The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which affects millions of people to this day, is now available as a 5-part HBO mini-series.
Here is what it taught me about having the courage to speak up.
On April 25, 1986, a routine test of a nuclear reactor in what is now northern Ukraine led to a catastrophic explosion. The resulting fallout killed 30 people officially, although more realistic estimates put the death count at a staggering 93,000 from thyroid cancer, leukemia, and suicide from deteriorating mental health. Several thousand acres are still uninhabitable in modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia due to extremely high levels of radiation.
Out of this horrific situation, many brave individuals took enormous risks to contain what could have become an even greater one, often sacrificing their lives to do it.
What Happened in Chernobyl?
The city of Chernobyl is located in north central Ukraine, near the city of Pripyat.
It is also spelled
- Чернобыль in Russian, and
- Чорно́биль in Ukranian.
Chernobyl was primarily used for one purpose: to house four nuclear reactors to power the city of Kiev, which had 5 million residents at that time.
On April 25, 1986, the number 4 reactor exploded during a safety test, destroying the core and spreading deadly radiation for thousands of miles.
I first became aware of the Chernobyl disaster by seeing live TV news reports as a 6-year-old living in northern Italy with my family. Despite a limited understanding of what was going on, I distinctly remember hearing that there was “poison in the air,” and that it had hurt people far away but could still hurt us. We were told not to eat any vegetables, fruits, or fresh milk that came from certain places, because it could make us sick.
You can watch my video here:
Take a look at the “hot spots” where the radiation spread throughout Europe.
Here’s a picture of the areas still affected, even 33 years later.
New Documentaries About Chernobyl
Although these documentaries provide a glimpse into a mysterious ghost-town area, they didn’t answer the question of exactly why the explosion occurred. Now that government documents have been released and books are being published that reveal secrets behind the sinister cover-up, we are finally getting a clear picture of what happened and why.
HBO (in collaboration with Sky Atlantic) recently released a docu-series called Chernobyl, and I decided to watch it to see if it would provide a more in-depth look at the events. So far, it does not disappoint (although… if they pull a Game of Thrones ending, I might have to retract that statement!). The show’s creator and executive producer, Craig Mazin, does a wonderful job of intelligently showing us the accounts of several key people who made a difference as this situation unfolded.
HBO’s cast includes stars like Jared Harris (of Mad Men fame), stone-faced Stellan Skarsgard, and a fabulous Emily Watson.
Emily Watson plays Ulana Yuriyvna Khomyuk, a fictional character whose role is an amalgamation of a number of truth-telling scientists who tried to contain the disaster, ultimately putting themselves in danger.
Devil’s Advocates Silenced
What stands out to me after watching the HBO’s Chernobyl is the bravery of a variety of people.
At several key points, alarms were raised that could have contained the radiation. Earlier detection and evacuation would have saved many from undue exposure. Firefighters and other first responders were not made aware of the dangers, and millions of people remained square in the path of deadly radiation.
Time and again, the Devil’s Advocates were stopped.
Part of this is due to the Soviet culture in the USSR (which stands for “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”) or as it’s called in Italian, the URSS (“Unione delle Repubbliche Socialiste Sovietiche”).
In 1986, we were still in the midst of the Cold War. Germany was divided between West and East. The Communist mentality was one of unyielding loyalty to the party and to those in a position of authority. Party leaders were never questioned, and all critics had been silenced. Even the most knowledgeable scientist knew that speaking up could result in punishment, isolation, even execution.
In the end, many thousands of people suffered and died from the lack of immediate response. We’ll never know what could have happened if things had gone differently, but it’s likely that living in the local town of Pripyat could have been spared a long and agonizing death, and residents in the major metro of Kiev could have been evacuated rather than remaining in place.
Scientists hired by Greenpeace estimate that 140,000 people will die from the effects of Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout.
Check out a History Channel article “The Chernobyl Cover-Up: How Officials Botched Evacuating an Irradiated City” by Serhii Plokhy.
Because of HBO’s Chernobyl, I finally became aware of facts that I’d never heard before. The news reported to the Western world did not fully capture the risk of what was actually going on until quite recently.
Even before it first exploded, the nuclear core’s was already at risk due to bad design, operator mistakes, poor planning, and inadequate safety measures. Government officials had been made aware of a potential problem months before but decided to ignore the risk.
