Episode #65: Chernobyl: A Preventable and Rare Accident from the Past or a Vivid Picture of Our Hellish Nuclear Future? (transcript)
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett and Brian's not here. This is the podcast where we ... usually we. Brian again abandoned me today. Where I, today, a lone savvy, will dive into a specific topic or question affecting everyone on the planet right now or in the next 10 years or so. If it can kill us or turn us into those lizards that can regrow their fucking tails, we are in. Our guests are scientists, doctors, engineers, politicians, astronauts, screenwriters and even a reverend. We work together towards action steps our listeners could take with their voice, their vote and their dollar. This is your friendly reminder that you can send questions, thoughts and feedback to us on Twitter at ImportantNotImp, or email us at FunTalk@ImportantNotImportant.com. You can also join thousands of other happy, smart people and subscribe to our free weekly newsletter at ImportantNotImportant.com.
Quinn: This week's episode is Chernobyl, a preventable and rare accident from the past or a vivid picture of our hellish nuclear future? Our guest is Craig Mazin. Craig is a screenwriter and podcaster in Los Angeles and he's created a new show on HBO about Chernobyl. Yeah, we've had some accidents but we've learned from them and today we're going to talk about how and why and what's coming up. It was a delight talking with Craig, so let's go do it.
Quinn: Our guest today is Craig Mazin and together we're going to ask, Chernobyl, a preventable and rare accident from the past or our hellish nuclear future? Craig, welcome.
Craig Mazin: Thank you, sir. That was the best possible intro I could have ever hoped for.
Quinn: You're welcome. Craig, this is a unique one for us because you're not, as far as I know, a nuclear scientist, but could you please tell us real quick who you are and what you do? Why you're here today?
Craig Mazin: Sure. I'm a screenwriter. I write movies and now television and I am the creator and sole writer and executive producer of Chernobyl, a five part miniseries that is arriving on HBO May 6th. I don't know when this airs.
Quinn: We're going to drop this on the day, today.
Craig Mazin: Gorgeous. So it's airing tonight on HBO here in the states and overseas on Sky in the United Kingdom on May 7th and around the world in various ways and outlets. So it is the story of the real life disaster that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986.
Quinn: Very exciting, very exciting. Probably the first time many Americans have heard of it, because that's what we do here.
Craig Mazin: I mean, I suspect that there are a lot of people who know the name Chernobyl and at least a little bit about it if not just because they were the appropriate age, but a younger generation came to know Chernobyl weirdly through a level on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare where you get sent to Pripyat, the abandoned town near the power plant.
Quinn: Oh, pleasant.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. I think we're going to be setting the record straight for a lot of people on a lot of different ways.
Quinn: Well, there's nobody better suited to do that. Okay, just to set us up, this is usually Brian's gig, but he fucking abandoned us.
Craig Mazin: Dick.
Quinn: I guess I will carry that cross. As a reminder to everyone and to you, because you don't listen to podcasts, much less ours-
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: Our goal every episode is to provide some quick context for the sort of question, topic at hand and then dig into some action oriented questions that get the heart of why we should give a shit about it and what everyone else out there can do about it.
Craig Mazin: Great. I'm excited about this. I think it's going to be helpful to set the record about a lot of this stuff, because I think there's confusion.
Quinn: Well besides the show, you also have your own podcast. When is that coming out? The one you're cheating on John with?
Craig Mazin: Right. I have my regular podcast with my podcast husband, John August. We do Scriptnotes which comes out once a week since I think the beginning of time.
Quinn: Beginning of time, yep.
Craig Mazin: Since the beginning of time, but I also have sort of an explainer podcast that's a companion piece to HBO, the miniseries. So after the episode first airs on HBO, there is going to be a podcast released immediately after available for everybody on download via the usual iTunes and so on's and so forth's that I do with Peter Sagal of NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. He's a very, very smart guy, and the two of us basically discuss the episode and it's a chance for me to help explain all the things about the episode that are true and then if there were any things that were changed because we just had to change some things to be able to tell the story, what we changed and why. In this way, we're kind of fully accountable for to history and for history.
Quinn: Yeah. I mean, if podcasts can't set it straight then what's the point?
Craig Mazin: Yeah. I mean, podcasts, what can't they do?
Quinn: Oh God. I always say my children are going to say, "You know, when the world was burning, what did you do?" And I'm going to say, "Kids, I had a podcast." They're going to be like, "God, we hate you."
Craig Mazin: Yeah, "Daddy talked about it into a microphone."
Quinn: "By himself with his robot [crosstalk 00:05:20]"
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: "He almost won a Webby." All right, so I couldn't be more excited to ask you ... We usually kick this thing off with one specific question for our guest which is usually more pertinent to their work, but this is just fantastic. So, Craig, instead of saying, "Tell us your entire life story," we like to ask, "Craig, why are you vital to the survival of the species?"
Craig Mazin: That's a great, great question. I'm not. I don't think any one individual person is. Sometimes we fall down a hole where we ... Because history is so good at telling individual stories, we begin to fetishize individuals as absolutely essential as absolutely essential to the survival of anything. I want to believe that without, say, Jonas Salk, a lot of us won't be here today, but I also think probably somebody else would've figured out the vaccine for polio, so there are very, very few people that I think are unique in a way that we can't afford to lose them. So my answer to you is I'm not. I am trying my best, however, to at least with this particular show, start to draw people's attention to the ultimate cost of playing games with truth and fetishizing narrative over truth.
Craig Mazin: So if that changes anyone's mind or influences anyone who will one day be a powerful person, then I suppose I've helped in some slight, tiny way, but otherwise I am merely one more blip inside of this very large and occasionally exciting computer simulation we call reality.
Quinn: So happy you finished with simulation. It's got to be at this point, right?
Craig Mazin: No question, no question. Yeah, no question.
Quinn: Do you think that John existed before it began? Was he plugged in at the beginning?
Craig Mazin: I'm not sure that John exists now.
Quinn: Great counterpoint.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. I mean, John may be running the whole thing. It's hard to say. He could be just a bot. In other words, John may be the computer simulation of an NPC, and so it's hard to tell.
Quinn: God, I feel like we could do a whole episode just on this.
Craig Mazin: Probably should.
Quinn: All right, so listen. So that we can get to the question at hand and then get looking forward action stuff, I want to just provide a little context but I also want to plot this out correct in a storytelling fashion so that we can have some important contextual perspective focus on these things later, because the question is really, is will nuclear power kill us all, right?
Craig Mazin: Sure.
Quinn: And the timing of your show is, as we mentioned offline, really interesting because, A, well it's important to tell the story anyways, and B, because we're having a whole lot of conversations about how are we going to, in the cleanest, safest way possible, power the future.
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: Or we're toast. So let's just talk quickly about a little history. Please jump in, correct me. Honestly, hang up, whatever floats your boat. Just want to get everyone on the same page because they're all texting and driving and they don't have time to Wikipedia this shit.
Craig Mazin: Go for it.
Quinn: We have gone through a shit load of ways to produce electricity throughout history, right? Much of which thanks to my man Faraday. So, various forms of water, wind, thermal, biomass, coal, gas, oil, nuclear, sun. In 1986 we were using most of these with obviously different proportional breakdowns. Mostly fossil fuels, but nuclear's really taken off. Nuclear power, I think, probably most people don't ... Actually, you know what, Craig? Why don't you tell us how a nuclear power plant works in three sentences or less. Go.
Craig Mazin: Sure. No problem. It works just like a regular coal plant. It turns water into steam. The steam turns the turbine. The turbine generates electricity. The big difference is that a nuclear power plant uses nuclear fission which is the splitting of many, many, many atoms. In the case of Chernobyl, uranium atoms, and the splitting of those atoms releases a lot of heat. That heat is what turns the water to steam.
Quinn: Easy, right?
Craig Mazin: Easy, yep.
