Straight-Talking Stellan Skarsgård's Take on Chernobyl

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the haunting truth.
Friday 14 June 2019
An unfiltered look at lessons from Chernobyl through the eyes of Stellan Skarsgård. Photo: HBO

Released in the US, UK, and Ireland on 6 to 8 May, Chernobyl is a five-part historical drama television miniseries created and written by Craig Mazin, helmed by Johan Renck, and produced by HBO in association with Sky UK. Featuring an ensemble cast led by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, and Paul Ritter, it depicts the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986, one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history, and the unprecedented cleanup efforts that followed.

One particularly warm and clear night, an accident occurred during a safety test on a common Soviet Union-built nuclear power reactor, No. 4 nuclear reactor, in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR. “But what no one knew, thanks to years of error and cover-up, was that there was a fatal flaw in the reactor design that made it unstable at low power levels. As power levels were lowered in preparation for the test, they dropped too low and the reactor ground to a halt. Meanwhile, unseen, a dangerous hot spot was building deep in the reactor,” The Guardian wrote.

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Photo: HBO

It resulted in an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction and a huge amount of energy was suddenly released, which vapourised superheated cooling water, rupturing the reactor pressure vessel in a highly destructive steam explosion, which was instantly followed by an open-air reactor core fire. Two massive explosions released 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.

“There was a heavy thud,” The Guardian quoted survivor Sasha Yuvchenko, who was working night shift on that fateful night, as saying. “A couple of seconds later, I felt a wave come through the room. The thick concrete walls were bent like rubber. I thought war had broken out. We started to look for Khodemchuk (his colleague) but he had been by the pumps and had been vaporised. Steam wrapped around everything; it was dark and there was a horrible hissing noise. There was no ceiling, only sky; a sky full of stars. A stream of ionising radiation was shooting starwards, like a laser beam. I remember thinking how beautiful it was.”

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Photo: HBO

The accident destroyed the No. 4 nuclear reactor, killed 30 operators and firemen within three months, and affected hundreds of others with Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) in later weeks. Large areas of neighbouring Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and beyond were also contaminated in varying degrees.

It has been 33 years now but scientists have estimated that the 770-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone won’t be safe for humans to live for another several hundred years given that contamination levels are not consistent in the surrounding area, Forbes wrote. More than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer may eventually be linked to radiation exposure in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, though the precise number of cases directly caused by the Chernobyl accident is difficult (if not impossible) to ascertain.

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Photo: HBO

HBO’s Chernobyl is a dramatic retelling of the catastrophe, revealing how and why it happened, detailing the stories of those who helped and died in tackling the disaster, and the Soviet cover-up. It’s based in large part on the memories of Pripyat locals, as told by Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich in her book, Voices from Chernobyl.

In it, acclaimed Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård plays Boris Shcherbina, a Soviet politician who served as the Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman from 1984 till 1989. During which, he supervised Soviet crisis management including the Chernobyl disaster. But even for the multiple award-winning actor, who has had four decades of notable work tucked under his belt, taking on the role of Shcherbina was an eye-opening experience.

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Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina in HBO’s Chernobyl. Photo: HBO

“We live in a society where truth has little value and we live in a media culture where the lies travel faster than the truth does. And the truth is also more complicated and it takes more effort not only to absorb but also to sell. It has heightened the importance to fight for what is the truth. In America, The Washington Post said Donald Trump lies 16.5 times a day and that doesn’t count the lies he tells his wife. It’s a dangerous world. Disinformation is used for political gain, sad to say, the same way all over the world,” he told UNRESERVED in a phone interview recently.

Skarsgård was referring to lies and the political expediency of the horror. After the Chernobyl meltdown, in the hours of disarray which followed, intercity telephone networks were cut, the engineers and workers at the nuclear plant were prohibited from sharing news of what happened, and the international press were told little to nothing of the incident. The Soviet nuclear industry was determined to suppress the truth – that what happened in Chernobyl was the result of years of lying and incompetence, and the Kremlin refused to acknowledge the nuclear accident until two days after the explosion, when scientists in Sweden raised the alarm about a sharp spike in radiation levels coming from the Soviet Union.

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Stellan Skarsgård and Jared Harris in HBO’s Chernobyl. Photo: HBO

In speaking to UNRESERVED about what message he hopes the audience will take out of watching Chernobyl, Skarsgård said, “If we’re trying to meet higher standards of living, we’re trying to make business more profitable, we have to calculate the costs of it. That’s one thing.”

“The other thing is that science is actually important to listen to. It’s people that spend their entire lives trying to figure out the scientific facts and sometimes they get absolutely the facts, sometimes they get almost the facts, but their ambition is only one. We should also watch out for all the big ideas that make us corrupt and makes us deny facts. That corrupt idea can be the idea of a perfect state combined with nationalism, it’s very dangerous. And so are big religious ideas. They also try to suppress some truths to not be threatened by reality,” he added.

Achieving a 9.6 rating on IMDb, Chernobyl has now become the top-rated TV show on IMDb (as of 12 June 2019).

Episodes of Chernobyl are now available on HBO GO.

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