It’s not for nothing that Robert J. Oppenheimer is called the “American Prometheus.” The leading physicist on the Manhattan Project and the future director of the Atomic Energy Commission, his ingenuity led directly to the creation of atomic weapons. He thus played a key role in harnessing a power theretofore unimaginable, and the consequences would permanently alter the trajectory of modern warfare and statecraft by unleashing a new scale of destruction. For better or for worse, he had changed the world.
Though this feat initially made him a celebrated national hero, Oppenheimer entered his twilight years a deeply conflicted man, and he watched with growing horror as his fellow American physicists moved far beyond the destructive capacities of atomic weaponry with the hydrogen bomb—a fearsome device a thousand times more powerful than his earlier wartime efforts. That dawning apprehension is evident in an MIT lecture, in which this thoroughly skeptical physicist briefly resorted to unabashedly theological language to describe the breakthroughs that would culminate in the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
Despite the vision and far-seeing wisdom of our war-time heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
In the first episode of Craig Mazin’s new HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, two engineers try to stop a nuclear meltdown by manually turning scores of valves to keep water flowing to a core that they fear may already be destroyed. Despite vehement protestations from their foul-mouthed chief engineer, the two are becoming more and more convinced that the breathless reports of their physically deteriorating colleagues are true: the core of Reactor 4 has in fact exploded, releasing catastrophic levels of radioactive waste directly into the atmosphere.Chernobyl is an excellent show, but a large part of its massive cultural resonance has to do with its emphasis on the net effect of human sin—the disproportionately catastrophic results of seemingly small errors.
If true, they are standing in a man-made ninth circle of hell and their prone bodies will soon register this fact in a manner that’s as dramatic as it is agonizing. Nevertheless, millions of lives are at stake; they are simply doing what little they can. The junior engineer, a pale and gaunt twenty-five-year-old with a peach-fuzz mustache and a rabbit’s petrified eyes, lowers his head, mutters, “Sorry,” and begins to weep. His superior replies, “There’s nothing to be sorry for. I told you: We did nothing wrong.” “But we did,” he softly intones. We will later learn that the respective steam and chemical explosions have transformed the power plant into an infernal chimney releasing nearly twice the radiation of an atomic bomb every hour. Oppenheimer might say they have known sin.
Chernobyl begins by offering only oblique views of its central disaster: We first glimpse the explosions at the power plant through the living room window of a modest apartment. The dishes rattle and the curtains flutter. A young firefighter and his wife gape out the window at the distant conflagration, with its eerie pillar of light ascending into the night sky like an angelic ladder. “It’s beautiful,” one spectator later observes of the ionizing radiation, while others dance in the cascading ashes that fall like snow from an infected sky. To watch these silhouetted figures, many of them children, swaying and twirling in a shower of nuclear fallout like they’re doing nothing more than running through a garden sprinkler on a summer evening is to catch Mazin’s deeply humane approach to his subject matter. None of these people had a clue about what had just happened, and those who managed to survive would spend the rest of their lives trying to make sense of it.
Meanwhile at the plant, the leadership are adamant that the core of Reactor 4 somehow remains intact. Their denial is seemingly indestructible, even in the face of the most calamitous evidence. The testimony of an engineer who has stared directly into the inferno of the core’s remains—a real-life “eye of Sauron” if ever there was one—is swiftly dismissed because “he’s in shock.” Likewise, when multiple dosimeters max out, the technology is blamed rather than the surging levels of radiation. Sightings of graphite on the roof inspire fury from the plant director: The material was used exclusively inside the reactor’s core and shards on the roof would offer definitive proof of an explosion. Since the roof offers a clear view of the reactor, an engineer is dispatched to confirm that no such explosion has occurred. Fearing for his life, this poor man approaches the ledge and the camera remains behind him as he stands before a billowing cloud of thick smoke. He slowly turns his head, a despairing expression on his unnaturally reddening face. The unthinkable has happened and no amount of bureaucratic obfuscation or propagandizing is going to stop its irreversible progress.
