Throughout June, my husband and I sat down with the kids to watch HBO’s “Chernobyl.” It’s a mini-series on – you guessed it – the April 26, 1986 explosion of a nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine, which has been called the world’s worst nuclear power disaster.
The official direct death toll is 31, but the profound impact on health, the environment and politics has been enormous.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reflected two decades later that the meltdown at Chernobyl was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The catastrophe exposed the depth of government denial and deception and impacted the world far beyond the USSR’s borders.
I was 12 at the time and wrapping up 7th grade at Frankfurt International School in Frankfurt, Germany.
Our school was a hotspot for high-profile families – international diplomats, corporate executives, maybe even military commanders. We were used to occasional bomb threats and were aware that the school could be a terrorism target.
But Geiger counters on the playground? That was a first.
As the winds from ground zero blew north and west, radioactive fallout spread across Western Europe and Scandinavia.
Soon after, the school roped off the main playground. Technicians tested the sand for radioactivity and returned often to get new reads. They must have found something, because the playground was off limits for the rest of the school year.
A story in the New York Times from 1988 confirmed playgrounds in West Germany still had above-normal radioactive levels, even two years later. Apparently, the sand needed to be replaced.
In the initial weeks after the explosion, I also remember our great concern about letting the dog out in the yard. Our home bordered farmland, and German farmers were seeing contamination in the fields, produce, dairy and animals. That same New York Times story says that 400,000 West German claims were filed, mostly from agricultural dealers who had to destroy their products.
But you can’t keep a dog inside forever. He made his way back outdoors, probably sooner than later, and turned out just fine. In fact, that dog moved to El Paso with us and lived to be 17!
No one really knows the extent of Chernobyl’s damage. It’s very difficult to pinpoint health issues related to this single event in the years that followed. There are so many variables and as many studies reporting different findings. I doubt that the USSR government was highly motivated to thoroughly track it anyhow.
“Chernobyl” is a good mini-series, though not exactly family-friendly. Depictions of radioactive poisoning are extra gory for dramatic effect, but the real heartbreaker is the animal kill squads assigned to eradicate contaminated pets and wildlife.
My other issue with the show is the abundance of foul language. Why? The show would have been just as good minus all the “F” bombs.
But I don’t think bigger kids should be limited from the historical value, even if the show contains many fabrications and dramatizations. There is some critique about that, but as one science reporter put it, “none of this really matters. For the mini-series gets a basic truth right — that the Chernobyl disaster was more about lies, deceit and a rotting political system.”
It’s ironic, though, that you have to make some stuff up to get to that point.