Chernobyl, Episode 5: That is how an RBMK reactor explodes

For this series of posts on the HBO disaster epic Chernobyl I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the sociology and politics of gripping storytelling, mainly because such a retroactive examination of both the nuclear disaster and the failing Soviet state demands that the sociology and politics be confronted. Chernobyl happened (both in fact, and in dramatic form) because people who should have known better, did things with a fission reactor which no conscientious nor responsible engineer should ever have done. Why did they do it? Why did they play with nuclear fire?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Soviet system was chock full of literal apparatchiks for whom the ends justified the means. The men in charge of the Chernobyl plant had already missed deadlines at the time the plant went live, and by the time Reactor 4 was on-line procedural corners had been cut because preliminary testing to ensure the reactor could perform as expected had been signed off via paper, without being performed in fact. The men in charge knew this was a severe breach, and wanted to patch it up after the fact. But because it was after the fact, they were incentivized to pursue expediency versus safety.

The other part has to do with the technology itself. The reaktor bolshoy moshchnosty kanalny design never used a containment system equivalent to those used in Western fission reactors to this very day. With Western designs, an expensive, highly robust capsule of concrete and steel surrounds the reactor core, so that if worse comes to worst, the core will never be open to the environment the way the infamous Chernobyl reactor became open during its explosion. These containment vessels are constructed to withstand full-power strikes by incoming aircraft so that the risk of a self-destructed reactor core irradiating and poisoning the air, soil, and water beyond the reactor, is minimized to a degree not found with the RBMK design.

That, and an emergency shutdown procedure intended to avert runaway reactivity actually increased reactivity — because a simple design difference with the RBMK control rods caused a spike in reactivity the instant the rods were reinserted into the core. In other words, the panic button actually made things fatally worse.

For your stories, whether they are science fiction or fantasy or alt-history or perhaps even contemporary thrillers, what are the limits of the technology? Even magic — constructed well — is just another sort of technology. There will be rules about how it can be used, and this may include hidden rules the wielders of such technology may not be aware of. We see this manifested in real life every day every time somebody overheats or blows a car engine, trips a household circuit, unknowingly mixes chemicals together which ought to not be mixed, et cetera. Even your characters versed in the system you’ve created might not know everything they think they know, and what you think you know — but don’t — can make the difference between successful employment of the technology, and catastrophe. Whether it’s a wizard’s war spell going out of control and killing part of the friendly army at the same time it kills many of the enemy. Or your futuristic space weapon self-destructing (and taking your spaceship with it!) when dialed up to the limit of its operational envelope, in order to effect maximum destructive yield against a hostile fleet.

These limits on your world you create, and the reasons why people will try to ignore, step around, or circumvent them, can prove vital to the foundation and development of your plot. Especially for a quality disaster epic, in which the human saga (yes, for aliens and monsters too) will play out against the ramifications of the technology having been pushed past its qualified operational parameters. Again, your protagonists and antagonists will only know as much as they think they know, and what they don’t know might potentially get them killed. And make every bit of difference to the climax and resolution of the tale.

In the case of Chernobyl, the facts — at this late date — are well known. Because the RBMK design does not have a containment vessel, there was nothing to keep the core explosion isolated, nor prevent the later meltdown from threatening to breach the floor of the reactor building and possibly poison an entire region’s water supply. A flaw in the way the control rods were built actually caused the emergency shutdown procedure to become something like flipping the spoon on a hand grenade after the pin has been pulled — a flaw nobody on duty the night of the explosion was aware of.

Again, we see this play out in daily life with things like manufacturer recalls. Even studiously tested products, once released for consumer use, can prove harmful or even fatal if the conditions are right. A product which proves harmful or fatal repeatedly under circumstances which are common enough, will — in the United States, at least — be pulled from the market and/or redesigned to account for new safety considerations. But only after lives have been damaged or destroyed. It’s a sad fact that very little in the world changes unless people get crippled or die. And even then, it has to be enough people, or the survivors have to be angry and noisy enough to make a media and legal stink, so that changes demanded become changes effected.

