How Americans Should Read the Chernobyl Mini-Series on HBO


The most important thing for American audiences to understand from the HBO mini-series Chernobyl is this: the nuclear industry’s safety record is dismal wherever it exists. If you think an accident of that magnitude can’t happen in the U.S., you missed the point. Nuclear technology is a threat to public health. Here’s a quick review of nuclear accidents that Americans need to remember in order to heal our part of the planet’s nuclear legacy, and why we can’t wait.

Remember plutonium dust blowing in the wind just outside Denver, Colorado from multiple plutonium fires at the nuclear weapons manufacturing complex at Rocky Flats. The complex was shut down in 1992 after the FBI and EPA raided the place over egregious safety violations. Plant owners later pled guilty to criminal violations of environmental law. If you live in the Denver area and you’ve heard about the plutonium fires, but thought that was a long time ago, please remember that the half-life of weapons grade Plutonium 239 is 24,000 years. That’s just the half-life—the time taken for the radioactivity of an isotope to diminish to half its original value. The point is, if plutonium dust was ever blowing in the wind in the Denver area, it’s still around, and will be for all intents and purposes, for an eternity.

We also need to remember the criticality accident in 1958 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee at the Y-12 Plutonium Processing Plant, and its recent spate of near disasters trying to ramp up renewed production for the nuclear industry’s heavily marketed “renaissance.” And then there’s the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania, two hours west of Philadelphia. That partial meltdown left that area of Pennsylvania and downwind areas of New Jersey with disturbingly high cancer rates. If you can connect the dots among Three Mile Island, Oak Ridge and Rocky Flats, you might be wondering what “renaissance” nuclear industry leaders could possibly be talking about. Because we’re not done with our remembrances.

We have to also remember groundwater contamination from buried radioactive waste from the making of the A-bomb at the Hanford Plutonium Plant in Washington state which is ongoing. The contaminated site, in which hot tanks filled with radioactive waste are literally sinking into the ground, sits next to the Columbia River upstream from Portland and Seattle. Then there are the radioactive leaks into the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies local drinking water beneath the Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant in Amarillo, Texas.

We have to also remember the history of radioactive steam leaks at the San Onofre Nuclear Plant north of San Diego, California that led to the plant being decommissioned, and where spent nuclear fuel rods now sit in cooling pools waiting permanent safe storage that doesn’t exist. An accident waiting to happen. And remember 30 years of reactor accidents at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina, just a few hours from Atlanta, Savannah and Charleston. Then there’s the radioactive waste from our nuclear weapons program buried under the now radioactive West Lake landfill on the outskirts of St. Louis, a landfill that has caught fire and continues to smolder to this day, exposing everyone downwind and putting the buried repository of nuclear waste at risk of igniting and exploding.

These radioactive contamination sites are all in the United States, spread across 30 states, where we have created the most nuclear power plant reactors and nuclear weapons of any country on Earth—and the highest rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and thyroid disorders on the planet. They are all very much connected. 

Any way you look at nuclear technology, it comes with catastrophic risks. Accidents waiting to happen, and happening already. Isn’t it past time to put nuclear to bed? And to transition to safe renewable sources of energy in real earnest?

I appreciate that writer Craig Mazin’s masterful storytelling and director Johan Renck’s harrowing filmmaking focus a critical lens on the insanity of nuclear technology itself. Uranium 235 could care less about nationality, politics or media spins. Radiation is radiation, and the threat of perpetual radioactive contamination goes far beyond Chernobyl. The point is, if we had learned the lesson from Chernobyl, we could have prevented Fukushima. We need to learn these lessons, if we hope to prevent catastrophic nuclear accidents in the future. But we can’t learn anything from history if we don’t talk about that history and remember it. Renck and Mazin have done just that with Chernobyl. The question now is, what will we do?