The momentary popularity of the HBO series Chernobyl, about the explosion of reactor number four on April 25, 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the now-abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine, was an odd popularity, given that it involves an ongoing disaster that has essentially has no ending, given the toxicity of the elements buried under the sarcophagus that entombs the site and in the air and land of the 19-mile exclusion zone around it.
But the show, as creator and director Craig Mazin has said, was never about the disaster itself, that is, a documentary approach, but about a trio of people struggling to tell the truth in a society premised on secrecy and paranoia. In other words, it’s a morality play with heroes, based for the most part on biographical truth but with licenses taken to make it dramatic (such as having Emily Watson play a fictional character composited from other biographies whose role is to advance the plot).
The series has the right mix of what University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin calls “benign masochism” (delight that comes from vicariously enjoying pain we know isn’t really our pain) and excellent production values.
For the real fright, though, one should read Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl, an exhaustive account both technical and journalistic of what went wrong and what should still be feared. The show barely touches upon the terror, cruelty and betrayal that the explosion triggered—the terror created by a technology insufficiently understood but managed with arrogant certitude, the cruelty visited upon the thousands of human bodies thrown against the ruins both to shore them up and bury them, the betrayal by those who were culpable but powerful of those who were faithful but powerless.
Aside from the history, though, is the tale the book tells about nuclear power—its promises, its cheats, its merciless physics. This is an important tale to hear in the current debate about what to do about zeroing out carbon emissions so that we don’t destroy the planet upon which we depend for life. There are many advocating, seriously, in the light of Chernobyl and Fukushima, for the revival of nuclear power in a world predicted to grow in population and a consequent hunger for electrical power. New reactor designs are touted as more stable and generating a less toxic waste that can be stored in more manageable ways (even though we haven’t yet gotten a handle on how to store the waste we already have, and we are nowhere near cleaning up our current clutch of nuclear corpses, like the facilities at Hanford, Washington).
I’m not sure where to stand on this. Humans are extraordinarily good at fouling their nests, and there’s no reason to believe that a “new nuclear” would avoid that. Yet, if the predictions are right, then the world’s people will need the electricity, which can’t be fully produced by the “clean” technologies (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, and so on), at least at their present scale and with the current state of battery technology.
Perhaps there are ways to decentralize electrical production so that we don’t need to create gargantuan networks, have “smart” systems that balance usage and production, invest more in conservation, reduce population growth, reconfigure patterns of consumption, but we are still faced with the stark fact that billions more people will need billions more watts to live their lives and that that energy will have to come from somewhere.
Whatever choice we make, it won’t be one with a quick roll-out to it, given the regulatory, political and social mountains that must be moved to make any of this happen. Memories of Chernobyl and Fukushima and Three Mile Island, along with the litany of lesser-known nuclear accidents and contaminations over the past century from around the world, will need to be overcome by good arguments, good science, good politics and a large helping of good luck, all while the killer asteroid of climate change bears down on us in a relentless trajectory.
My, my, what to do. In the long run, I believe humans can figure this out using deliberation and logic. But the truth is that we don’t have a long run to run out here, and humans usually do things in the short run anyways: that’s their creaturely design. So the reincarnation of nuclear power might turn out to be a short run that, despite all the evidence against it, gets a serious reconsideration as our systems begin to shatter and turn feral under the new science of our changing world.
Chernobyl and Chernobyl don’t have an answer for this quandary, but they do have a caution: unless great care is taken otherwise, whatever technologies get chosen to meet the coming transformation will cause pain, dislocation, injustice and madness for the many along with comforts and victories for the few. And it’s impossible not to ask the follow-up question: When in the course of human events has such care ever been taken in the face of a looming disaster?