Nuclear power presents us with such an awesome force that we frequently resort to either mythic or religious language to describe it. There seems to be something inherently presumptuous about tampering with it, no matter how much we rely on it. We think of Icarus, Prometheus, or Mount Sinai. Oppenheimer himself quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns/were to burst into the sky,/that would be like/the splendor of the Mighty One.” Valery Legasov (Jarred Harris), the chief physicist charged with the unenviable task of investigating and solving Chernobyl, prefers an impassive roster of facts. In effect, Reactor 4 has detonated like a colossal nuclear weapon, and the only way to stop the loss of millions of lives is a massive decontamination effort that will require the cooperation of the entire U.S.S.R. It will also require some men to give their lives. In a committee meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, Legasov asks for permission to send in three divers to manually turn the water valves that lie deep in the bowels of the plant. “You’re asking me for permission to send in divers?” Gorbachev asks. Legasov clarifies, “I’m asking you for permission to kill three men.” He will soon renew the request for human lives when it becomes clear that a large group of miners will need to descend below the reactor to reinforce its biological shield.
Legasov is assisted in his efforts by fellow physicist Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, and Soviet politician Boris Shcherbina, played by Stellan Skarsgard. Both Legasov and Shcherbina were real people, but the character of Khomyuk is a composite of several heroic scientists, all of whom spoke out against the corruption at the heart of the Chernobyl crisis. In essence, a critical design flaw turned a shut-down switch into a detonator—a fact that Soviet politicians considered more of an international PR issue than an imminent threat to life. To address the problem would be tantamount to conceding the inferiority of Soviet technology. In the show, Khomyuk, with her unsparing manner and penetrating gaze, functions very much as the conscience of these three characters, pushing them to risk their lives by telling the truth. Shcherbina becomes an unlikely friend to Legasov as the two of them desperately search for a humane solution to the escalating disaster.
Though the show takes some artistic license with the story, it’s nothing short of scrupulous in its attention to detail. If you squint, you’ll notice the Soviet cigarette packs that litter the desks of the various officials, career party men, and “ministers” of various interiors. To capture the scale of the liquidations efforts, Chernobyl offers a series of haunting vignettes: “Biological robots” (i.e., soldiers) shoveling away graphite and pieces of raw radioactive waste in ninety-second shifts. A group of miners who strip naked to cope with the fierce heat as they tunnel below the reactor. A teenage boy drafted to assist with the decontamination efforts through the systematic execution of all the remaining household pets in the “exclusionary zone.” An old woman in her barn who refuses to evacuate until the insistent soldier shoots the cow standing before her milking pail.
For many of us, the figure clad in a radiation suit is an integral part of our nightmare imagery—a character from a post-apocalyptic story that’s all too real. There’s also something inescapably medieval about our fear. The suit is a testament to malign invisible forces that can freely invade the body, like an evil spirit. In extreme cases, the radiation alters the victim’s DNA, transforming them into someone else. When a nurse informs a frantic wife that the loved one being quarantined is “not [her] husband anymore,” the line has a chilling parallel in The Exorcist: “I’m telling you that that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter.” Episode 3 of Chernobyl offers an uncompromising depiction of the deleterious effects of these forces.
For all the show’s gritty realism and historical precision, it’s hard not to see the horror of these scenes in supernatural terms. Of course, no demon has transformed these exposed men into the festering ghouls that are wheeled out on gurneys, sealed in steel coffins, and buried under a layer of concrete. Are these procedures that far removed from a garland of garlic, a pinch of salt, or a stake through the heart? And yet, “in some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish,” they have “known sin,” just as we do when we look on the ills of our world, our towns, our communities, our homes. Some invisible contamination is wreaking havoc. Like radiation, we can’t see it directly, but we can readily see its effects. The damage both harms and implicates us. No matter how seemingly radical or alien, to look on sin is always to gaze at our own reflection. We are simultaneously victims and villains. To deny this is death itself because it amounts to a refusal of aid.
Chernobyl is an excellent show, but a large part of its massive cultural resonance has to do with its emphasis on the net effect of human sin—the disproportionately catastrophic results of seemingly small errors. When I gaze on the wreckage of Chernobyl, I don’t think of Mount Sinai or the Bhagavad Gita. I think of Eden—a garden where a seemingly small act of disobedience set off an irreversible shock wave of destruction that infects every single one of us. Our world is a kind of “exclusionary zone.”
In the show’s final episode, Legasov argues, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Today’s post-truth cynics might well echo the jaded words that Pontius Pilate uttered all those years ago: “What is truth?” But the Christian men and women who don’t mistake cynicism or political expediency for realism will point to Christ and say, “He is truth, the Word made flesh, and He is the one who paid my debt. It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.”