HBO’s show about the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster is the highest rated show on IMDB of all time in part because of its ability to make otherwise dull topics—meetings, shoveling, courtroom exposition—riveting. To suss out fact from fiction, Paul and Matthew invited Matt Crozat from the Nuclear Energy Institute to discuss the show’s portrayal, the history of nuclear plant disasters—including Three Mile Island and Fukushima—and the future of the nuclear energy in America and around the world.
How accurate was the HBO show Chernobyl? Why was Chernobyl so catastrophic? What is considered a high radiation level? Should we be optimistic about nuclear power? Have we come a long way since Chernobyl? How is Chernobyl a story about toxic leadership?
00:05 Paul Matzko: Welcome to Building Tomorrow, a show about the ways tech and innovation are making the world safer, happier, and more prosperous. Possibly, more radioactive. If you’re like myself, you spent five weeks glued to the TV watching the highest IMDB rated show of all time on HBO, Chernobyl. And before we continue, let me give you a spoiler warning. We’re going to talk about the show in some detail. So if you have not watched Chernobyl, do not listen to this podcast. But do listen to it once you have gone and watched all five episodes. At this point, you can stream ‘em back to back, do so. It is well worth your time.
00:39 Paul Matzko: I wanted to talk with someone who both has seen the show, is a fan of the show, and has some expertise in nuclear power plants, about what the show got wrong and what it got right about nuclear power in the 1980s, as well as the prospects for the nuclear energy industry today. Joining Matthew Feeney and I in the studio is Matt Crozat, the Senior Director for Policy Development at the Nuclear Energy Institute and a former analyst for the Office of Nuclear Energy at the US Department of Energy. Welcome to the show, Matt.
01:07 Matt Crozat: Thank you for having me.
01:09 Paul Matzko: Let’s start with the show. What was your reaction when you first heard that HBO was putting out this Chernobyl mini‐series, but before you watched it?
01:17 Matt Crozat: Oh no.
01:19 Matt Crozat: Because HBO has this well‐deserved reputation for driving a lot of attention, a lot of commentary, and there’s a very straightforward way to make this incredibly sensationalized and very charged. And so, it was a great deal of reticence when I first heard, “Are they really going to do this?” And so it was with some trepidation and honestly, even the encouragement of this podcast didn’t… Let me say, I should delve in sooner rather than later before I let this fester in and I’m glad I did.
01:54 Matt Crozat: One of the things that’s really surprising about the show was how much of it was about how nuclear power works. In order to explain what the core thesis of it look like, the impact of lies and secrecy and denial of the facts around you, in order to understand that, you had to understand, well, how was the plant supposed to work? And in that regard, the idea that one of the key concepts here was the positive void coefficient blew my mind. Not that it was there, but the fact they used that phrase. I spent the first couple episodes explaining to my wife what that meant without using the phrase, and then all of a sudden, boom, there it was. Like, “Hey.”
02:34 Matt Crozat: And so that was a very different way of engaging in a much more concrete physical representation of how the plant works, down to an actual model of the plant in the final episode. The key thing about nuclear energy and why it is both a great promise for society and also something that needs to be treated very carefully, is this concept of energy density. We tend to measure nuclear fuel in what we call “pellets”. It’s about the size of a pencil eraser. That pellet of uranium fuel will contain about as much energy as a train car of coal. About 140‐some odd gallons of gasoline. That is a huge amount. As a result, you can create an awful lot of energy to heat the water for a new turbine in a very small footprint. Now, the key is ensuring that you have the systems in place to manage that energy appropriately.
03:38 Matt Crozat: One of the themes of the show was you would never build this reactor anywhere else. And part of the reason they kept coming back to that theme, was the way you ensure that the fuel is kept safe is by having it cooled. They use water for that, we use water for that, that’s not the issue. When that water goes away because of running this test, well, all of a sudden now, the main thing that’s gonna keep this reactor from going out of control isn’t there. But when you have this in the US reactor, you have tests where you worry about water not being there. But the key is that water in the US reactors and the West Reactor in general, is also what helps the chain reaction keep going. In the case of the RBMK design, that water didn’t have that job, graphite had that job. And so water goes away, the chain reaction keeps going ’cause the graphite’s there to help make sure that works correctly, and it just gets hotter and hotter because you took the water out. And so, you had this at the end, in the trial scene, this wonderful depiction of how you’re trying to keep the system in equilibrium. The red cards and the blue cards, trying to show, “Well, which makes it hotter, which makes it colder?” And how because of the way it was designed, once you start taking away the blue cards, it all gets worse.