Quinn: It doesn't sound hellish or apocalyptic in any way, and obviously this all came out of various efforts to split the atom and things like that, and it really took off, right? The first nuclear plant was in Russia in the mid '50s, I believe. England shortly after, the US shortly after that, and everybody got on the fucking atomic train. I think there are 31 countries either currently or has used nuclear power in some way. The US produces the most but I think France uses the greatest share for their energy. It's a shit load.
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: Some countries have already fazed it out like Italy. Some big countries are planning on fazing them out, which we'll get into reasons why there. Some folks are kicking their programs back into gear. Lots of the existing reactors are old or using older technology. There is new technology and standards perpetually on the fucking horizon but whether they'll get used is kind of what we're talking about today and going forward. So, Chernobyl was a power plant in Ukraine which is formerly USSR 80 miles north of Kiev about?
Craig Mazin: Yeah, about that.
Quinn: Okay. How many people were in Kiev at the time?
Craig Mazin: Kiev, over a million, I'm pretty sure.
Quinn: Right. Close by, there were a couple small towns, right?
Craig Mazin: Right next to Chernobyl was the town called Pripyat which, it was a ... They called them [foreign language 00:10:54]. They were atom towns. They were built essentially to support the construction and then operation of the power plant. So it was about 50,000 people living in what is like perfectly defined as a factory town, but what was interesting about that town and all the [foreign language 00:11:09] is they were quite nice. They were considered very privileged places to live. Their stores had stuff in them. There were flowers in the streets. The town of Pripyat, people may be familiar with the famous image of the Pripyat Ferris wheel which was due to open just a few days after Chernobyl exploded. Obviously never was.
Craig Mazin: To have a Ferris wheel in your little town, to have a large swimming pool in your little town, I mean, they were really well taken care of. Most of the people in the town did not work at the power plant. They supported the people who worked at the power plant. So they didn't quite know what was happening in the power plant. They were just happy to live in this town.
Craig Mazin: Yeah.
Quinn: Interesting, and so how many people in that town?
Craig Mazin: About 50,000.
Quinn: Okay, great. So, '86, we're going to get into this in more detail. There's an accident by way of human error, Chernobyl explodes. We'll get into more details, again, later. Seen as not great. As the show so perfectly notes, this is something that has never happened on earth before. But also, for context, this wasn't the only nuclear accident that's ever happened. There's been about 100 others of varying degrees of danger. How deadly were they? WE will get into that.
Quinn: So, with that for just a little bit of pretty poorly put together context, let's focus on the question, right? Chernobyl. Is it a preventable and rare accident from the past like many of these others or are we painting a picture of a hellish nuclear future where all of our skin just peels off? Craig, go ahead. What were you going to say?
Craig Mazin: Well, you can't have Chernobyl again. That's what I'll say. You can't have that accident ever again.
Quinn: Well, and that's why I want to get into that, because I'm curious what we've learned for it and how we've applied it, if at all. So, I want to skip to almost the end for a major piece of this contextual puzzle. How many people died in the immediate Chernobyl accident?
Craig Mazin: Well, that's the question. In the immediate Chernobyl ... You mean the night of and maybe the first few weeks following?
Quinn: Yeah, let's say the first couple weeks. Night of, first couple weeks.
Craig Mazin: Depending on how you define it, between 30 and 50.
Quinn: Okay, and how many are estimated to have died from the byproduct of the accident? I know there have been huge ranges from Greenpeace-
Craig Mazin: Yeah, correct.
Quinn: To Union of Concerned Scientists.
Craig Mazin: Yes. The more hardcore scientific community will push that number way, way down to around 4,000 or so, although you do have some scientists who put it more in the 40,000 or 50,000 range. You have some organizations that push it as high as a million. The problem is they're all using models. You're using models and you're using models based on data that is somewhat questionable because it's data from behind the iron curtain and a lot of information just simply wasn't reported, and they have to estimate, and what they're estimating is did this kill you? Did it maybe shorten your life? What percentage of your death was brought about by Chernobyl as opposed to the fact that you smoked a lot or that you drank a lot?
Craig Mazin: This is really hard to figure out. I think it's fair to say that Chernobyl had a very serious impact on the health of a lot of people and it killed people, certainly, and the point of the show isn't, "Oh my God, look at all these people who died." The point of the show is, first of all, look how many more people would have died had there not been some seriously heroic action taken, and also why did this happen and what can we do to prevent the human part of this equation from infecting other aspects of our lives now?
Quinn: Right. So, we don't want to minimize those that did die or the great work that was done that was, like you said, heroic work, from turning into a truly fucking apocalyptic nightmare. I mean, I was lucky to see the first two episodes. The end of episode two was really enough to make me question my history. I mean, you sit there going, "How the fuck are they going to get out of this?" I don't mean just those guys. I mean, everyone, right?
Craig Mazin: Yeah, yeah.
Quinn: The point is, and what I want to operate on, and I know you believe in this too, so when we ask big questions, when we're making big plans, what's the true accounting of nuclear powers past and what's the potential future we have to operate from as many facts as we have? And like you said, the most rational models we have, from reason, from logic, from first principles, right? The most fundamental, basic elements of a system. Why it exists, why it works the way it does, why it doesn't. So let's talk about the show, and you've mentioned this a little bit. I've only seen two episodes. I don't want to give anything away, but you, about literally as early and up front as possible, tell us, the audience, quite directly that this is a show about truth and why the truth matters. Do you actually have that line there, that voice over, if you don't mind giving it away?
Craig Mazin: Just lying around as an audio clip?
Quinn: No, no, no. I just mean-
Craig Mazin: Oh, just what it is.
Quinn: It stuck with me so quickly and told us what the show was going to be about.
Craig Mazin: Sure, the very first line is, "What is the cost of lies?" And that is what this show is about. Look, we're going to talk about nuclear power and how it functions and I hope we get into the specifics of why Chernobyl exploded here and why it can't happen, for instance, in the United States, but what can happen here and what is happening here is a general debasement of truth, a kind of engagement in outrageous denialism and it is going to hurt us. It will. That is a debt that will come due, and we will pay it.
Quinn: So, that line and your perspective is obviously both very timely and striking but also foreboding for the show, right? This isn't just a straight disaster story. When is a fire not a fire? From whose perspective? And whose perspective matters? Do you think you would've taken the same angle if you'd written this 10 years ago? Why was it important for you to do it this way and to be so blunt?
Craig Mazin: I don't think I ever would have written it any other way because I have no interest in writing a straight up disaster movie. I don't even like watching disaster movies. I find them a bit boring. I love Titanic because Titanic is a love story, do you know what I mean? I was fine with the kind of explanation ... Actually more than fine. I really loved and enjoyed the explanation of exactly how and why the Titanic sank, but that's the kind of thing I get just as well from a documentary. But movies or stories that are really just about, "Oh my God," kaboom and ka-crash, I don't care. I am so much more interested in the foibles of humanity and also the heights and these amazing noble moments that humanity can produce, and so the only thing that I found truly compelling about Chernobyl was all the things that happened after it exploded, at least from a dramatic point of view.
Craig Mazin: From a scientific and sort of documentary point of view, I was completely obsessed with the science of why Chernobyl exploded and frankly the more I understood, the better I felt oddly and ironically about nuclear power here, because I now know just how hard it is to make a nuclear power plant explode.
Quinn: And you emphasize that over and over in the first two episodes. It's people going, "That's not fucking possible."
Craig Mazin: It's not.
Quinn: And a guy with his eyes coming out of his head and his nose peeling off going, "Well, it happened."
Craig Mazin: Yeah, and by the way, that's partly ... That is part of the reason why some of this denial occurred. I mean, some of it occurred because humans will deny to protect their minds and their sanity, but sometimes we deny because, well, it's rational to deny. If I came and told you, "Listen, there's a huge problem. There are ghosts at Ralph's. Do not go in that Ralph's. There are ghosts," you would say, "No, there aren't, because they're not real." Well, to the men in that control room in the early hours of April 26th, 1986, an RBMK nuclear reactor was simply incapable of exploding. That was not something it could do, and so anyone coming in and saying it exploded was just somebody who had misunderstood. They had walked through the wrong smoke filled hallway and seen the wrong thing, and no, it's just simply not possible. But there were people who understood that it was possible and that information had been concealed for quite some time.
