HBO's Chernobyl is a Must for Safety Nerds and Newbies

After Game of Thrones ended, many people wondered how HBO would survive without its flagship show. I listen to a couple of entertainment podcasts and they started talking about the new series called Chernobyl. As a safety nerd I was curious but didn’t have any way of seeing it where I currently live. Luckily, last month I found myself in an Airbnb in Sweden with access to an HBO account and I talked my wife into watching it with me.

I was already somewhat familiar with the disaster through university and other studies and I relished rounding out my knowledge in such an engaging way. But what really got my safety-nerd-receptors tingling was the underlying narrative and analysis of complex safety concepts such as latent failures, culture and accident investigation philosophy. In the first scene, in the first 30 seconds, I was hooked. Let’s see if you can pick the moment:

The line “a just world is a sane world” instantly reminded me of a paper I read a couple of months ago by Sidney Dekker. That paper was about the psychology of accident investigation and discussed at length the concept of sensemaking. After that point I was both engrossed in the functional story of the accident and its response as well as the cognitive story of understanding the event and its impact.

Without giving too much away in terms of story; there are two main characters, both based on real people, who navigate the events following the explosion. Vasery Legasov, a scientist within the USSR atomic energy apparatus, and Boris Shcherbina, a soviet apparatchik, represent two significant aspects of any accident investigation and emergency response - the technical and the political. Their individual and shared journeys are fascinating, albeit dramatised, examinations of what it must be like for people not well-versed in complex accident causation theories to come to grips with an event like this. Obviously, this event was at a scale never before seen.

And then There is the Podcast

Before you go to far into the series, you should also know that there is an official podcast that follows the show. The show’s writer, Craig Mazin, is interviewed with each instalment relating to the corresponding episode of the show. The podcast discusses many facets of the show including technical film making stuff as well as historical points and the research process.

And then there are also the times when Craig talks about his own revelations regarding accidents and disasters. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything but there is a great discussion about culture and social interactions relating to safety in the final instalment.

What are You Still Doing Here?

I should be absolutely clear, this series is not about safety and accident causation theory. I’m not even sure that these themes and the subtext were included intentionally. I think it was mostly my own personal interests and biases that framed the series this way for me. Nevertheless, it is a thoroughly entertaining show - if one can call fear, shock, foreboding and screaming at your TV entertaining. My wife definitely enjoyed it but might have enjoyed less my rambling analysis after.

So, if you have access to HBO or the show through your local service provider, please take a couple of hours to check it out. It is a one-off mini series, so it has a much smaller time investment than Game of Thrones and you already know it’s a disaster. ;)

image credit: (c) HBO