The latest show depicting just how important a democratic government is for the health and wellbeing of its people is “Chernobyl.” The HBO miniseries tells the story of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, one that immediately caused 31 deaths, followed by an estimated 4,000 afterwards from cancers due to radiation exposure.
Watching the disaster itself unfold is frightening as firefighters are sent to contain the power plant fire, and workers begin suffering from radiation sickness. As radioactive ashes from the explosion fall on the residents of the Ukraine town, you feel a sense of dread. Then, as the series progresses, plant workers begin to die of radiation poisoning.
But more frightening is how the series portrays the Soviet bureaucrats who deny any and all failure in the operation. As you watch nuclear engineers getting hauled off to hospitals, officials seem unwilling to even consider the possibility that the power plant is melting down, as if doing so would be a breach in party loyalty.
Finally, enough scientists step forward to express how dire the situation is, and evacuation of the townspeople begins. But that’s a third of the way into the miniseries.
In a freer society, where more voices are listened to, people have a bit more protection. Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees power plants; and a free press keeps watch. At Chernobyl, a top Soviet physicist is arrested when she states her intention of telling others about the dangers.
It took the Soviet Union four years to admit international cooperation was needed to mitigate the environmental catastrophe. That’s what happens when leaders believe their systems are infallible and refuse to listen to anyone who disagrees. When scientists are muted and discredited, people are put at greater risk.
Thirty-five years have passed since the Chernobyl meltdown, and humanitarian efforts continue today as the contamination remains. If nothing else, it can be a teaching tool for the future.