Quinn: So, let's get into it. Let's talk about why the accident happened. Not just the actions that were taken but why Chernobyl specifically failed. Let's talk about that and then we'll get into actually how the Russians, at that time at least, built their reactors differently from the rest of the world.
Craig Mazin: Okay, sure.
Quinn: Talk to me about the night of.
Craig Mazin: The two things kind of go hand in hand, but the night of the accident, they were running a safety test which is ironic in and of itself. The purpose of the safety test was to figure out how to handle a loss of power to the power plant itself, and this had its roots in the Israelis had attacked a nuclear reactor ... Oh God, I want to say it was in Syria, possibly Libya. I think Syria, and they had attacked it because the nuclear reactor, they were concerned, was really more of a breeding reactor for plutonium to create nuclear weapons and in the bombing of that, the Soviets became concerned that the Israelis, as American allies, could be used to start blowing up Soviet infrastructure. The Soviets relied very heavily on nuclear power.
Craig Mazin: So what happens if a nuclear power plant loses power? Well, the most important function of power inside of a nuclear power plant is to keep pumps running, because pumps are moving water through the reactor core, and remember, like we said before, in the reactor core, you have atoms that are falling apart, fracturing, fissioning, and it's releasing all this heat. Well, that's why we move water through the core, because it absorbs the heat, it turns to steam, the steam turns a thing, you make ... But if there's no water, then there's potential for the fuel to overheat and begin to melt the cladding that holds it together and we call that a meltdown, right? The fuel begins to melt. It is no longer a controllable reaction. It can go down and cause all sorts of problems, plus permanently damage the plan.
Craig Mazin: So, like any reasonable construction, they put in backup generators. If they love power to the plant, the backup generators come on so that the pumps can keep running. The problem was that the Soviets, in their wisdom, had installed these enormous diesel generators that took about a minute to get going and create power themselves. So if you lose power at the Chernobyl power plant, which is an enormous power plant, and each reactor is an enormous reactor, way bigger than the ones we use, there's going to be a minute where nothing's moving through the core and that was a problem.
Craig Mazin: Now, by the way, I'm going to stop for a second and point out that they knew this before they built the damn thing. They knew it. They built it anyway, and in a very Soviet way, kept asking the man who ran the plant to certify that the safety test had been done to circumvent that problem, and he kept not being able to and they kept demanding it, but everyone understood they were doing a dance, which was, "We've given you something that doesn't work. We're requiring that you make it work."
Craig Mazin: So they came up with what I think is one of the craziest ideas ever. Their theory was, look, we've got this turbine. It's spinning, right? Making electricity. Now let's say we lose power to the power plant. Something goes wrong. There's no power. Well, that turbine is going to spin for a while. It's going to have to slow down. It doesn't just immediately stop. It spins and while it's spinning, even though it's slowing down, it's still creating electrical power. So what if the second you lose power, you turn on your backup generators, there's a clock going. You've got a minute. Okay, what can we do to fill that minute? Let's take the electricity coming from the slowing down turbine and route it back over to the pumps to keep them running until the diesel generators are generating enough electricity to keep the pumps running.
Craig Mazin: Basically let's just try and catch ourselves while we're falling. This is not at all the way any ... I mean, this is a terrible ... The fact is, by the way, they never successfully managed to run the test, ever. It is a terrible plan. You should never put a nuclear reactor into service with this kind of glaring fault and then try these kind of weird jury-rigged attempts to patchwork a solution, but what's really curious is that somehow in trying to this that night, they managed to blow the whole thing up. I'm happy to go into how that happened as well, but before we can do that [crosstalk 00:25:18]
Quinn: Yeah, please, go.
Craig Mazin: We have to talk about how that reactor worked, because what happens after only happens in a way because of the way that reactor worked.
Quinn: And I'm so bummed, one of my best friends is the XO on a nuclear submarine and for years was the engineer and responsible with their reactor. His father was also a nuclear engineer and was going to join us today and couldn't, but when I said, "Hey man, did you study Chernobyl?" It was just a long, deep sigh, and he was just like, "Those fucking idiots." So anyways, yeah, I've been briefed but let's do this.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, there's a long history behind this. The Soviets had two competing schools of thought about the generation of nuclear power, and the one that won out was something called the RBMK. The reason it won out is because you could generate power much more cheaply. So, in general, when we talk about how nuclear power is generated in the west, what we use are pressurized water reactors. Typically in our country the way it works is essentially you've got water moving through these pressurized tubes that are kept separate, by the way, from anything radioactive.
Quinn: As you do.
Craig Mazin: And the heat is transferred through a loop to these ... to water that is turned to steam, but because of the nature of the enrichment of our fuel and the way we have created these systems, we can use the water as a moderator. It is coolant and moderator. What is a moderator? So, we talked a little bit about fission, right? So you've got uranium 235 is unstable. It wants to get rid of neutrons, so a neutron will fly off of it and perhaps it will hit another atom of uranium. Perhaps uranium 238, and in doing so, blow it apart. Now you've got lots of neutrons flying out and those are going to hit other atoms, and if you put enough uranium next to each other that is reactive in this way, you reach a mass of uranium that's enough to sustain a chain reaction. This is called the critical mass.
Craig Mazin: But these neutrons are moving incredibly fast, like the speed of light. So you have to slow them down a little bit to increase the chance that they're going to hit anything, otherwise they just keep shooting by everything. So this is what a moderator is, and most people, most people in the West, pretty much everybody now, uses water as a coolant and a moderator. What it means is that the water is the thing that's actually kind of slowing down the neutrons enough so that the reactivity can go up and the heat can be generated, and then the water is turned to steam. Steam is not as good of a moderator as water is in that kind of reactor, in our kind.
Craig Mazin: So what that means is the hotter the reactor gets, the less moderation there is, which means the less reactive it is. This is good. This is what you want. You want a reactor that kind of regulates itself, right? If you burn away all that water, the reactivity's going to want to go down. Great. Now let's talk about what the Soviets did and only the Soviets. No one else ever, ever built this kind of reactor, because it's insane. It's just inherently insane. So, they say, "Look, if you want to make a pressurized water reactor and use water as coolant and moderator, you're going to have to use some heavy water which is ... We don't have to get into that but it's expensive and hard to make, or you have to use more enriched uranium in your fuel. Like 3% enriched, meaning U235 as opposed to U238.
Craig Mazin: We would rather not do that. We'd rather use less because we don't have a lot of it, plus also it would be super great if our reactor were set up in such a way that it would also produce some plutonium for our weapons program and also we want to make it huge. In fact, we want to make it so big that it'll be too expensive to cover it in a containment building. So they come up with this thing called RBMK and here's how it works.
Craig Mazin: In an RBMK reactor, you're using uranium 235 just like ours but less of it, and because there's less of it, you need to moderate it far more aggressively. In fact, you have to have a permanent moderation in place with graphite. So graphite is a form of carbon. Graphite is a very good neutron moderator. So now you have these fuel rods fixed in position with and surrounded by graphite which is constantly moderating the reaction. In other words the moderation is always there. There is no way to slow that down or up. Water is less of a moderator than graphite in this situation. Also in this situation, the water is in direct contact with the radioactive material and radiated graphite. So the water itself is radiated which is a different and additional problem.
Craig Mazin: But in that system, what happens is in nuclear physics, steam is called a void. So you have liquid and then you have the absence of liquid is a void, and we talk about coefficients and a coefficient is anything that enhances or detracts from the ability for a reaction to go on. In an RBMK nuclear reactor, because graphite is there and constantly moderating, in fact when water boils and turns to steam and creates a void, it's easier for the graphite to moderate the reaction, in which case you end up with a positive void coefficient, meaning the hotter the reactor gets, the hotter the water gets, the more it turns to steam, which means the hotter the reactor gets, which means the more water turns to steam. This is terrible.