05:09 Matt Crozat: For the rest of the way that the reactors have been designed around the world for the last 40–50 years, you don’t want that feedback. You wanna make sure that if you have a problem, the whole thing begins to calm down as opposed to getting worse. And that was that term “positive void coefficient” I mentioned earlier, and it’s a very different way of doing it in the past, not only in Russia, for that matter.
05:34 Matthew Feeney: Hindsight is always 20/20, but I think a lesson of innovation and technology is that you learn through trial and error. The first cars did not have seatbelts or airbags. And safety is something you learned through trial. And is it the case looking back? And of course this is always a difficult counterfactual to do, but were the mistakes in Chernobyl entirely predictable? Is it just incredible that no one could have foreseen that something like this was possible or is it a legitimate oversight that took people by surprise?
06:09 Matt Crozat: That’s a hard question because of the counterfactual element of it. Let me take a different piece of it, which is, one of the themes, when they came to casting blame on… Especially Dyatlov, at the end, was that he was pushing to complete a test that was gonna help him get a promotion, and even though the conditions weren’t appropriate anymore, he was pushing, because he had these incentives that weren’t aligned with maintaining a safe operation of the plant.
06:40 Matt Crozat: As I watched this from an American’s eyes in the nuclear industry in the 21st century, that’s nuts. The idea that you would have somebody who was in charge of how the reactor would operate and your thought process is anything other than maintaining safe operation is kind of crazy, but it speaks, I think, as much to the cultural and institutional norms in which the Soviet nuclear program was operating in the 1980s, as opposed to how we in the US and the west more broadly thought about the role of nuclear energy in a civilian context.
07:19 Matt Crozat: I think that this was, to my mind, the core theme of what the show was trying to get across of this notion of the way Legasov… What’s the cost of lies? That because with those kinds of motivations and behaviors, you have… The important thing is to not say you were wrong.
07:44 Matt Crozat: And on the one hand, there is that great scene at the beginning of the fifth episode where you move forward a bit, Legasov’s back in Moscow, he gets pulled into the car with the head of the KGB, who’s offering him promotions and validations for his performances on the world stage. And one of the lines that really stuck with me is, “We’ll do the trial,” and I think his line is, “And then we will have our truth,” which is a really interesting concept, and one of the things that keeps coming back throughout, which is the idea of truth in the Soviet Union as being a socially defined construct. And one of the things that really struck me is that might work in the social context, but it’s not gonna work with physics, and this was the problem when you come back to the reactor and how you treated it.
08:37 Paul Matzko: I saw… I think Michael Shellenberger has written some articles for Forbes. It’s a bit nitty‐gritty, this isn’t quite right, this isn’t… But certainly, we don’t wanna get down to that. But he did make a point about the firefighters. There’s that one point where the firefighter is dying in the hospital, his wife ignores the commands by the nurse to not touch him, she touches him and it’s implied later in the show that she was pregnant and that her pregnant baby absorbed the radiation from her husband and died.
09:10 Matt Crozat: Yeah that makes no sense to me.
09:11 Paul Matzko: And my understanding is that that’s not how that works. Once you have the clothes off the firefighters and you’ve showered them, it’s unlikely that you’d get exposed like that.
09:20 Matt Crozat: Yeah for as much as I thought they did a great job of explaining, especially in the final episode, how the plant worked, and what went wrong. Those were some…
09:30 Paul Matzko: Brilliant.
09:31 Matt Crozat: Brilliant ways of doing it. It reminded me of The Big Short, of trying to explain complex financial [09:35] ____ in its way that’s actually, “Oh, that’s interesting.” How they talked about radiation at times, I kind of wasn’t on the same wave length, the trillions and billions of bullets. Yeah… What I do think is worth understanding is what you’re talking about in most of these cases are atoms that are not stable and so something is gonna have to change and they will shoot out some energy in probably a little particle, like in the worst case scenario… And with the biggest canary, it’s like two protons and two neutrons [10:11] ____ particle and okay. I won’t give the specifics, but that’s all intermixed with physical stuff, the dust. Part of the reason why the Chernobyl accident was so much worse than anything else, was you had the fire that was creating the particles that takes the earth with it, and you could see where it’s all going.
