I recently watched the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. It immediately took me back to the bad old days of The Cold War. Like me, I think most people back then didn’t dwell on it too much. The possibility of nuclear annihilation was out of your hands anyway, so why worry about it? However, on April 26, 1986, an explosion occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in reactor number four. Most of the world had no idea how bad the situation really was. Initially, the Soviets did a good job of covering it up. However, the truth finally got out when scientists in Sweden started detecting radiation in their atmosphere coming from the Chernobyl reactor. It’s truly terrifying to learn how bad this catastrophe could have been, if not for the actions of some very brave people.

Back then, there were some major differences between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. when it came to dealing with a disaster like Chernobyl. The Russians immediately went into butt-coverage mode and began pointing fingers at each other. The Soviets downplayed the danger of the radiation, instead of trying to figure out how to prevent its spread. On the flip side, Americans as a whole are very solution-oriented. In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon explosion happened, the focus was immediately on how to save the people on the rig, capping the well, minimizing the spill, and starting the clean up. There would be plenty of time to figure out who was at fault for the accident later. Eventually, the Russians stopped pointing fingers at each other long enough to begin solving the problem.

The real problem soon became clear. For every metaphorical fire they put out, another one sprung up in its place. In an effort to get a handle on the disaster, many heroic acts were performed by brave Soviet citizens. However, is heroism at the point of a gun really heroism? Regardless, these folks stepped up and got the job done when their names were called. Many of them volunteered for particularly hazardous duty. I don’t know if they were chugging the Communist Kool-Aid, or just wanted to save lives. Either way, these men wound up preventing the spread of radiation to more than a million people. They’re all heroes, regardless of their political system.

The iconic exchange of the whole show is when the Director of the KGB asks, “Why worry about something that’s never going to happen?” The head scientist responsible for fixing Chernobyl replies, “Oh, that’s brilliant. They should be print that on our money.” That was the U.S.S.R. in a nutshell. Chernobyl is an extremely scary and well done series. It’s interesting to note that Russia is currently developing its own movie project, claiming that Chernobyl was apparently a very successful CIA operation. Ah, some things never change. However, it’s good to know that even in a system as warped as the U.S.S.R., there were valiant people who helped keep a horrible situation from becoming a continent-wide disaster. Without their bravery, it could be a very different world today.

(Note: Michael Schellenberger’s article shows the many things HBO got wrong.  Follow this link to learn more.)

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