Even after the initial blast on April 25th, the nuclear material in the core continued to fester and boil like lava, melting everything it touched. The liquid material eventually melted the casement beneath the reactor. If it had reached the cooling tanks, a chain reaction would have resulted in a massive explosion even more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb—razing all surrounding cities and resulting in the deaths and horrific side effects to millions of people.
Had this massive explosion occurred, the total area affected would have covered 7 countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, an area of 1,700 million square kilometers. That’s about 700,000 square miles—or about 1/3 the size of the United States. Trying to imagine all the land mass—from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains—as completely uninhabitable for hundreds of years is difficult scene to conjure (unless you’ve seen Hulu’s show The Handmaid’s Tale, which paints a harrowing picture of post-nuclear-war United States).
The Soviet government sent hundreds of thousands of people to respond to the disaster, starting with soldiers but eventually extending to civilians. These 600,000 individuals (including around 4,000 women) were called “liquidators.”
These brave scientists, technicians, miners, firefighters, and other personnel did what was needed in order to stop the worst from happening. They sacrificed their safety—and often their lives—to prevent an even bigger explosion from taking place.
In one scene, a top scientist named Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) was tasked with managing the situation. He spoke to fellow nuclear scientist Ulana Khomyuk about the importance of finding a cause:
“We have to pursue every possibility, no matter how unlikely, no matter what or who is to blame.”
– Valery Legasov, an inorganic chemist and chief of the commission which investigated the Chernobyl disaster, in HBO’s Chernobyl
According to a 2014 documentary by National Geographic, 20,000 liquidators have died and 200,000 are permanently disabled.
Birth defects continue to affect hundreds of thousands of babies, children, and adults (one documentary places the figure at 1 million). The fear of giving birth to babies with defects also resulted in a vast number of European women to choose elective abortions.
Chernobyl continues to have a huge impact on the world today. What can we learn from it?
Planning for Disaster
When I worked as a healthcare facility Risk Officer, our leadership team developed a Disaster Plan to preemptively foresee and manage potential problems. We would “step into” dangerous situations and decide how to mitigate them if and when they happened.
This may not sound like fun, but imagining the worst-case scenario is actually a really valuable process for any business owner.
You start by considering all possible threats that could affect your business—both from
- natural events (fire, flooding, tornado) and
- human-caused events (bomb threat, shooting, hostage situation, data breach, robbery).
You should also consider external forces (using the PESTEL Analysis) and internal forces (using the SWOT Analysis). Then you develop a step-by-step plan for how to manage the worst, and review it periodically to make sure everyone is aware of their roles and responsibilities should disaster strike.
How to Foresee a Disaster
Worst-case scenarios can be unpleasant to think about.
Rather of avoiding it, you can review “What If” scenarios and develop a good action plan. This will allow you to improve your response time and rehearse the tools and techniques you’ll use when a disaster occurs. This can be done prescriptively (anticipating a future event) or descriptively (reviewing a past event, as with a Post-Mortem Evaluation).
A disaster plan can mentally prepare you to consider all aspects of an emergency situation. It gives you a chance to consider variations on the threat, possible vulnerabilities (such as a missing fire extinguisher or broken alarm system), and the steps needed to contain the threat and ensure everyone’s safety.
As a business owner, this can be contained in your Marketing Strategy. At the very least, this should contain:
- your Vision and Goals for the business,
- your Niche Specialization and how you stand apart from competitors, and
- your Ideal Customers who are a great fit for your expertise and philosophy.
After establishing your big-picture strategy, you can then choose the tactics that will attract buyers to you—including the 7 P’s:
(For help in understanding the risks in your marketing, check out my services.)
Other Modern Disasters
Unfortunately, situations like to Chernobyl continue to threaten life and limb across the globe. In every case, Devil’s Advocate speak up about the problem, but their concerns are ignored by those in positions of authority.
Here are some examples of situations in which Devil’s Advocates were visible but not heard.
Fallout in Kazakhstan
A series of 456 nuclear tests in the Kazakhstan city of Ust-Kamenogorsk in the 1950s was four times worse than Chernobyl’s fallout. Over 100,000 people were exposed, and birth defects continue to be common to this day. (Source: New Scientist)
Flint Water Crisis
The contaminated public water crisis in Flint, Michigan, USA wasn’t made public until over 100,000 people were affected. (Flint Town on Netflix gives a great perspective on how residents are coping)
Saint Louis Radioactive Landfill
Nuclear waste was dumped in the Bridgton-West Lake Landfill in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA. The landfill is currently on fire in a Subsurface Smoldering Event (SSE) which is likely to reach 47,000 tons of radioactive material (uranium 238, thorium 230, radium 226, and lead 210) which is a byproduct of the Manhattan Project started in 1942 which produced atomic bombs. Concerned residents banded together to demand cleanup, but the problems still continue with highly radioactive areas in several neighborhoods near the landfill area.