10:31 Matt Crozat: But the point is, once you wash it off, you’re not communicable, it goes with it. You take the clothes off, you get rid of the clothes and it goes with the clothes. But you have to be diligent about it, vigilant, of how you treat it. And that’s part of what I thought was the real tragedy of the whole Chernobyl event, was the Soviet authorities denying anything happened at all. Some pretty basic actions would have done a long way towards making it a much less problematic experience. But they ignored it, rather than simply said, “Can you just stay inside for a couple of days while this goes away?” And they didn’t do that. Things like… One of the things you can get in trouble with is if you ingest radioactive particles, because your body hasn’t evolved to deal with them on being on the inside. Well, they were still serving milk from cows that were nearby, and so that was all being picked up and that’s really bad and incredibly unnecessarily.
11:39 Matthew Feeney: A question on accuracy. You mentioned earlier the betrayal of engineers after the explosion, bleeding through their clothes, what do you think about what I guess the only way to describe is the really bad sunburn look of the burn. One of the more haunting scenes is I think at the end of the first episode when an engineer is told, “Go up to the roof and peer down,” and he turns around back to the camera, he looks like he’s been out in the sun for days. Is that a realistic portrayal of what that exposure could do to you?
12:09 Matt Crozat: My understanding is that you will have burn‐like effects from extremely high exposure to radiation. That part didn’t necessarily faze me as much, but there were other ways that they portrayed that I didn’t quite get, like when they showed the helicopter flying over, and then… There was a helicopter accident there, it just happened four months later. And it wasn’t because you went over the reactor, it was because you ran into a crane.
12:35 Paul Matzko: That’ll do it, yeah.
12:38 Matt Crozat: It’s just stuff like that. That the dramatic license was towards making all of the risk about what the radiation can provide. It was dramaticized, right?
12:53 Matthew Feeney: Yes, right.
12:53 Matt Crozat: And I think you mentioned Shellenberger. I think there is a question: To what extent do those dramatic licenses create visceral responses in people that they associate with nuclear power more broadly, even if that wasn’t the intention of the creator? And he’s been very clear in his interviews that I’ve heard of saying he’s pro‐nuclear. This is, to him, a story about the Soviet state, which I think is a very reasonable way to frame it. But there is a possibility that people will have a visceral reaction to what they see on the screen and associate it with something that wasn’t intended at all.
13:30 Paul Matzko: Yeah, now as we talk about radiation exposure and you don’t have to get in the details of different exact levels. In the show, it’s like 3.6 is a meaningful threshold and then there’s 15,000. We have all these numbers thrown at us and if you’re like me, I went and googled. It was hard to find ’cause again, our units are different than roentgen. But my understanding is that even at Chernobyl, you had cases like the engineer staring into the open pit and getting huge doses, but that most of the damage from Chernobyl or most of the danger that they were concerned about was particles floating and exposing people to smaller doses that would increase their chance of having cancer later in life. How does that work? Why was that such a problem at Chernobyl? Why was it… There were concerns about that, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in ’79, in the Fukushima not that long ago. Why is that a different kind of case? Maybe walk us through what that means when it comes to radiation exposure and longtime increase of cancer diagnosis and then what’s different between Chernobyl and these other major nuclear accidents?
14:47 Matt Crozat: I’ll talk generally about it because you’re gonna hit the limits of my expertise pretty quickly, and I don’t wanna misrepresent anything. But we do know that at high levels of radiation exposure, one of the… When I say high, I don’t mean people looking down.
15:00 Paul Matzko: Right. That’s an extreme situation.
15:01 Matt Crozat: At well above normal levels. There have been cases of increased cancer in this because especially once radioactive material gets inside of a person. For example, I mentioned that one of the ways you have radioactivity is an atom’s unstable, it will shoot off in particles. Well, human skin is perfectly well evolved to let that just bounce right off. That’s not a huge problem. However, if you eat it and that gets inside of you, your internal tissues are not at all evolved for that. I don’t know if you recall the case of the former Russian diplomat in the UK about five years ago?
15:50 Paul Matzko: Yeah, yeah.
15:51 Matt Crozat: Well, that’s probably the most recent case of acute radiation poisoning that we know of. And so you can do a compare‐and‐contrast of his picture on [15:57] ____ fortunately, but the whole point of that one was you took an element with these character of… [16:04] ____ polonium, in that case, and he drank it. And so once that got inside of him, the effect on his internal organs was… They weren’t ready for and created problems. And at lower levels, but still high, that can manifest as cancers.
