The Golden Globes Meets Safety Science

I’m not a big fan of T.V./Movie award shows, but I happened to catch the news that this past Sunday the T.V. show Chernobyl won the award for “Best Television Limited Series”. According to it’s IMDB page, the show has apparently won over 30 awards. In this case, I couldn’t agree more.

I am admittedly late to the Chernobyl party. When the series initially aired in May, I ignored it, thinking I’d binge-watch it at some point once all the episodes had aired (it is a 5 part mini-series). I did try to watch it late one night during the summer, but if I am being honest, I passed out on the couch before the opening credits finished in the first episode. Maybe Chernobyl wasn’t for me. And then last fall I happened to end up on a trans-Atlantic flight with 5+ hours to kill so I thought I’d give it another shot. After all, it is much hard to fall asleep on a plane than on my couch.

And then I was hooked. Since that flight, I have recommended the show to many people, especially those folks I know in the WebOps space who are students of Design Thinking, Human Factors, Resilience Engineering, or Safety Science. It isn’t that the show is not without some flaws; the more you read and learn, you see that there are parts of it that are misrepresented or made up; it is dramatic storytelling after all. But if you have read the literature on complex systems failures or seen failure pathologies documented from the medical, aviation, and nuclear engineering industries, you will immediately recognize the behaviors that surface during the recreation of the accident in the show. Not to mention, the Soviet government does a fine job as a stand-in for internet companies today who are kind-of-sort-of forced to admit when problems go wrong and yet often try to do so without providing any details or disclosing the true nature of the problems.

One of the things so fascinating about Chernobyl, for me at least, is I remember this being in the news as a kid, and that it seemed like it wasn’t that big of a deal (or at least, not as big of a deal as I thought it should be). Of course, watching this now, it all makes sense since the magnitude of potential destruction was almost incomprehensible (i.e., wiping out most of eastern Europe) compared to what the Soviets were telling everyone at the time. The lasting effects, which were certainly not a worst-case scenario, were still harmful enough that it made me wonder how much of this accident helped lead to the break up of the U.S.S.R. just a few years later.

Since watching the series, I’ve now gone on to watch a few other shows on Chernobyl, and if you like the show, I’d recommend these as well. One was a 1-hour documentary called ”Chernobyl: As We Watched” which I caught on something called the “Americas Hero Network”. The other was a show titled ”Building Chernobyls MegaTomb”, which highlights a more recent engineering effort to build a new shield over the reactor before the previous one failed. Yes, this is a disaster that will continue to need management for hundreds of years.