A movie called Atomic Homefront (available on HBO) explains the situation. One of the most shocking scenes was when a resident named Anna Vasilenok, who moved from Chernobyl Ukraine to Saint Louis 20 years earlier, warned that most of her family members had contracted and died from cancer—and that the same could happen to this city unless officials step in to help. You can watch the movie here.
Starting in 1916, US companies started to produce items that glowed, thanks to radioactive paint. The employees, who were exposed developed cancer and other health conditions, are called “Radium Girls.” The corporations who hired them refused to take responsibility and blamed any health problems on conditions like syphilis, rather than admitting that radium was harmful.
Read more in CNN’s Radium Girls: The Dark Times of Luminous Watches or watch The Radium Girls – Documentary
Poisonous California Lake
Once the largest fresh-water lake in southern California, Salton Sea was a popular beach resort area in the 1950s. But once the water started to evaporate, it turned into a heavily contaminated, deadly area that causes health problems and environmental hazards. Despite requests for a permanent solution, the area continues to get more and more toxic.
Predator in American Gymnastics
When young female gymnasts in Michigan tried to warn Olympic and state officials about how they were sexually assaulted by Dr. Larry Nassar, they were gaslighted (treated like they were not experiencing the abuse) or their concerns were ignored.
HBO’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal is a gripping recounting of the years of hidden abuse by this dangerous physician, and why victims tend to stay silent rather than confront a figure of authority.
Abuse in Cults
The victims of religious cults (such as Scientology, the Children of God, Buddhafield, and James Arthur Ray’s sweat lodge patterned after The Secret) are often ignored, even when they speak up to law enforcement about abuse and unethical behavior.
Organizations that appear beyond reproach—such as churches, social service agencies, non-profits, and businesses that give back to the community—are not immune to the dangers of human error and terrible decisions. The cult mentality can be used to promote dangerous business models, including Multi-Level Marketing (read more in 11 Ways Multi-Level Marketing is Like a Cult).
Podcasts About Chernobyl
Along with the highly acclaimed HBO 5-part series, I also encourage you to check out these fantastic in-depth podcast episodes.
The (Official) Chernobyl Podcast
As a complement to the show, The Chernobyl Podcast is an interview-style podcast with NPR’s Peter Sagal and Chernobyl’s creator and executive producer Craig Mazin. It provides a lot of background information and details that couldn’t be included in each episode.
You can hear more details on the podcast “HBO’s Chernobyl Reviews” by Afterbuzz TV. It provides additional facts and insights about the show that I found really interesting.
Another fantastic resource is a podcast by Dr. Jason Cohen, a thyroid cancer physician. His podcast “Gross Anatomy” examines the realism of HBO’s show, along with a scientific explanation about the effects of iodine radiation on the thyroid gland.
Dr. Cohen says that there are 6000 confirmed cases of thyroid cancer directly resulting from the Chernobyl disaster, and that the thyroid hormone is formed with iodine. Much of the nuclear fallout was made up of radioactive iodine, which is quickly absorbed by the thyroid gland. Over the years, this creates genetic abnormalities that result in cancerous growth.
Dr. Cohen said he sees many patients from Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout area who are affected even 30 years after the disaster took place.
Check it out here: https://grossanatomypodcast.com/2019/05/10/chernobyl/
I also recommend a podcast called Risktory: The Story of Risk with the episode Chernobyl. I really enjoyed host Jacinthe Galpin’s risk perspective of the event, how it occurred, and what could have been done to mitigate the outcome. I highly recommend it.
Edgelands: Stories from the Russian Border is another podcast that had a fantastic first-hand account of a visit to the Chernobyl site. Click here to view episode 6, Chernobyl.
The Eastern Border
To get a real-life perspective from an Eastern European, be sure to listen to The Eastern Border by host Kristaps Andrejsons, who lives in Latvia. I learned a lot about the background cultural and political situation and how the disaster impacted the people in the Soviet Union. Listen to the most recent episode about Chernobyl here.
Timesuck with Dan Cummins is a podcast that provides an in-depth and fascinating—if a bit raunchy—description about what happened at Chernobyl, as well as some details I’d never heard before. Watch the episode here.
Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.