16:23 Matt Crozat: As a matter of fact, the largest outcome by number of the Chernobyl case was thyroid cancers, because the thyroid gland absorbs iodine and one of the fission products that you get is a form of iodine that isn’t well suited for human consumption. And that was why in the second episode when you had cognac, the Belarusian, that was what they picked up. They picked up the iodine. Now, that iodine problem goes away in about a week or two because that acts quickly, but if it gets picked up in the thyroid, it can cause problems, so you had a lot of thyroid cancers. Now, the thing about thyroid cancers, fortunately, it’s eminently treatable. Almost no one dies from thyroid cancer. You shouldn’t have had it in the first place. But the overall mortality effects were much lower.
17:18 Matt Crozat: Let’s talk about why this is a big problem in Chernobyl, and it was less of one in Fukushima and Three Mile Island. The first answer is, a lot more material got out in Chernobyl. A lot. Because yes, we had the fire, but also, they didn’t have something else every other reactor has in the world, which is a containment building. Every other reactor in the world, it has a steel and concrete container over it that is air sealed. When something happens, it just goes into containment. It does what it’s supposed to do, as you might imagine from the name. I don’t have those massive levels of releases. You can still get some because among other things, if too much pressure builds up, you gotta do something. And so in those cases, you have capability to let some material out, gases, to relieve pressure. In the case of Three Mile Island, there wasn’t much of a release, relative to what we’re talking about. And so you weren’t able to find much of any evidence that there were any cancers at all, thankfully, but also not surprisingly in hindsight, because of what actually released.
18:30 Matt Crozat: At Fukushima, it was more, but they were also very proactive on how they managed it, maybe even more than they needed to be. But there was no drinking of milk, basic stuff like that. They evacuated a lot of people, maybe more than they needed, all things considered. But as a result, you don’t expect to have any radiation associated fatalities from either of those events. And that’s, I think, speaks to both to the design that goes into it, and also the philosophy of how you manage when something does go wrong.
19:07 Matthew Feeney: I wanted to ask about preempting some of the many responses to the show, pro or con. I finished watching the show actually still pretty pro‐nuclear, and yet I can still understand why someone could watch that and say, even if something like Chernobyl is a one in 10,000, 100,000 chance, the potential of catastrophic disaster is so great that we should just not allow this. This is too dangerous. What has happened since Chernobyl that should put those kind of concerns at ease? What are the kind of safeguards that are in place at the moment that should in principle stop anything like that from happening?
19:47 Matt Crozat: Two classes of observations, first is technological. As I talked about earlier, the designs that we’re talking about and everyone’s talked about for the last 30, 40 years don’t work that way. Now they all have containments but they all are designed to respond the hell of a lot better when things go sideways. That’s the technological piece. We will touch on that one a bit. Let me talk about, I think, something equally important, and that is the institutional response. One of the things that really stands out when you watch the show is the extent to which the role of the state was to contain the public relations problem as opposed to maintaining a safe or the public health of the people nearby. We don’t do it that way. We have a separate independent nuclear safety regulator called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They have open hearings. If you wanna go through all of the materials that… From when they look at licensing nuclear plant operators and operations, it’s on their website. It’s all open. It’s not… The culture of secrecy and fear of being blamed. What really happened out of Three Mile Island from my point of view in the US was a development of what we’ve now have come to call a safety culture. That it really is this recognition that, no, everyone at the plant has a role on constant vigilance to maintain said operations. If something seems wrong, you say something.