Craig Mazin: Now, you can get away with a very low ... If you have a very low positive void coefficient, there's a way to manage it and in fact in Canada they do use a kind of reactor called a CANDU reactor which does have I think a very slightly high positive void coefficient but the way they designed it, it doesn't matter. It's fine. It's never going to have the problem that Chernobyl had. Chernobyl had a massive positive void coefficient. It wanted to go faster. Basically when you press the gas, the gas pedal went down a little bit more.
Craig Mazin: Now, there are ways to control this, of course. In every kind of reactor, you have control rods. Control rods are made of neutron absorbers. In the case of Chernobyl, they were made of Boron and so the operators moved these control rods deeper into the core and then removed them somewhat in a way to kind of put a bullet proof vest between all the neutrons. So you control the reaction with this, but it was a very unstable reactor, particularly at low power, and we can ... I don't want to get too much into the weeds of why that is, but suffice to say that the reactor had inherent issues. Everything I just told you, the positive void coefficient, the fact that the power wanted to go up, generally speaking at these things, the fact that there was no containment building whatsoever around these reactors, these were all known by everyone in the industry including the people in the control room. I haven't gotten to the part about the things they didn't know. So ...
Quinn: You're doing a hell of a job here.
Craig Mazin: Thank you. So we arrive at the night of the safety test and the idea was that they were going to ... stop me if you have any questions so far.
Quinn: One quick question again, just for context, how long has Chernobyl been up and running at this point, when we get to the night of?
Craig Mazin: Sure. I believe at that point it had been just about two ... a little over two years.
Quinn: have they run this test before?
Craig Mazin: Four times, I believe.
Quinn: Okay, let's do it.
Craig Mazin: Yes, I believe they had tried it three or four times before. I can't remember. I have it in the show. I can't remember which one it is, but each time they had failed, and they'd failed because it's really hard to do and it's really hard to do because you're not supposed to be doing it. It's one of those things where you're like, "Okay, this increasingly complicated workaround is not working. Let's make it slightly more complicated. Let's try again." You know, people's promotions were hinged on this and this is the hard thing. When you deal with a system like the Soviet Union which was so regimented and ... you could not move up unless you pleased party bosses, and one of the ways that you could please your party bosses was by getting this stupid test done, and just having the piece of paper that says, "Hooray, we did it."
Quinn: I think you actually do, in just what I've seen, a pretty great job illustrating that system and how it even comes into play that night three hours later.
Craig Mazin: No question, no question. So they are going to try this experiment, and in the experiment, what they do is they reduce power to simulate a blackout condition. The reactor, reactor number four at Chernobyl, would normally run at around 3,200 megawatts. That's the amount of energy it's putting out. They're going to slow that reaction down to get it to output about 700 megawatts. They're trying to basically get it to sort of a state that represents what would happen if power had been reduced. They can't go much lower than that because they know that this particular reactor is really unstable and low temperatures. Why? Again, this is a terrible reactor design.
Craig Mazin: So in that reactor, there was also something called the negative temperature coefficient. It was the one thing that could kind of help you out during normal operation. The hotter the fuel got, the less reactive it got. Remember we were saying you need to slow down these neutrons to make sure the collisions occur? Well, heat essentially is a function of atomic motion. When things get hotter, it means the atoms are moving around faster. So the hotter it got, the slightly less reactive it would get, but when you would drop down in power output and the reactivity went down, the fuel would begin to cool and that would make the reactivity start to go back up.
Craig Mazin: So really this reactor is fighting you all the time. It's not what you want.
Quinn: That's not ... Yeah.
Craig Mazin: It's not good. But that was the plan. The plan was lower it down to approximately 700 to 1,000 megawatts and then essentially go through the process of let's turn off the pumps, let's check how much electricity is coming out from the turbine as it spins down. Once we know that, let's get everything back on again and we'll be fine. That was supposed to be done on April 25th. However, just about ... and they'd lowered the power slowly. You have to lower the power very slowly in this reactor, just like you have to raise the power very slowly. It's about 24 hours, is what you want to go from all the way on to all the way off or vice versa.
Quinn: Yeah, you're not going to jack this thing up to 11.
Craig Mazin: No, and you can't move it quickly. If you try and move this thing quickly, it's going to fight you and it's going to do bad things.
Quinn: In either direction.
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Craig Mazin: So they had slowly lowered the power from 3,200 to 1,600, so they lowered it by half, and they had done that over the course of almost a day, and now it was in the middle of the day of April 25th and they were about ready to go ahead and lower it down again to around 700 and start the test but they get a call from the grid controller in Kiev who says, "Yes, I've received this memo that you're going to be reducing power from reactor four and thus reducing power for this entire region and you can't."
Craig Mazin: Now, why? There is some speculation that because of the date, it was April 25th, it was near the end of the month. In the Soviet system, production quotas ruled the day and just like you and I are writers and we know how it is, your page output tends to rise the closer you get to your deadline. I think probably worked a little bit like that in the factories.
Quinn: Just as dangerous.
Craig Mazin: Yes, they needed to jam out stuff in that last week of April to make sure they hit their quotas, and if you lose power and you have to shut factories down, this is just not going to happen. So they said you have to wait. You can lower the power in the middle of the night but you can't do it now. This was where they should've stopped but they didn't. Why? By the way, everything I'm telling you now is happening in episode five.
Quinn: Perfect. Great, great, great.
Craig Mazin: It's much more interesting to watch this in episode five.
Quinn: No, I'm sure, but I appreciate you ... Because again, I don't think most Americans know what it is unless they either studied it or they're older or they played Call of Duty, much less what fucking happened and why all the leaves are gone off the trees for 200 years.
Craig Mazin: Yes, exactly. So, this is a huge ... Why is this a [inaudible 00:38:36] ... So what they do is they decide, "You know what? No problem. We'll do it at night. We'll just hold the power right here so we don't have to ... Because if we don't, we have to do a whole nother 24 hours and we'll be in the middle of a day again, so let's just keep the power right here at 1,600 and then once we pass midnight and the night crew comes in, then we'll lower it back down and we'll go from there."
Craig Mazin: So here's the problem. In this reactor as these atoms are fissioning, they are turning into different elements. This is called decay. So you have a uranium atom and it smashes apart and it turns into smaller atoms and those are isotopes like for instance you get iodine isotopes and caesium isotopes and ruthenium isotopes. One of the major isotope byproducts of uranium decay in this reactor was xenon. I've become British because of the show.
Quinn: Yeah, no, please.
Craig Mazin: Let's call it xenon like Americans. One of the interesting properties of this isotope of xenon is that it's actually a very good neutron absorber. It wants to kind of soak up neutrons to become stabile, which means that if you have a lot of it in your core, it's going to start reducing your reactivity because it's absorbing neutrons just like the control rods do. If there's too much of it, then what happens is your core is what they call poisoned. Normally in regular operation at 3,200 megawatts in that reactor, as the xenon is created, it kind of is decaying down itself because of the speed of the reactivity. There's enough neutrons breaking off to kind of fill up the xenon, calm it down and then it turns into other things.
Craig Mazin: But when you're running it low power in this reactor, the xenon isn't decaying fast enough because not enough neutrons are being fired out and as it does this, it starts to poison or draw or pull down ... The reactor wants to slow down, so we arrive now ... Finally they're able to do the test. It's not a little bit after midnight. Because it's after midnight, there is a shift change. So the team in that room was not trained in running this test. They were not the ones who were supposed to run the test. They had never run the test before. In fact, they were looking at a book with instructions, some of which were crossed out. They didn't know why. They called another control room and asked them what they were supposed to do about those, and the person in the other control room said, "Oh, I think you're supposed to do the ones that are crossed out." So that's what we're dealing with.
