On the 26th of April 1986, a nuclear reactor in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, exploded. The reactor core was blasted in to pieces that then landed around the grounds of the facility and radioactive debris and dust began to spread. Soviet authorities denied the obvious until radioactive dust was detected thousands of miles away and only then did the Soviets acknowledge the disaster and only later did they seek to address it. Securing the runaway reactor and sealing up the facility was eventually accomplished but at great cost in life and property. The town of Pripyat, where many of the Chernobyl workers lived, was completely abandoned and is still empty to this day.
HBO produced a 5 part miniseries covering the disaster that was award winning and deservedly so. Chernobyl happened a lot time ago and so there was not a lot of new ground to be found in the actual disaster but in the explanation of why the reactor exploded there was very fertile material that is as timeless as it is serious. The series covers in five riveting episodes the human failings that led to the disaster. It was a tale of political ‘science’ and window dressing that came in to contact with the inflexible laws of nature. In the case of Chernobyl, those laws involved chemistry and process and the spooky way in which atoms and protons function. Radioactivity is mysterious but pervasive. The most well meaning and educated humans tap in to these mysteries at great peril but add in the inflexible social mantras of the Soviets that rewarded denial of reality and it was only a matter of time before physics reasserted its dominance.
Every human society has an overlay of useful dishonesty. Humans smile and make friendly gestures to people they would kill and destroy under only slightly altered circumstances. Society depends on these little white lies to function. Family members are dishonest to each other in many ways just to keep the social machine working properly. The natural world that is red in tooth and claw tells no lies but also can’t build up civilization. Great human leaders are often the ones that can tell truths in the setting of civilization lies. Monstrous leaders are those that seize upon the lies, harness them to their own benefit and set up methods of deadly punishment for ever speaking the truth. The Soviets had generations of monstrous leaders who lied but the reactor core at Chernobyl eventually reasserted the truth.
It matters not, once the lies have taken hold, if there was good will or good people at or near the disaster. At some point, the lies proliferate and no one can tell the truth from the lies anymore. It is an incredible irony that the evening of the explosion at Chernobyl that they were running a mandatory safety test and further, that the initiator of the explosion was an operator pushing the notorious A3-5 button which was a safety measure of last resort. That button didn’t do what Aleksandr Akimov thought it would do but just because Akimov didn’t know didn’t mean that no one knew. There were many in the Soviet nuclear programs that knew that the reactor design at Chernobyl had real and dangerous flaws, but they kept that information a secret and let Akimov march in to history as the final actor in the chain of disaster. He died three weeks after the explosion from radiation exposure at the age of 33.
One can’t help but ponder how many consequential untruths are at the core of the now gigantic and ever proliferating US federal government. Many of the lies we now routinely live with are, like in the Soviet system, repeated and reinforced throughout the culture. Identifying those lies is the work of pure politics, but they are often not difficult to find. The sitting President recently stated that a $3.5 trillion ‘bill’ for ‘infrastructure’ had the total cost of ‘nothing.’ How deep does the lying go in the process that is now a routine part of the functions of the American federal government? All of these functions was meant to be contained by a 4 page handwritten document that is still said to be the most important part of ‘our democracy’ but clearly we are beyond that.
Belief that there are enormous and absurd lies at the heart of the US political system is now ubiquitous, as far as I can tell, but we can’t agree on what the lies are or what they mean. We only agree that there are lies. I would maintain that the Constitution is as relevant to the US government as the Czar was to the Soviets. It is what proceeded what we now have, but it was always a cultural force first and foremost and the culture has clearly changed. We can’t know if an explosion is coming, what our A3-5 button will be, or who might push it. But lies are lies and there are truths that reassert themselves eventually. We can’t know the impact of the disaster that is coming. Only five years after Chernobyl, the Soviet Union dissolved itself and the lies that Chernobyl exposed were surely a part of causing the Soviet people and government to lose faith in itself. There are many great people in the United States, even those in the government and we will see if they emerge in any catastrophe that comes. All there is to do now is drive the lies out of our personal lives so that we may see, in the full light of disclosure, what roll we play. Personal growth and maturity will be useful when the consequence of the official lies arrives at the door of our creaking dishonest society.