Reflections on the Chernobyl disaster

Overlooking the burning reactor

From left, Stellan Skarsgård (Shcherbina) and Jared Harris (Legasov) watch Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 burn in Episode 1 of HBO’s miniseries CHERNOBYL.

We all have those moments in our lives when the world at large encroached upon us; moments like 9/11, the JFK assassination, or the Challenger explosion. Those moments that, when we are asked to talk about them around the office water cooler, we begin describing with the words, “I remember exactly what I was doing … ” or “I remember exactly what I was wearing … ”. For those of us not directly connected to any of these tragedies, some of those moments are just that: moments we’ll never forget.

Others become watershed.

I was 15 years old when the Chernobyl disaster occurred, and it was exactly seven days after my mother died. I don’t think we knew about it until a few days later—perhaps that Monday or Tuesday—but I recall that when we did find out about it, there were no-holds-barred discussions in our high school classrooms about the horrors of radiation sickness. About how the cloud was going to reach us, and we could all be at great risk. As overly-imaginative, panicked teens, we all freaked out, certain our faces were going to melt off. In fact, when there was a field trip just a month later to a local nuclear power plant, only half of my class went—most of us were too scared.

The world eventually moved on to other things, but I never forgot Chernobyl, and it became one of those things in my life I would read about and research on a regular basis on an almost obsessive level (like I do with most things I’m “into,” on and off). When HBO’s new miniseries was announced, I was absolutely over the moon with excitement. But it also made me question why—why in the world would I be obsessed with this horrible thing? Why would anyone, for that matter?

I couldn’t articulate it then, but it was because that disaster, for me, clearly defined an understanding of the world at large: it was not a safe place. I was as much at risk from dying because of some random thing half a world away that had nothing to do with me as much as I was from wrecking my bike or drowning in the lake—things I could have some control over avoiding. Chernobyl taught me that I was as much at risk from the actions of others as I was from my own stupidity. That while I should not let this run my life, I should always be prepared, always be cautious, and always be ready to protect and stand up for myself if necessary—because no one else in this world was going to do it for me.

That’s kind of a terrifying thing to figure out at 15.

That said, if you enjoyed HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl and are interested in further exploration, the scripts for all five episodes have been made public. In addition, there is an excellent podcast with writer Craig Mazin which discusses each episode in depth, and there are a couple of books and a documentary on the real event I can recommend.

Please be aware that some of these may contain graphic descriptions.

Chernobyl_2019_Miniseries POSTER

Scripts for all five episodes of HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries:

(You may have to scroll down over time; Mr. August adds to his page with the most recent on top.)

HBO’s Chernobyl Podcasts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

(You can also find these through your regular podcast channels like ITunes.)

Documentary: The Battle of Chernobyl (2006)

Real footage and interviews with survivors, those who battled the blaze, and Gorbachev. Run time approximately an hour and a half.

Book: Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich

This winner of the Nobel Prize is a compilation of personal stories of those who were there during the disaster.

Book: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham

Higginbotham’s narrative took years to write and is the result of hours of interviews, letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from declassified archives.

ABC News Nightline: Chernobyl Accident 4/28/86

This episode of Nightline is absolutely spine-chilling, because most of what’s on it illustrates just how little we knew about what was going on in the Soviet Union (they have to call in American experts to sort of “guess” what kind of accident happened and what the effects might be). If you’ve forgotten what it was like to be alive during the Cold War, this is going to take you right back.

Photos: The Atlantic: “Photos From the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster,” by Alan Taylor, June 3, 2019

Photos: The Atlantic: “Visiting Chernobyl 32 Years After the Disaster,” by Alan Taylor, April 26, 2018

Photos: 30 Years Later In the Chernobyl Forbidden Zone

(This is an entire website devoted exclusively to photos of the abandoned exclusion zone.)

About kristipetersenschoonover

A ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies; her traditionally published books include a short story collection, THE SHADOWS BEHIND. She was the recipient of three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She serves as co-host of the DARK DISCUSSIONS podcast, as founding editor of the dark literary journal 34 ORCHARD, and is a member of both the New England Horror Writers and the Horror Writers Association. Follow her adventures at

Posted on June 9, 2019, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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