Quinn: Jesus Christ.
Craig Mazin: The engineer who was operating the control rods, meaning essentially operating the gas and the brake, was a man named Leonid Telyatnikov who was in his early 20s. He had been on the job for about four months. Not exactly who you want doing this incredibly complicated task. It would've been complicated for anybody but in this particular reactor, this thing is a ... It's just an unbroken bronco of a reactor, but they begin, and their task is to now lower the reactor to 700 megawatts. What they find very quickly is it's going down too much. What they don't know or suspect until I think that happens is that the core has been poisoned. There's too much xenon in there because of the time delay.
Craig Mazin: So the reactor, instead of going down to 700 as they were hoping actually goes a bit further. It goes somewhat into the 500s and that is not acceptable because there are parameters for this test. So the man in charge of the room named Anatoly Dyatlov orders them to raise the power from 500 to 700. The way the attempt to do this is by switching the way they operate the control rods. There are two ways to do it. One is to use local groups of control rods. That's the way you want to generally do it, because the reactor, again, is enormous. So, it's sort of like, okay, let's move a cluster of control rods over here. Let's move a cluster over here. We're not going to move them all up and down. Let's just try and make slight adjustments as we can, and when we're using that system, we're also getting temperature and reactivity readings from various parts of the reactor, because reactors aren't perfectly, evenly reactive across their cross section.
Craig Mazin: The problem is when you're trying to raise power very quickly in a core that has been poisoned, it's going to be very hard to do with minor adjustments. So they make the decision to switch off of local automatic control and go to global control where they can move all of them up and down at the same time, and they do this but in doing this, either Toptunov makes a terrible mistake in how he inputs the parameter or the device itself was, I don't know, malfunctioning. Instead of raising the power, it plummets. All the control rods go in too far and the power drops essentially to zero. I think it hovers around 30 megawatts, which is like, you know, when your stove is barely flickering.
Craig Mazin: Now at this point, I hope everyone is wondering how the hell this is leading to an explosion, for everything we've heard here is that this reactor is basically shutting off and at this point with your reactor at essentially 30 megawatts installed full, full of xenon, full of poison-
Quinn: Right, the word poison is just what's really getting me going here.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. You have to stop. Every rule they had said you have to stop and then shut it all the way down and then wait 24 hours for everything in there like xenon to decay away and to less harmful atoms, and then slowly bring the power back up again using the tried and true methods they had always used to do things somewhat safely especially in the reactor like this. That is not what Dyatlov suggest they do, and by suggest, I mean commands. He says, "I want you to raise the power. I want to do this test tonight." If Dyatlov reports a positive test then his boss's boss will get promoted, his boss will get promoted, he will get promoted. He wants to do it.
Craig Mazin: So he tells them, "I need you to raise that power. I'm ordering you to raise the power." There's a pro test. It fails, and so they only have one way to raise the power at this point. They can't run the tests if the reactor's off. They need to get it as close to 700 as they can. The only thing they can do is start raising control rods or removing control rods from the reactor, and so they do. They removed almost all of them, literally. Almost all of them. These are the only things really that keep the reaction from stopping. These are the bullet proof vests. They're all out, and even then, the amount of xenon in there, the best they can do is get this reactor to put 200 megawatts out, which is not enough for the test.
Quinn: Right. Jesus.
Craig Mazin: They've cut the brakes on the car, okay? Cut the brakes.
Quinn: And yet he still thinks that there's a chance.
Craig Mazin: He says, "Let's run the test," because, again, he just wants ... In his mind he's like, "I'm going to do this." It doesn't matter if the results are completely invalid, which they would've been. He's trying to get his paper done.
Quinn: For mine and everyone else's context when they're going to watch it tonight, is this the gentleman running the control room when the show begins?
Craig Mazin: Yes.
Quinn: Okay, got it.
Craig Mazin: That's correct.
Quinn: [crosstalk 00:46:33] Yeah, that guy's great.
Craig Mazin: Paul Ritter, the actor, is tremendous. So they begin the test and they're dealing with all sorts of problems, by the way. The flow of water versus steam is all out of whack. Nothing is right. Everything is wrong. They begin the test and when they begin the test, they follow the protocol, they shut the pumps off, the water stops moving through the core and once that happens the amount of water that's in there, well, it starts turning to steam and what do we know about [crosstalk 00:47:08]
Quinn: What have we learned today, kids?
Craig Mazin: That in an RBMK nuclear reactor, steam is a positive void coefficient. It means it's going to increase reactivity which is going to increase heat which is going to increase steam which is going to increase reactivity and what do we know about the graphite? It is in there. It's not going anywhere, so it's moderating things and now the power begins to rise and it begins to rise rapidly in a kind of vicious cycle. But, when they see this, they at least know they can hit the emergency button. So in every nuclear reactor, there is a button that scrams the reactor. Scram just means all the control rods go in at once, really fast, ideally, and the reaction goes to zero. It's unplugging your computer basically, is what it is.
Quinn: Sure, sure, sure.
Craig Mazin: Couple of problems with that. This is why we have Chernobyl.
Quinn: Right, this is where TV show exists.
Craig Mazin: Yes. The Soviets did not install an emergency shutdown system the way anybody in the West had. Instead of a system that would quickly drop the control rods into place, they would sort of be lowered slowly by servos so it would take a very long time for them to get in there. That's not what you want, but even worse, because ... Remember, this all goes back to cheap, the more enriched fuel you have, the easier it is for you to maintain a chain reaction. Uranium 235 is very rare. This is why it's hard to do these things. I mean, you pointed out all these nations that have nuclear power. There are many, many nations, most nations that don't, because it's hard. It involves precious resources. For the Soviets-
Quinn: It's incredibly expensive.
Craig Mazin: It's incredibly expensive. 3% enrichment is what you need to create an efficiently running, safe reactor as far as I can tell. At least that is the way we do it generally speaking in the west. Here you have less. You have 2% which is quite a bit less, and so you need to figure out ways to keep this thing running, because it's just not that enriched. That's why they pack this thing with graphite. They went a step further. They know that when they're moving these control rods up and down, the control rods are going to displace water and they would rather that that displacement not just happen with nothing. They want a little bit extra graphite on there just to keep that reaction as efficient as possible.
Craig Mazin: So they're control rods. The things that were designed to slow the reaction down, those rods had tips on them and the tips were graphite, which speeds the reaction up. Now these guys in their efforts to get this reactor that didn't want to work from 20 megawatts to 200 megawatts, they had pulled these control rods all the way out. All the way out. So when they hit the emergency button to shut this thing down, the control rods slowly start moving in. The first thing that goes into that reactor is not boron which slows down and stops a reaction. It's graphite, speeds it up.
Craig Mazin: So now you have these channels. These channels are designed for water and fuel and they are surrounded by graphite. The water's all gone. It's all vapor now. Very pressurized steam, which is accelerating the reaction. Graphite around it is accelerating the reaction and then these control rod tips come in and they accelerate it even more. At that point you have a number of these fuel channels that rupture because the pressure of the steam is so intense at this point, all of the vapor has been ... Every water molecule is now vapor and it blows a few of those fuel channels apart, and when it blows them apart, the control rods get stuck.
Craig Mazin: They get stuck with the graphite in place and now you basically have a blowtorch on a pile of gasoline rags and there's nothing at this point anyone can do because they've pressed the last button they have, and that button was the worst thing to press of all, although they didn't know, and in this situation, the whole reactor starts to boil up and becomes this enormous pressure cooker and the power, which was ... Remember, this test was supposed to be running at, what, 700 megawatts? And normally it runs at 3,200. The power goes to about 33,000.
Quinn: Oh no, that's unfortunate.
Craig Mazin: And the pressure of the steam can no longer be maintained. It blows the lid off. Oxygen rushes in. It mixes with hydrogen. It mixes with super heated graphite and there is an explosion which the Swedes now believe was a small nuclear explosion, and a huge amount of the core material is ejected upwards into the air nearly a mile high, and you have Chernobyl. None of this can happen in the West. None of it.
