A new Science Channel exploration doesn’t give us any definitive answers on what caused a Soviet nuclear reactor to explode at Chernobyl in 1986.
But it plays with the idea of some provocative suspects, like the American CIA, and in any case, just strolling through the reactor site — which today looks like the set of The Walking Dead — makes for an offbeat and fascinating travel expedition.
Mysteries of the Abandoned: Chernobyl airs Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on Science. The hour-long program follows Philip Grossman, an American civil engineer and self-described obsessive about the Chernobyl disaster, as he pokes through the plant and the surrounding area for clues into what really happened on April 26, 1986.
What we know for sure is that Nuclear Reactor 4 exploded. At least 47 people died from the direct effects, many of them firefighters, and it’s estimated another 4,000 died in subsequent years from cancers caused by radiation exposure.
The radiation released in the explosion, Grossman notes, was greater than the radiation from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Soviets quickly evacuated the nearby city of Pripyat, population 50,000, and cordoned off a zone with a radius of 19 miles.
It remains largely a dead zone today, scarred with rusting machinery, shells of buildings and the general trappings of a place being reclaimed by nature.
While radiation levels have gradually subsided, they remain high and access is severely restricted. Grossman has been granted that access, to a seemingly remarkable extent, and one of the minor mysteries of the show is that he never explains how he got it.
Whatever the backstory, his mission here is to find clues about what caused the accident, which the Soviets officially attributed to “human error” once they got around to finally admitting there was a serious accident in the first place.
Pinpointing a possible cause turns out to be only the first step, however. Grossman soon expands his mission to interpreting clues about what was really going on at Chernobyl and in the immediate surrounding area.
The power plant was nominally just that: a means of generating large amounts of electrical energy for the everyday needs of a modern society.
Grossman soon notes that the plant has remarkably close physical proximity to a massive radar installation. Nominally this was for detection of incoming missiles, a serious concern during the Cold War, but he also finds evidence suggesting the installation had offensive capabilities.
That is, it could launch missiles, not just see them.
Grossman also visits a nearby manufacturing plant that ostensibly produced consumer goods like alarm clocks, but was built over a closed-off basement laboratory stocked with chemicals used in production of nuclear materials.
Grossman then connects these dots: possible missile launching site, production site for nuclear materials, massive nuclear power plant that could generate both civilian power and weapons-grade plutonium.
So what we might really have, he suggests, is a covert weapons installation, ready for activation in the event the Cold War turned hot.
That, he further suggests, might explain the shrouds the Soviets placed around all information about what went down at Chernobyl.
As for the cause of the explosion, Grossman says his reading of the evidence points more toward a design flaw than human error – and that’s where this Mysteries of the Abandoned takes its longest leap.
It’s possible, Grossman suggests, that the CIA sabotaged the plant – knowing it had military capability and therefore wanting to neutralize it.
The CIA admittedly tried to undermine Soviet technology during the Cold War by planting malware into its computer systems. Could that have happened here?
And if you really want to take the secret conspiracy theory to the limit, could Grossman have been granted seemingly unmonitored access to this site because he made it known to Russian authorities he was investigating a potential CIA connection?
Consistent with other productions in the Mysteries series, Chernobyl sometimes takes on a foreboding, melodramatic tone underscored by ominous music.
But once the viewer gets past that, and whether or not the viewer buys Grossman’s deductions about everything that went on, he finds plenty of intriguing information and takes us on a tour we’re unlikely to see anywhere else.