21:22 Matt Crozat: It goes into seemingly trivial things. If you’re walking in a nuclear plant, you’re walking down the stairs and you’re holding a cup of coffee and a notebook, someone’s gonna stop you and say, “Hey, you should have a hand on the railing.” And the point isn’t that they think you’re gonna trip on the stairs. It’s because in that moment, you’ve switched off. And this is not because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says you have to act this way, but the industry as a whole, said, “We need to think about what it is we’re doing. And how we’re dedicating ourselves.” And we did create an institution among plant operators called, the Institute for Nuclear Plant Operations out of Three Mile Island, to say, “Alright, we’re gonna hold each other accountable, we’re gonna measure how we are doing on safety and if your company isn’t doing a good job, you’re gonna have to explain why not.” And so that peer pressure that in this case of the Soviet Union was towards hiding and secrecy and pretending there isn’t a problem. [22:23] ____ turned around and said, “No. I need to be able to stand up in front of my peers, and say, ‘Yeah I’m doing it right.’ ”
22:29 Paul Matzko: Any realistic analysis of nuclear energy would acknowledge that the chance of a disaster, of someone getting cancer down the line, it’s not zero, it’s a non‐zero risk. But what I’ve seen is some literature suggesting that part of the problem is that when something like Chernobyl happens, you can see it, it’s very visible. In the show, quite literally, sun burns, people [22:56] ____ away in hospital beds, even that’s exaggeration. But it’s concentrated and visible, whereas, look, all energy production comes with risks to human life and health, but those risks from other forms of energy are dispersed. It’s not as concentrated and visible. It’s easier for us to forget them. Can you kind of go into that area for us?
23:18 Matt Crozat: Yeah, I call this the plane crash problem. Which is, when a plane crashes, it is national news for two weeks. Car crashes are a much, much, much more common source of death, but then you have this concentration of attention. And part of it, I think comes back to the cultural fear that we talked about in the earlier outset from… We mentioned The Simpsons and China syndrome and Godzilla and Spiderman. When is nuclear… On the one hand, you can see parts of it, but actually, you can’t see the radiation. And so you can’t know what you’re facing, and what you’re not, and having been conditioned to think the worst about it, it allows, I think, a very difficult feedback loop of not knowing what the risk really is and how to think about it.
24:16 Matt Crozat: When you look at the actual health impacts of production of electricity from different technologies, nuclear comes up right at the best. And that’s not [24:28] ____ me as a nuclear person, this is the European Union which has a very diffident relationship with nuclear, is one source of this and there are others. And because so much of what really drives the health effects of electricity production in particular, is not necessarily radiation, though other forms will miss them too, it’s the other air quality and water quality impacts. And I don’t wanna come off as bashing other things, but coal’s really problematic in this regard. And when we look at the health impacts and the policy response of how to think about, how do I value different technologies, this is one that we’ve worked with over time and we continue to struggle with a little bit of what’s the right balance here. And from a policy context, it’s how do I think about what nuclear benefits are and what the real risks are? And there is a bit of [25:29] ____ that has gone around nuclear, that’s been kind of hard to break through at times. And I do have the concern that the show will feed some of that in a way that even if it wasn’t intended, might continue to re‐inforce. But to me, the broader arcs are more worthy of attention than the specific representations.
25:55 Paul Matzko: In today’s political climate, it doesn’t seem if these people are pushing nuclear, perhaps, as maybe they should. They are famous congresswomen now, AOC with the Green New Deal and everyone talking about especially, on the left side of the political spectrum, how to address climate change and global warming. And nuclear seems somewhat absent. Does that have to do with concerns about how to deal with the waste or other effects? Why do you think that is?
26:25 Matt Crozat: I think it mostly has to do with people not realizing that nuclear provides most of our non‐emitting electricity in this country, it’s about 55%, next up is hydro power, and then you get to wind and solar, and other things.
26:41 Matt Crozat: That lack of appreciation of the role nuclear has had in reducing emissions has been a policy challenge. And we’ve really begun to see people come around on it, but only recently. And I think it’s because we’re now starting to see nuclear plants in the US facing the possibility of closure. We’ve actually already closed eight units in the last five years, out of about a hundred and… Grow over a hundred, and now we’re about 97. And for the most part, those nuclear reactors closed because the markets in which they were operating did not value just these characteristics of, well, if you think there’s a value in having no carbon with your electricity, you need to have some way to value that. And we haven’t been able to do that quite as quickly as I would like. And as a result, you’re beginning to see folks who look at climate as a really big challenge, saying, “Well, wait a second. If I’m losing that much non‐emitting electricity, that might be a problem.”
27:44 Matt Crozat: We have seen four states in the last few years pass policies that do somewhat of a job to address this problem. New York, Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey have all passed laws that say, “Well, we’re going to place a value on that non‐emitting attribute.” And as a result, 12 plants that were going to close have instead remained open. Those provide about 100 million megawatt hours electricity, that’s about twice as much as the solar in the US. This is a lot of what we’re talking about here. And so, I’ll bring it back to the policy space though. That’s happening at state level, where they’re closer to a lot of this. I think at the broader, national, and international levels, you’ve seen more of a re‐assessment of where nuclear fits. ‘Cause for a lot of these environmental groups, they started as largely anti‐nuclear organizations, and as the overall view of the world and what we have to worry about has evolved, they’ve had to rethink about where nuclear fits.