Quinn: So you have taken us up to ... basically jumped us to the seven minute point in episode one when somebody looks out their window and goes, "That's weird."
Craig Mazin: Yeah.
Quinn: Thank you for that, because obviously you've spent years of your life learning and processing and turning that all into a story and probably being flabbergasted by the entire thing over and over as anyone would be.
Craig Mazin: Yes.
Quinn: So, huge explosion. Wasn't supposed to physically be able to happen.
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: Decisions were made, mistakes were made. Poor planning, poor procedures, poor decision making were endemic to the culture to this specific situation, right?
Craig Mazin: Yes.
Quinn: From top to bottom and the show obviously gets into this. Lies were told. Numbers were covered up in the name of power, in the name of the party. People died. So many more suffered. Hopefully never happens at least like this again, right? An entirely unique cluster fuck that could've been so much worse. I guess briefly, what were the lessons learned from Chernobyl and did the Russians learn any of those lessons?
Craig Mazin: They did. The Soviets, remember, they revered their scientists. I mean, the Soviet Union, if they could say one thing new for instance that at some level ... Their people were living in depravation, at least a lot of them. They knew that Stalin himself had caused a holocaust of a famine in Ukraine. They knew that their stores would run out of stuff. They knew these things, but what they also knew were that they were the first to get a man into space. They were the first to put a satellite out there. They were the first to have nuclear power. They built this. Their scientists were ... and in the Soviet Union, religion had been removed from the equation, and I'm about as atheistic as you can be as a human being, but I don't extend my atheism merely to notions of God. I extend it also to notions of science in the sense that I don't want to ever elevate anything to a kind of blind faith religious ... I mean, science should never be that. But in the Soviet Union [crosstalk 00:54:45]
Quinn: No, that's why we have a place for skeptics, right?
Craig Mazin: Correct. In the Soviet Union the science community was kind of elevated into an almost quasi-religious status and they had kind of flim-flammed their way through some of this stuff, including these reactors which they insisted were perfect and that there could not be a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union with Soviet nuclear technology even though they had already had so many nuclear accidents including a terrible one in the '50s at a place called Mayak, and they knew, by the way, that their design was inherently flawed. They knew that under certain circumstances ... This had already happened. Chernobyl had almost already happened before at a similar reactor in Leningrad, and they knew why, and they classified it, and they wouldn't tell anyone because it was too embarrassing and because it violated the narrative that they told.
Craig Mazin: Look, here's the big thing. This cannot happen in the West. The important thing I want people to understand about Chernobyl is that this is no more an anti-nuclear power show than Titanic was about how boats are dangerous. That's not the point, right? I mean in the West, first of all we have containment buildings around our reactors. These containment buildings can withstand strikes from airplanes, okay? That's why in Three Mile Island, about a dental x-ray's worth of radiation escaped during a partial meltdown of the core because of our containment buildings.
Craig Mazin: Two, we don't use the technology that the Soviets used. No one uses that technology. It's inherently bad. Our reactors are inherently designed to be safe with many, many layers of protection, and the track record speaks for itself. Three Mile Island was ultimately, in terms of its impact on humans and the environment, incredibly minor, and we have had dozens of reactors running every day, 24 hours a day, for decades without any major incidents in this country. Now, you can have an occasional devastating incident like Fukushima but even Fukushima is not Chernobyl.
Quinn: And by the way, we actually ... you might appreciate this. It will require you listening to a podcast.
Craig Mazin: Oh God, oh no.
Quinn: No, we did an episode with an incredible scientist who talked about how Fukushima, not that bad.
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: Basically everyone in Los Angeles was like, "Oh, there's going to be nuclear fish on our coast." It's like first of all, shut the fuck up.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, no. Exactly.
Quinn: Second of all, none of that happened.
Craig Mazin: Yes.
Quinn: So, that's important, because we look at it, what were the lessons learned? But just to get us to today, there have been about 100 or so other quote-unquote "nuclear power accidents" that we know about that have happened in the past 60 or so years, right? Of hugely varying degrees. Of those 100, folks died directly in the actual accident, in only about five of them. Five of 100 accidents, right?
Craig Mazin: Right.
Quinn: And the estimates are ranging from about 11 total people to about 100 or so total people in just the accidents themselves, on site. To be crystal clear, again, that does not include, in many cases, especially Chernobyl, taking a huge chunk of this, thousands of later cancer and other radiation related deaths or damage to, again, food and water and the environment. There's tens of thousands of folks who suffered from aftereffects of Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters, and much of that, at least in Chernobyl's case, much of it wasn't revealed, as we've discussed here, but lessons were learned, correct?
Craig Mazin: No question. I mean, even to the point where after they had retrofitted those reactors to prevent something like ... They basically lowered the positive void coefficient and changed the way that the control rods worked. Even then, when Lithuania was granted admission to the EU, one of the conditions of admission was you have to stop running that RBMK plant in Ignalina, a plant that we shot part of the series at. It was essentially a sister reactor, because no matter what you do with a reactor like that, ultimately you're tempting fate. It's not supposed to be there. It's a dangerous version of a nuclear reactor, and we now have ... and you know, gotten to a place where we don't have to worry about that.
Craig Mazin: I think that, look, I don't know how many people are going to die on the roads today, but it's going to be more than died last year from ... or to the next five years from incidents involving nuclear power generation.
Quinn: And that's what I want to get in here, right? Because when we're looking forward into how to built a 21st century power portfolio and there's so many conversations happening and there's so much progress being made, and again, to be clear, I do not want to minimize the lives lost in the potential impacts of a nuclear disaster from a worker inspired accident, to Fukushima, an ocean earthquake that causes a tsunami that takes down secondary safety measures and still turned out okay, to, of course, a potential terrorist attack, right? There's so many potential implications. But let's, as you just said with the road, and I'm excited you mention that, we need to put the dangerous impact of each of our current and potential power sources into perspective, right?
Craig Mazin: Yes.
Quinn: So, direct, immediate deaths from actual accidents on site, nuclear is very low.
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: Less than 100 in many cases.
Craig Mazin: Yes.
Quinn: Radiation deaths including Chernobyl probably total, low hundreds of thousands. Does that sound about right? Maybe less, maybe a little more?
Craig Mazin: Yeah. I mean, I guess the way I would put it is in terms of negatively impacted lives, so shortened and deaths, we're talking, yeah, I think that would be fair to say six figures.
Quinn: Okay. So in 2017, coal mining deaths just from actual coal mining in the US was 17, okay? So that's as many people basically who've died in ... directly in nuclear accidents throughout history.
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: There were about 100,000 coal mining deaths in the past hundred years. That's just, again, the act of mining. That's not black lung. Let's get into indirect. Coal is responsible for about 800,000 premature deaths per year globally and God fucking knows how many more millions from illnesses, right? Asthma, cardiovascular. In China it's about 670,000 die prematurely from coal. India, again, part of this bigger number. It's 80 to 115,000. In the US, it's about 13,000 people annually. 23, 25,000 in Europe. 800,000 premature deaths from breathing this shit. How about oil and gas? About 1,500 people have died in oil and gas production related deaths just in the past 10 years, which, fun fact, is about how many people have died in the war in Afghanistan, or I guess US troops. [crosstalk 01:02:02] We don't need to get into that.
Quinn: Wind, look, we're killing a fuck ton of birds. I don't know how to fucking fix that. They're massive blades of bird death. But no, the wind turbines do not give you cancer. On the positive note, we look at the things that need to be fixed, right? Shipping. So last month the United Nations International Maritime Organization said, "Here's the deal. We're lowering the maximum allowable sulfur content in fuel from 3.5% to .5% starting next year, fast." The industry is pissed off. Guess what? That limit will avoid an estimated 570,000 premature deaths worldwide over just the next five years.