For the Chernobyl series, we see our central protagonist go against his instincts for career and self preservation when he heeds his colleague’s plea that the protagonist not let the Soviet state off the hook, for its culpability in the disaster. It wasn’t just incompetent or unknowing men who caused the catastrophe, nor even a faulty reactor design. It was a political architecture hostile to being told it was wrong. Again and again throughout the series, all of the protagonists repeatedly run their heads into the rock wall of the Marxist ideology which insists the Marxist system is too perfect to fail. Even when failure is evident beyond any shadow of a doubt.

And for his insistence that the Marxist state has failed, the chief protagonist pays a very severe price.

This is perhaps the definitive crucible of any hero. Can he or she do the right thing, knowing (s)he will suffer or perhaps even die as a result? Will it cause his or her reputation and career to be ruined? Will (s)he be arrested? Tried? Convicted? Sent to jail, or to a labor camp, or be executed? It’s easy for your characters to be heroes if there’s going to be lavish reward for their effort. But what kind of heroism does it take to do the right thing when you know you’re going to suffer for it? Or that your friends and family may also suffer with you? How dedicated are you to your principles knowing that the people you care for and love may also suffer merely because they’re associated with you?

Again, you’ve got rich fodder for drama. The conflict of the soul which comes from taking the easy path, or taking the hard path. And as is almost always true, the right road is the roughest road. If genuine heroism were easy, everybody would be doing it. (cough, staring at today’s army of Woke activists who praise themselves endlessly for their self-perceived virtue: earned with no effort, and at no cost, cough!) But genuine heroism is not easy. It’s not easy in the moment, and it’s not easy in the aftermath. You can make the right choices morally and the world punishes you for it. What does it say about your characters if they turn away at the last moment? And how might they try to atone for taking the easy road, once they realize they can’t look at themselves in the mirror in the morning? Or, conversely, how might the less-than-heroic try to justify their choices?

I firmly believe integrity is not a character trait any human is born with. Many people arrive at adulthood with seemingly impeccable character, either through a combination of nurturing and personality, or because they’re just more philosophically inclined to seek the rougher road. But even so, integrity comes down to an aggregate of choices. Big ones and small ones. Easy ones, and most importantly, not-so-easy ones. Unless you’re telling a genuine cautionary tale — where your protagonist’s descent into darkness and destruction is built as a warning — the heroes are going to figure out how integrity works. Both making the right choices in the moment, and figuring out how to repair damage already done during moments of folly and weakness.

In Chernobyl we see several examples of this classic moral dilemma.

Some characters cannot bring themselves to accept responsibility, so they deflect. An entirely common and human reaction in every society, because nobody likes to be the one who gets the blame.

Other characters work to do good, while still keeping a foot firmly planted in the decaying Soviet system, which actively encourages people to turn on each other, push all responsibility onto others, and never admit culpability.

And finally we have our central man, Legasov, the scientist with a reluctant conscience. Who not only explains the technical flaws which made the nuclear catastrophe what it was, to include the cleanup, but also put his finger squarely in the collective chest of the Marxist system proper. A system which insists it is perfect, but which tragically and (some might say) predictably failed.

It’s an irony, really. We Americans especially are magnificent about inventing and rehearsing stories to ourselves, about bold truth-tellers who defy the system and confront corruption and evil at the seats of power. We do this in film, in literature, comic books, television, you name it. We again and again uplift the archetype of the whistle-blower.

But what happens in reality, usually? The boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes, almost always pays a price for it. Systems don’t like it when anybody points out that those systems are bad. We’re even at a recursive point in our civilization where systems invented for the purpose of checking The System™ have themselves become corrupt. Or coopted. Trust in the so-called watchers has fallen off terribly in the past twenty years because it’s been too often revealed that the watchers themselves have no integrity.

Again, because doing the right thing most often gets you a punch in the face. Not a handshake and a pat on the back.