28:46 Matt Crozat: Organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have since come out in the last, I don’t know, eight months, and said, “Actually, we need to make sure we keep these plants.” And that I think speaks to this recognition that, “Well, if the real challenge is going to be carbon, how do I think of nuclear?” And even you brought up Representative Ocasio‐Cortez. Even when the Green New Deal was released, there was all kinds of supporting materials that were merely taken down. The resolution itself was agnostic on whether nuclear was in or out. And when asked the next day at the press conference, they said, “No, nuclear is not excluded. It’s one of the technologies that can do this.” And so I’m seeing a much broader framework of states that are saying, “Well, maybe focus on driving towards 100% clean generation, as opposed to deciding which technologies you want.”
29:41 Paul Matzko: Right, right.
29:41 Matt Crozat: And that, I think, is a very welcome development. It’s just taken longer than I would have liked.
29:52 Paul Matzko: So, Tess, we have you joining us in the studio, you have also seen Chernobyl, so you’re not on the side of the producer’s glass now. What was your take, on watching the show and then hearing Matt describe his own reaction watching?
30:05 Tess Terrible: I hope the show was just utterly terrifying, but it was really quite informative to hear Matt give an expert’s take on Chernobyl. And he honestly made me feel more optimistic about nuclear power than I expected to feel.
30:24 Matthew Feeney: I felt the same way. I was rather pro‐nuclear before going in, so maybe that would have been a difficult position to knock me off because I know we’ve come a long way since Chernobyl. But I was not anticipating the just… Well, one, the beauty of the show, but also the constant emotion of dread and horror that runs throughout, even though a lot of the show is actually based in meetings and discussions among officials and scientists, which I think points to one of the most important overarching messages of the show which is, it’s about institutions, and not so much the science, but it’s about how institutions can fail and when those institutions prioritize PR over safety, or when they prioritize the perception of a nation over the lives of its citizens, you can get to some really tragic consequences.
31:18 Paul Matzko: I felt a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the initial conversation around the show. The show comes out, anyone who’s watched it is a fan. Whatever they think about the implications for nuclear energy today, it’s hard to find someone who’s watched it, who said, “That was a poorly made show,” because it’s astonishingly well made. I have been annoyed by the surface level discussion about the implications. There are some folks who watched it, and decided whether they wanted to say good things to the show, or bad things about the show, based upon whether or not it makes nuclear energy look good or bad. And so they then consult that with their priors and, “Well, if I think nuclear energy is a good thing, we need more of it. Then I’m going to boost the show and if I think it’s a bad thing, I’m going to neg the show on social media,” which is not the point of the show. I think your point about being about institutions primarily, and failures, institutional failures, and human bravery in the midst of those broken institutions, that’s the real point.
32:20 Paul Matzko: And Craig Mazin has been overt in interviews, and I think you’ve heard some of his podcasts that this was not a nuclear power parable, it was intentionally about institutions and that’s where he keeps the focus, I think, throughout the show. I appreciate that about it. I wish watchers were a little more sophisticated when it came to consuming content. Don’t check your artistic preferences, your aesthetic sensibilities based on what it means for your politics.
32:54 Matthew Feeney: What about the show, Tess, made you more pro nuclear by the end of it? [chuckle] It’s the worst nuclear disaster in history.
33:01 Tess Terrible: Well, I think, piggy backing off of what you all said, humans don’t have a technology problem. Technology has a human problem, and I use that analogy for nuclear energy, that this was really a story, not so much about nuclear energy, as much as it’s a human response to nuclear energy, human action and response to a global emergency and all the mistakes and pitfalls that happened along the way. And I think, if anything, the show teaches us that nuclear energy in the wrong hands is extremely dangerous, but in the right hands, can be a very powerful source for good and for more productive energy in the future. I know you guys got really invested in the science of it, but I was much more interested in the human decision‐making that was throughout the show.
