For a time in 1986, fear encased Europe.
A fire raged at a nuclear plant, in the Ukraine city of Chernobyl. Hundreds of people were hospitalized’ 30 died soon, thousands had lingering deaths. The health impact remained for generations.
But there’s more. Kary Antholis, HBO’s mini-series chief, recalls the pitch from writer-producer Craig Mazin: “He said, ‘You have no idea …. It was hours away from devastating millions of lives and wreaking havoc on the European continent.’”
Mazin’s script for the “Chernobyl” mini-series ranges from firefighters and residents to top officials, trying to learn what went wrong. And no, this isn’t as easy as the fictional “China Syndrome,” with a quick whistleblower.
“It’s very natural in American storytelling for the little guy to speak up and tell the truth,” said Emily Watson, who plays a physicist (a composite character.). But Chernobyl was in “a totalitarian state …. Everybody is guarded.”
Even now, Mazin said, the truth is elusive. “The Soviet Union was not particularly known for its openness. There are some competing narratives.”
But a truth-teller emerged. Valery Legasov was a Soviet scientist, told “to figure out how you put a runaway nuclear meltdown out,” said Jared Harris, who plays him. He had to be quick. “There were 18 or 20 other nuclear plants, exactly the same design, around the Soviet Union.”
It was a bad design, Mazin said, with no containment building and reactors “designed to supply massive amounts of power at low expense.”
Seven years earlier, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was inside a containment building, he said. “Almost no radiation escaped into the atmosphere.”
Indeed, research showed him “how difficult it is to make a nuclear reactor explode.There have to be errors in judgement and intentional lies, from the top all the way down.” And 33 years ago in the Soviet Union, he said, there were.
— “Chernobyl,” 9 p.m. on five Mondays, HBO
— Opener, May 6, repeats at 11 p.m.; then at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, 5:15 and 11:05 p.m. Saturday and more.