It shouldn’t be that way. Indeed, the moral telos of your story might be that it’s wrong for societies to punish people who do the right thing.

But if we keep an eye on history we know from numerous examples that truth-tellers and whistle-blowers almost always get slapped down in the moment, and if they get any justice at all, it’s often long after the fact, and maybe the person’s life has already been destroyed beyond repair. Again, systems don’t like being told they’re corrupt. Not even systems created to check on other systems. Or perhaps I should say, especially systems invented to check on other systems?

The KGB of Chernobyl brands itself a circle of accountability, nothing more. A system for the sake of watching and checking The System™. But the KGB is arguably the most corrupt. It actively silences and punishes people for telling the truth. The KGB even goes so far as to assert it creates the truth. Which again is a common Marxist plank in any Marxist society, because facts and reality are subject to what the Marxist state say they are. If you see blue but the Party sees pink, then it’s pink. If you taste bitterness but the Party insists it’s sweet, then it’s sweet. If you experience pain, but the Party insists it’s pleasure, then it’s pleasure. And the whole society will be incentivized and mobilized to uphold and profess the Party’s lie.

Chernobyl explicitly ends with this theme. And it’s a good one, albeit terribly dark.

Personally, I am shocked Hollywood could bring itself to allow this series, just because Chernobly does such a fantastic job slaying many of Hollywood’s sacred socialist cows. The so-called Peoples Republic of the U.S.S.R. is not the wonderful thing men like the infamous Walter Duranty portrayed it as being. The cost of collectivization is brutally high. Individual men and women mean nothing to the Soviet state. Thus individual lives destroyed or ruined, also mean nothing. The Soviet state will always act to protect itself, indemnify itself, defend itself against all accusations of cruelty, mismanagement, and ethical collapse.

And here again you’ve got storytelling questions worth asking. For your imaginary world(s): to what degree will your governments and power structures work to insulate themselves from the repercussions of their own corruption? Will they buy or install friendly clients in the media, or in major businesses and corporations? How far will your rulers go to impose a top-down picture of goodness and benevolence, while their actions are anything but? How will innocent people suffer — or rebel! — in such a society? How far do people have to be pushed, and what terrible things have to happen, before somebody like a Legasov finally says to himself he’s had enough. Enough with the lies. Enough with The System™ as he sees it. There are more important things than a career. More important than even personal survival.

That is gripping storytelling.

7 thoughts on “Chernobyl, Episode 5: That is how an RBMK reactor explodes

  1. Your examination and review of the series blogs have been the highlight of my day’s reading. Can’t express enough how much I’ve enjoyed them for the clarity and insights they’ve provided.

  2. Thank you very much for this series. I ended up buying the DVD, because I think I will use at least part of Episode 1 in class (Cold War). There is also a lot to chew on for my next Merchant novel, which looks at the nobility (government) at the end (perhaps) of a long crisis.

  3. I haven’t seen Chernobyl yet; I’ll have to add it to my list because of your discussion.

    There is another limit on technology, one that’s not often admitted.
    It doesn’t matter if something is technologically feasible if it is not economically feasible.
    That is, if you can’t afford it, you can’t do it.
    Lots of things can be accomplished in a test tube, but they don’t scale up.
    Is it worth bankrupting a society to do ‘X’?
    Do the peasants have any say in it?
    There’s a lot of ruin in a nation so it can take a long time for economic issues to march front and center but eventually, they do, proving that something couldn’t be afforded.

  4. The reason we like the stories is acedia, the Noonday Demon, generally rendered sloth but encompassing more than laziness. It is the sin of sadness toward one’s own duty, discouragement, and the like.

    One particular manifestation of it is the pure fantasy of doing great and wonderful deeds instead of the more quotidian duties that are actually before you.

  5. Under the Sink? Into the Caldron? subtitle ” – the importance of child-proofing”. Young Matthew saw no harm in mixing potions together based on their colors. He particularly liked the interplay of colors between the iridescent, oily Newt Extract and the bright silver of Suspension of Basilisk. The damage awards bankrupted his parents.

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