Quinn: So, this is what I talk about when I say it's so important when we're considering this future of which we have a huge fucking ticking clock, that we operate from facts and first principles, right? And so you've said this, Craig. You've painted this picture for everyone and I'm so excited for everyone to see it. You have brought this potential nightmare to life for everyone for really the first time. Where do you now, considering all that, come out on nuclear power after everything here?
Craig Mazin: I'm pro-nuclear power. I'm more pro-nuclear power now than I was before I did Chernobyl because now I know how hard it is to make a reactor explode. Look, in studying radiation, you begin to learn how to put things in perspective. People say, "Did you go to Chernobyl?" Of course I went to Chernobyl. "Were you scared?" No. I got more radiation flying to Chernobyl than I did walking around Chernobyl because every time you get on a plane, you get that much closer to cosmic radiation and radiation's impact on you is a function on the strength of the source, the amount of time you're near it and how close you are to it.
Quinn: Yeah, that's why we can't go to Mars yet.
Craig Mazin: Correct, correct. So knowing more, you begin to understand, look, the fact that you can build a nightmare reactor like Chernobyl, which should have never been built, and then have very dangerous people running it and also withhold precious information from them and it leads to an explosion is not at all relevant to whether or not we should be building safe nuclear power plants here. The fact that Ralph Nader exposes a car that is unsafe at any speed doesn't mean all cars are unsafe at any speed. It means we learn from it.
Craig Mazin: What was already a very safe method of producing power in the West where it was done responsibly and carefully is even more so now. However, the message of Chernobyl at least as it relates to nuclear power generation is we must never lose respect for this fundamental force of nature. We can't ever play with it. We have to really treat it like it is, which is potentially devastating. That's the big difference. It's why people get afraid to get on an airplane but they're not afraid to get in a car, even though as you and I both know, they are more likely to die in that car than on the plane.
Quinn: Not even close.
Craig Mazin: Why? The reason that people are afraid is because you can get into a car accident and walk away. In fact most people do. You can't really get into a plane accident and walk away. Most people don't. This is the thing that scares us, because our brains don't work right. We have trouble processing [crosstalk 01:05:34]
Quinn: No, I mean we're fucking reptiles, right?
Craig Mazin: Yeah. We just can't handle some of these things. So we dread radiation, and by the way, understanding what happens when you die from acute radiation syndrome, you should dread it. It's the worst possible way to die.
Quinn: Yeah, no thanks.
Craig Mazin: The worst, period. So of course we are scared because it's hard to have a minimal nuclear disaster. But you're absolutely right. The way we are proceeding now is far more deleterious to our health now and that's even if we weren't creating dangerous climate change and permanent climate change through the use of fossil fuels. Even if. Even if we were just looking at mining deaths and lung injury. So I think that-
Quinn: Right? You don't even have to include those other things.
Craig Mazin: That's right, exactly.
Quinn: And look, I think you're probably at least somewhat of a fan of thinkers like Steven Pinker and I am too, right?
Craig Mazin: I am, yes.
Quinn: And I really do fundamentally agree with him that yes, we are all incredibly lucky to be alive in this moment, right? We are fundamentally better off and safer and wealthier across the board than ever before since we were fucking climbing trees, right?
Craig Mazin: No question.
Quinn: 100%, no argument.
Craig Mazin: No question.
Quinn: It varies across the board in different places, different demographics, of course. But across the board, it's better. Where I draw a line in the sand is, and this is where we get to the ticking clock is, yes, but for how long? How long does this moment, which we might just be calling a peak at some point, of prosperity last? And I really hate to be a messenger of doom though sometimes this job demands a version of it, but we are already seeing these catastrophic effects of the choices we've made and the tools we use to build societies, to literally power the 20th century across the globe, right? We are seeing the tip of the iceberg in so many ways.
Quinn: So, look, a small part of me will always be an idealist and still wants to use the perfect cross section of the most renewable and the least dangerous power source and something that can explode and stay dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years doesn't really check that fucking box, right? Something that, by the way, we still haven't figured out how to get rid of the storage of the waste.
Craig Mazin: Well, you're not going to.
Craig Mazin: And look, here's the problem. You can't create power without doing damage.
Quinn: You just can't.
Craig Mazin: You can't. It's not possible.
Quinn: Right, you can't, but again, going back to those numbers, like you said, we don't even have to talk about the bigger numbers to show that yes, this could be very dangerous however, look at what we've already done. Look at what we've caused and it's happening and we're seeing the effects of it and we understand it for the first time.
Craig Mazin: I hope that we can continue to rely on ... I mean, the beautiful part about nuclear power generation is that it doesn't put a single atom of carbon into the air and it runs without smoke and yes, we do have to deal with waste and we have to be much more careful with the plant itself, and by the way, I will say that just as we continue to be seemingly willfully and woefully unprepared for attacks on our cyber infrastructure, I believe that our current state of protection around our nuclear power generation is simply not adequate and we need to improve all of this. But what I am dismayed by are a lot of people that show up in my Twitter feed saying, "How do you feel about the fact that you're scaring people away from nuclear power and that's going to kill our planet? So congratulations, you're killing our planet."
Craig Mazin: And I just think, "You're stupid and weak because if you cannot process and acknowledge what happened at Chernobyl and why it is relevant now and why you must consider it always as you move forward in creating this technology and improving this technology, then you're part of the problem. You live in a state where you are unable to handle two things at once. It is dangerous. Nuclear power is inherently dangerous. That doesn't mean it has to kill anyone. It just means we have to be careful. It's as simple as that. It's as simple as that. We have to be incredibly careful and the good news is, generally speaking, we are. The proof is in the pudding."
Quinn: About nuclear. Yeah, we are.
Craig Mazin: And the proof is in the pudding.
Quinn: And look at how un-careful and how careless we are with some of these other things. We talk about, again, coal production related deaths and breathing the air and everyone's like, "Oh, well that's just because for the poor people, we stick the factories in their neighborhood." It's like, "Yeah, what about also the fucking train tracks that pull the coal and all of the sudden this town has three times the rate of asthma and these kids have cardiovascular issues at 12?" It's like we're more careful with nuclear even including these disasters than anything else and we have to be.
Craig Mazin: Well, because, Quinn, it's new. See, the thing is what we do is we price in old things as inevitable. You know, we've had cars running around long before people understood the nature of pollution and before people would simply not put up with things like 30,000 deaths a year on the road, which is still what we have in the United States. We just price it in as, "Well, but that's normal," but if you were to say ... Well it's like I remember when Tesla put their car out and there was ... About a few months later some Tesla driver got rammed by a truck or something happened and the battery burst into flame and the car burned in flame and there were news articles everywhere.
Craig Mazin: Oh my God, electrical car on fire. There's like 1,000 regular car fires a day.
Quinn: Since you printed the fucking article.
Craig Mazin: Correct.
Quinn: You know?
Craig Mazin: Because it's old. We don't mind. Oh, well it's old and shitty, so it's okay, but new and shitty is terrifying to us. No, here's the thing. Old and shitty is shitty, period, the end. We should stop doing.
Quinn: And like you said, so much of today's conversation is built on this ethos of, "Yeah, well," and you're like, "No. Not fucking yeah, well."
Craig Mazin: Right, exactly.
Quinn: If this started today, if there was an attack that killed 30,000 people a year, if there was this, if we said, "Here's the deal, 800,000 people across the world are going to get wiped off the planet Thanos style this year because of something," wouldn't we do everything to stop that and just go, "We can't do this"? But we don't.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, it's too big for people. They don't know what to do. They're paralyzed.
Quinn: I know you've got to get out of here, so I just want to tie this up. We do try to work towards action because when we talk about climate change or fucking cancer, whatever, it's no fun for somebody to be dicking around in their car listening to an hour of ... talk about it-
Craig Mazin: Agreed.
Quinn: And then sit around and go, "What do I fucking do with myself now?"
Craig Mazin: Right.
