Tom Greatrex

05 July 2019

Over the past couple of weeks I have overheard several conversations about nuclear power that have arisen from the TV hit of the early summer, HBO’s production of Chernobyl, which was also shown on Sky Atlantic here in the UK.

Long-form dramas have revolutionised the way many of us watch television, whatever physical device we view them on, and lend themselves to this sleeper hit. Marketing budgets and publicity tours are still important in raising the profile of drama productions, but word of mouth is now supercharged by social media and ratings; viewing figures and coverage follow in that order.

The reaction and response to the series has likely surpassed expectations and seen it climb to the top of the all-time IMDB ratings for TV series, along with critical acclaim. The success has spawned spin off documentaries, many column inches and blog pixels not only on the drama, but on the real-life events behind the series. This month, the digital imprint of the show is being released by HBO, meaning that the number of viewers will increase, and conversations will continue.

A drama about the limitations of a faltering Soviet system of command and control might have had a limited appeal to a niche audience, but the platform of the events at Chernobyl adds drama, fear, intrigue and tension. The cast, performances and screenplay deserved all the praise and attention, even if Soviet Union nationals speaking in estuary English accents took a bit of getting used to.

While based on real events it is, though, a drama. There is plenty of dramatic licence – characters are not necessarily based on individuals, but often composites; the sequence of some events is altered for dramatic effect, and things that did not, and could not, happen are part of the story.

The scene of the pregnant wife of a firefighter being dragged away from her husband who has become a “nuclear reactor” is based on an eyewitness account. However, it falls into the old trap of implying radiation is contagious, like a virus, and suggests without evidence the baby died as a result.  In reality once external contaminated materials had been removed and washed away, the firefighter himself was the vulnerable one, and plastic screens around the bed there to protect him from infection, not those around him from his ‘radioactivity ’. A helicopter crashing as a result of radiation from the melted reactor did not happen either, a helicopter did crash around six months later, after one of its blades hit a chain protruding from a construction crane.

However, as the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, noted when discussing another TV smash hit The Bodyguard on BBC, real life and drama are simply not the same thing. The difference is, of course, nobody assumed The Bodyguard was a documentary.

While the creator of Chernobyl, Craig Mazin, has said “the lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance and suppression of criticism are dangerous”, many will have watched the series and assumed not only that it was accurate but that it has total relevance to modern nuclear power . The differences between reactor designs and safety systems that make the cause of what happened at Chernobyl impossible in the UK, or anywhere near, are not going to be appreciated by very many. Where there is real relevance though is in the sobering reminder of why you need a culture in nuclear power plants which prioritises transparency and scrutiny, and places the decisions in the hands of those who put safety before commercial or political interests, without fear or favour.  This is a lesson learned long ago by the UK nuclear industry but one we should never forget.

This is also, though, an opportunity for those involved in nuclear power, scientists, environmentalists and others who see the vital and integral role that nuclear plays in providing electricity to the population. There is no doubting that the mini-series has got people talking – more than once I have found myself (politely) interjecting into those conversations I have overheard, discussions arising as a direct result of what people had watched, and with their interest aroused.

At a time when the adoption of targets to meet net zero carbon emissions by 2050 has happened in the UK, and likely to follow in other European nations over the months ahead, then understanding and explaining the integral role nuclear has in meeting that ambition, the long record the industry has in stewardship of its assets and the communities in which they are located, and demystifying some of that which most people are just not aware of is an important task.

Rather than seeing Chernobyl as an inhibiting factor to those conversations, it is a very good way in. While people are interested and curious, then it is the ideal time to tell the true story of nuclear – the real one where there is no need for dramatic licence, exaggeration of impacts and conflation of people and events to make a compelling and important case. Being wary of facts, nervous of the truth and comforted by a veil of secrecy is, after all, the very thing the creator of the Chernobyl series said he is warning against.