01:23:45: Why HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Freaked Me Out


Words | Harriet Atkins

Harriet Atkins discusses how her climate fears are reflected in a historical catastrophe. 

I do fear death. Of course I do, I’m human. But I have accepted that, despite its inconvenience, my time on earth will eventually end. My own personal death is no longer my primary concern, I wish I had that luxury. My conscience has rather been consumed with a goosebump inducing awareness of our collective impending doom, and the prevailing feeling of an inability to prevent it. I want to act, to fix the problems of our time, but have no idea how. 

Like the rest of my generation, I take pleasure in hiding from the real world by allowing the warm embrace of television to consume the in between moments of my day. It is because of this, that I’m sure you will empathise with my disappointment at finding insight in the new mini-series ‘Chernobyl’. My true crime loving, historical drama obsessed self (that also hankers a secret wish for Emily Watson to adopt me) expected the show to bring nothing but fascinated delight. But alas, I learnt something. Ew. 

At 01:23:45 on the 26th of April 1986, during a safety test the Number 4 Reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. Due to the Soviet Union’s strict censorship, the reactor was flawed. A series of horrible mistakes lead to the worst nuclear accident of history. It killed 31 people immediately; 125,000 by 2005 and had direct health consequences for a total of 784,350 soviet citizens. The fallout had disastrous effects and the potential for even worse to come. 

Many of the individuals called in to help knew what this would mean for their personal health but continued anyway because they understood what the alternative was. They sacrificed their own lives to clean up the mistakes of their own government. They had trusted that their government would look after them, that they would prioritise the future of the citizens of their country over making their budget requirements. 

This raises a terrifying parallel with our own country. The “Why worry about something that isn’t going to happen?” governmental attitude. A 1995 study into the potential effects of climate change predicted an increase in the frequency and severity of bushfires across our country. Over the past few months Australian civilians have died and risked their lives putting out the fires that our government has failed to. In times such as these it is difficult to imagine that we are being looked after and that our future climate is being prioritised. 

It was at this point in the series that I had to stop watching. I had been plunged into an icy cold crisis. The show had been in some ways a relief; as I was watching the thermostat outside read 48°C, and I was obsessively checking ‘Fires Near Me’ to make sure the homes of my family weren’t going to burn down. 

It was in divine sense of humor that the day I watched the show was the day of Sco Mo’s handshake disaster. In May 2016, the Australian Government requested that the United Nations remove all mentions of Australian sights from their report on World Heritage Sites affected by climate change. Throughout 2019 government ministers have claimed that our emissions have been continually decreasing despite the fact that they have been increasing for the past four years. The Climate Council have outright stated that the Australian Government has been consistently manipulating and censoring data surrounding climate change and its effects. 

It has become abundantly clear that our government does not intend to act on this issue and does not want its citizens to be aware of the extent to which the issue is affecting our present and our future. It may seem extreme, but it’s starting to feel like there has been a nuclear explosion in the middle of our country, and the PM is telling us not to worry, that everything is just fine! A series of climate strikes in every capital city and 10.7m hectares of land burnt across six states haven’t made a change, so what will? It has become painfully easy to succumb to feelings of overwhelming despair.

Our generation has grown up with scores of events to terrify us. We’ve all grown a little numb to media, especially social media, constantly shouting at us to be petrified for the future without actually giving us a solution. But if there’s anything that I learnt from HSC Modern History, it’s that we can see solutions to modern problems by looking back at the issues of the past. In ‘Chernobyl’ I found my new personal hero, and I think maybe you will too. 

Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris in the show), was an inorganic chemist who played a pivotal role in the cleanup of the disaster and prevention of recurrence at a great personal toll. His investigation of the explosion shone a light on the cracks in the Soviet regime. His country had allowed this to happen, had allowed for people to die unnecessarily and allowed for an event that threatened the lives of all those in Eastern Europe. He could see the danger that the misinformation spread by the Soviet regime posed, but was unable to go against it, his hands tied by a powerful rope of censorship. Obviously, the show’s representation was a little exaggerated, but he was without a doubt a true hero. Valery disclosed crucial information about the catastrophe in documents and audio tapes that were found in his apartment after he took his own life on the 27th of April 1988. 

Legasov worked for years to try to inform the public of their disastrous situation and force his government to change policy in order to save them. It took him years, but he did eventually do it. He made noise, noise so loud and consistent that it could no longer be ignored.

I am tired of being afraid, of reading about lies and worrying about the future. This is despite the fact that I am way too young to worry about this shit. But in the face of this weariness, that I know you feel too, Valery gives me the courage to go on. The truth is painful and comes at a great cost, but that cost does not compare to that of lies. So, let’s continue to fight for it, continue to make noise. Let’s make Valery proud of the world he died trying to save. Let’s save ours too. 

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is what if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.”

– Valery Legasov