This week, HBO will air the third episode of its new five-part drama series, Chernobyl. I'll be watching intently, because I've been fascinated by this incident for many years; but it's only very recently, by reading Serhii Plokhii's excellent book Chernobyl, The History Of A Tragedy, that I have been able to understand the true horrors and implications of this catastrophe.
Horror stories, movies, TV shows and video games have of course been plundering Chernobyl for creative inspiration for years, bringing us horrifying radiation mutants like the X-Files' 'Flukeman', so as an avid fan of these media I have been aware of the disaster for as long as I can remember. But these improbable tales have perhaps blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction, and helped us to collectively lose sight of the truth. In reality, the explosion at Reactor Number 4 was more terrifying than any far-fetched creature feature.
Although some dramatic licence has been taken, the TV show has thus far been very faithful to the facts of the incident, and brilliantly captures the feel of life at the power plant and its neighbouring city of Pripyat in Soviet-era Ukraine. Jared Harris stars as Valery Legasov, the nuclear reactor expert despatched by Moscow to investigate the explosion on 26 April 1986, whose severity was initially completely downplayed by the on-site management team.
This represented the first jarring difference between reality and my own perception: in simple terms, I suppose I had thought that an entire nuclear power plant exploded, killing its employees, and rendering the nearby town (which I thought was small) uninhabitable due to radiation. A tragedy, yes, but something that happened far away, and didn't affect me directly.
In reality, only one person died as a direct result of the blast. Work continued around the site while the resultant fire was tackled, and indeed reactors 1-3 continued to operate throughout the 1990s. In Pripyat - which was much larger than I thought, a modern city with a population of 50,000 that was the very epitome of the Soviet dream - life continued as normal for several days.
Yet slowly, and thanks to the intervention of people like Legasov, the Kremlin and the world would learn the true extent of what had happened at the facility. The core of Reactor 4 had been completely destroyed, leaving its nuclear stew open to the elements, spewing out doses of radiation far in excess of those released by the Hiroshima bomb EVERY DAY until it could be contained. This deadly cloud had drifted across Pripyat towards Kiev, and winds were beginning to drive it across the whole of Europe; in fact, it was Sweden who first reported the alarming increase in radiation levels to the world. Plant workers, firefighters who attended the blaze, even some of the visiting bureaucrats, ended up in hospital where they died or suffered horrific medical complications arising from exposure to the radiation. A single glance into the exposed core was a death sentence.
Perhaps the most alarming development was the realisation that the water pooled beneath the blazing reactor, pumped uselessly into a non-existent core by desperate control room staff, risked becoming superheated, creating a second explosion which would have destroyed the entire plant... and potentially rendered the entire of Europe an uninhabitable wasteland. My jaw fell open as I realised that it was only thanks to a brave suicide mission, three divers sacrificing their lives to manually open the sluice gates that would drain the water, that this second catastrophe was avoided.
Another troubling aspect is the remaining nuclear pile itself. This is not a malfunctioning engine that can be switched off, nor a fire that can be extinguished. It will continue to burn, and release its invisible yet unimaginably deadly poison, for millennia. The only solution we have found is to bury it beneath a huge concrete dome, and try not to let it happen again.
It is very important to stress that nuclear power is a viable and clean alternative to burning fossil fuels, emitting little to no greenhouse gases, and uninformed scare-mongering around this technology is unhelpful. But Chernobyl truly did take us to the brink of extinction. And with 454 nuclear power stations in operation around the world, and another 54 under construction, it is vital that we continue to demand the highest standards of safety, in design and operation. No corner must be cut, and no costs must be spared, in this endeavour.
Because our lives depend upon it.