It's been 37 years since the No.4 reactor in Chernobyl went into meltdown, spreading radioactive devastation, as well as influencing nearly forty years of culture.
26 April 1986: The Chernobyl disaster
On this day, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian republic of the Soviet Union, failed. The resulting meltdown of the reactor core and explosions killed 28 people and put huge amounts of radioactive contaminants airborne.
The resulting radioactive fallout drifted westwards to Belarus, while the Pripyat area surrounding Chernobyl became unlivable. The incident, at first suppressed by the USSR, became a major incident and was a key incident in the Cold War between the Soviets and the US.
Today, Chernobyl is the go-to reference for nuclear disaster in culture. It’s no wonder. After decades of concern that the world was imminently entering into a nuclear holocaust, Chernobyl was the first civilian-affecting example of the devastating potential of nuclear power since the US bombed Japan in the Second World War. It’s therefore unsurprising that Chernobyl has been the focal point of many films and shows since. Here are five of the most notable times it’s featured in culture since the disaster.
The obvious first choice has to be HBO’s masterful 2019 mini-series ‘Chernobyl’. Adapted from Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s book ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ by Craig Mazin, the dramatisation focused on multiple elements of the disaster, thanks to Alexievich’s recorded recollections of Pripyat locals. From the government cover-up to the firefighter first responders, HBO’s show is the definitive adaptation of the incident, winning Emmys for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing.
While HBO’s show was exhaustively researched and emotionally told, it’s never that silly. Fear not, the 2012 film Chernobyl Diaries manages to take one of the worst nuclear disasters and insensitively turns it into horror-schlock. Following a group of tourists who want to check out the abandoned town of Pripyat, the holiday goes wrong when they are trapped and hunted down by humanoid-monsters, mutated by radiation. Producer and writer Oren Peli deflected criticism claiming the film was made “with the utmost respect for the victims”.
It’s a veritable truth that you can find any parallel to modern life you want if you look through enough episodes of ‘The Simpsons’. The legendary cartoon debuted in 1989, just three years after Chernobyl and it’s no accident that protagonist Homer Simpson’s job in the series is working at the local nuclear power plant. One of the most iconic references to nuclear power in modern media, Homer’s role as a safety inspector has led to several incidents, most notably in the series three episode ‘Homer Defined’ where he saves the plant from meltdown.
Chernobyl has been the setting for multiple video-game levels, but none more purposefully than in the ‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’ series. Starting with 2007’s ‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl’, the first-person shooter survival horror series took influences from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 Soviet classic Stalker and has the player fighting through a grim alternate reality where Chernobyl was beset by a mysterious second disaster.
Bet you weren’t expecting this as the final entry. While usually far more concerned with the lives of five teenagers living through the Troubles in Northern Ireland, ‘Derry Girls’ had a great cross-over feature with the Cold War in the fourth episode of the first season. When Katya, a teenage victim of the disaster, comes to stay with Erin’s family, she is the source of both sexual frustration and hilarious stone-faced rationalisation of the political situation.