Quinn: So, our goal is to provide as much as we can specific action steps our listeners can take to support your mission, this mission with their voice, their vote and their dollar, where it apply. So where we need to go as a people. So, with their voice, and this can kind of tie into their vote as well. What are the big, actionable, specific questions you feel like we should be asking and asking of our representatives and things like that?
Craig Mazin: Well, we need to make the reduction of carbon emissions a top priority for our nation and I also think that we need to make other countries' reduction of carbon emissions a top priority for our nation. We've never been shy about bullying other countries or pushing them around in ways we wanted to for our own benefit. Well, this is for our benefit. It doesn't matter much what we do over here with our Priuses or our recycling if China and India continue to just light massive pyres on fire every day and send the smoke into the air. So we need to figure this out as a world and it has to be our number one priority. Part of that, I think, for us can be the generation of safe nuclear power. But we have to not be arrogant about it.
Craig Mazin: You can point to these safety numbers and go, "See?" And then just become complacent and we know ... We see this in the airplane industry. There's a reason that those two Boeing planes crashed. It's because Boeing got complacent. They figured, "Look, all these people who are afraid of flying are so fucking stupid." Correct. "Our safety record is insanely good." Correct. "Huh, this plane's got a little bit of a problem. Let's just do this little dumb workaround. It'll be fine." Incorrect. And every time you have an accident, you are violating the delicate tissue thin web of trust you have in place, right? It's more important for the nuclear power industry to be careful about this than the coal industry. The coal industry doesn't be careful about anything. Nobody notices that it's there. We just shrug and go, "Oh well," right? It's like [inaudible 01:14:38] my house, I burn wood and [inaudible 01:14:40]
Craig Mazin: So the lesson of Chernobyl must be told and it must be understood and it must be embraced and nuclear power must be treated with the utmost respect and care, so that means defending our infrastructure grid and defending our computer systems and increasing security at plants. I think we need to build new plants. There's no way around it. That also means we have to find a facility that is safe and effective to store the spent fuel. We just have to. There's no way around it.
Quinn: Right, right. We are an innovative people. We figured out how to do this in the first place and we have to be able to figure out a version of making it tenable, long term, because it is the single most proven, cleanest energy source we have. It has been working reliably 90 whatever fucking percent of the time for 60, 70 fucking years.
Craig Mazin: And it's efficient. We're simply not going to get the energy we need to live the lives we now require to live through wind or solar. It's not going to happen.
Quinn: Right, and those things are exploding and that's awesome and that's great and we need as much of it as possible but we cannot shun this thing that works and works so well.
Craig Mazin: Agreed.
Quinn: All right, listen. We're getting close to time. I can't thank you enough for this and for making what you made. Last couple little questions, which I delight in hearing your answers on, then we'll let you get the fuck out of here.
Craig Mazin: Sure.
Quinn: This is again usually applied to scientists who actually spend their days trying to save humanity. Craig, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Craig Mazin: I think I was in fourth grade and I don't know how I ended up doing this but I was ... In my school we had a wing and that's where the kids were for special education and at the time we're talking literally 1978, I think. That meant kids who had Down Syndrome and I was a volunteer, so I would go there during the lunch break and just hang out with those kids as probably just like a volunteer. I remembered when I was about to go into fifth grade and they were going to move some other fourth graders in and I was going to move out of that program. This one kid, his name was Steven, he just ... and I don't know how old Steven was. He could've been 30. I don't know, but he just hugged me and cried, and I remembered that I had made a difference to this person. He was an adult. [inaudible 01:17:13] He was an adult and I was nine and I had made some huge difference to him.
Craig Mazin: You don't forget that because I think when you're nine you feel like you're barely making a dent on anything. You can barely make a dent on food, you know? But I had made a difference to a person and they were going to miss me and that was pretty moving.
Quinn: Wow. That's pretty awesome. Who is someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Craig Mazin: In the past six months. Oh boy. You mean like influenced and changed the way I do it?
Quinn: It's up to you, champ.
Craig Mazin: Oh boy, oh boy. Well ...
Quinn: It could be just your fucking emotional support animal at the end of the day. I mean, it could be a bartender. I'm not choosing the category.
Craig Mazin: Sure. I'm going to say Johan Renck. Johan Renck is the director of Chernobyl. Just as I wrote all the scripts, he directed all the episodes and I have, in the past six months, been going through post-production with him and editing with him and doing visual effects with him and working on the score together with him. I've just learned a lot and I think we have had a really good influence on each other. He has made me more wiling to take some risks, more willing to turn away from things that I think, "Well, this would work but maybe just because it would work doesn't mean we should do it. Maybe we should try something a little bolder." And in turn I think I've probably gotten him to be a little more, how shall I put it, accountable to an audience.
Craig Mazin: But he's been an influence on me and I think about his visual style and how it's going to impact the way I kind of write things as I go forward, and so I would say Johan Renck, Swede genius director of Chernobyl.
Quinn: I love it, and not knowing any of that but just having seen what I've seen in this series alone and not having any idea what else he's done, he's done a hell of a job.
Craig Mazin: Yeah.
Quinn: What do you do when you feel completely fucking overwhelmed in an era where everybody talks about self care? What does Craig Mazin do?
Craig Mazin: We're going to have to go out to dinner with Melissa and Dana and have that discussion because I'm really bad at it and Melissa's constantly saying self care, self care, self care. You know, the closest I get to proper self care is playing Dungeons and Dragons. That makes me feel so good. It makes me so happy, and so I've got to do more of that, but, you know, a nice, long walk and also just finding time to watch some things that I love. It's just the time of it all. The last year has been insane. So I've got some self care coming my way, let's put it that way.
Quinn: I like it. Craig, how do you consume the news?
Craig Mazin: Reading. I do not watch news. I refuse. I will not watch it. If it's on TV, I turn away. My wife loves all that stuff. I can't do it. So I read the Times and I have a subscription to the New York Times, to the Washington Post, to the Wall Street Journal, and then there's a website called Arts and Letters Daily, AL Daily, which is a really good compendium of topical articles and then essays and cultural reviews. Not reviews like "thumbs up or thumbs down" but rather just the retrospectives and analyses, so I try and stick to that. I just detest televised news.
Quinn: It is the most unholy thing. It is a nightmare.
Craig Mazin: Yeah.
Quinn: Last one. If you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would that book be?
Craig Mazin: What was that book about how to commit suicide? It was like Gentle Exit or something like that?
Quinn: Right. For context, we have an Amazon Prime wishlist where we've put all of our guests' recommendations and folks can go and click on it and it sends the book to the White House.
Craig Mazin: That one. [crosstalk 01:21:31] How to gently fade out into a nice sleep. Just fade away. That's what I would send him.
Quinn: That's pretty fucking great. Craig Mazin, where can our listeners follow you on the internet?
Craig Mazin: I am @CLMazin on Twitter and I appear every week on the podcast Scriptnotes with John August, which you can find on Apple. Just search for Scriptnotes, or wherever you get your podcasts, as John says.
Quinn: Awesome, and Chernobyl the TV show drops tonight on HBO. Very exciting, and it's five parts, correct?
Craig Mazin: Five episodes airing one per week just like the old days. One per week [crosstalk 01:22:12]
Quinn: I think you and I are the last people on the planet that defend this way of doing things.
Craig Mazin: It's the greatest. I love it.
Quinn: It's the best. Anyways, hey man, I really appreciate it as an artist, as a friend, as a mentor. Thank you for coming on and talking about your process and this thing and giving us context and what you've learned from it. I hope it influences the conversation.
Craig Mazin: Thanks man. I appreciate you having me on.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dish washing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at ImportantNotImportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter at ImportantNotImp.
Quinn: Just so weird.
Brian: Also on Facebook and Instagram at Important Not Important. Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So check us out, follow us, share us, like us. You know the deal, and please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this, and if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple podcasts. Keep the lights on, thanks.
Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, ImportantNotImportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks, guys.