34:05 Paul Matzko: Well, that moment where… What was it? They’re trying to get volunteers, I think, to be divers, and they say. “Look, we need folks to go down here and do this incredibly dangerous thing.” Everyone gets in the room that this might kill them or have serious health effects. “But we need to do this, why?” “Well, because every generation of Russians has some tragedy they have to suffer through for the sake of their society.” And some of the folks are like, “Okay I’ll do it. Will you at least take care of our families? Can you promise that, that you’ll take care of our families if we die?” He says, “No,” [chuckle] and they still do it. It really is a testament and I have not seen any criticism of that scene, that that is, there were worker after worker, whether the miners or the divers or whoever who responded in that way. This is the thing that needs to be done for my community, for people. And so even though this broken institution has inflicted this on me, I’m gonna do it anyways, because that’s what brave people do.
35:04 Matthew Feeney: I liked during our discussion with [35:07] ____, that he emphasized the obvious truth, but is nonetheless worth saying out loud which is, you can’t PR your way out of physics. And that everyone in the show who is immediately at the site, there’s none of this bullshitting [chuckle] going on and everyone is, “Okay, well, what are the numbers? What are we gonna have to do?” And cutting back to Moscow and to the apparatchiks and those discussion seem so removed. And I think helped emphasize the different objectives that two groups of people had, one was seemingly, we need to address the life‐threatening dangers here and now, and a lot of people further removed in the political sphere were more worried about how this was looking to the rest of the world.
35:53 Paul Matzko: No [35:53] ____ too, that this isn’t just a… It’s not just a parable about socialism or communism, though it does obviously, I think, has implications for a command economy in the communist system. But something similar happened in South Korea when there was that ferry disaster a few years ago, you had hundreds, literally, hundreds of high school students who… The ferry is sinking, is bit by bit… It was not a fast process, and they stayed in their rooms because the captain told them to and everyone was waiting for the next person higher in the chain of command to tell them what to do. Because they were more concerned with covering their rear ends than they were with doing the obvious logical thing right in front of them. This is not just true about the Soviet economy or a socialist system, it can be true of any other institutions that have this kind of top‐down deference to authority and a lack of openness to dissent and free thinking.
36:47 Tess Terrible: I am seeing multiple television shows right now with the theme “hindsight is 20–20”, not just television shows but a lot of film and television. There was the Theranos documentary and the Theranos podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and that disastrous company. There was the Fire Festival documentary, and I take that in the same vein of this Chernobyl, TV shows of this idea of toxic leadership in hindsight, is 20–20, and technology is ruthless. Like you said, physics and PR doesn’t really mix. And I think that’s a very interesting idea that we should look forward to exploring more and keep in the back of our minds as we’re exploring new technologies.
37:44 Matthew Feeney: That’s a really interesting observation. I hadn’t thought of Chernobyl in the context of the Fire Festival documentary and Theranos but also maybe adding the Bernie Madoff scheme into it all, because whenever I’ve watched any documentary or movie about Madoff or Holmes or the Fire Festival, Chernobyl, I always find myself thinking, there must be a point at which people think it’s impossible to save face. I just have to… Watching the Fire documentary in particular, I just thought, why wouldn’t you just say, “I’m sorry, [chuckle] this isn’t gonna work, I’m really sorry about this. We have to call it off.” Or with Theranos, it is embarrassing, it’s not great to say, “Look, this doesn’t work. I wish it did,” and all the rest of it. But Chernobyl, of course, the most deadly of any of these things, was… Still then, you had the engineer pushing this plant to breaking point, or into a situation it shouldn’t have been in for institutionally bad reasons, that it was a good signal for promotion, which seems like a disastrous system at the beginning.
38:45 Paul Matzko: Yeah, I suppose the consequences of a few thousand disappointed hipsters on an island eating ham and cheese sandwiches are not as bad as, yeah, [chuckle] Chernobyl. But I was struck with the Elizabeth Holmes comparison. One of the things that’s gone the viral about the Chernobyl show is the meme showing Dyatlov, the engineer. They tell him 3.6 roentgen, and he says, “Not great, not terrible.” And now there’s a whole series of memes, it’s like the new version of the dog in the fiery room saying, “This is fine.” I want one with Elizabeth Holmes holding up a blood sample being like, “Not great, not terrible.” [chuckle] One thing I can ask for from our listeners, please produce that meme, and I think that’s where we’ll end it, on that note. Thank you for listening, and until next week, be well.
39:37 Paul Matzko: Thanks for listening, Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Building Tomorrow, please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.