Last night I ploughed through the last three episodes of Edge of Darkness. It’s one of my dad’s favourite TV shows, and it’s not hard to see why – he used to work with the coal board, then segued into nuclear waste. And Edge of Darkness has claustrophobic mine tunnels, nuclear wranglings, plenty of talk about ‘isotopes’, ‘criticalities’ and the terrifying prospect of drowing in irradiated cooling-system water trapped in a cave. It’s a fantastic watch.
I remember sitting in the living room with my dad while he watched a terrifically bleak documentary about Chernobyl. Well, what I actually remember is the awful story of the workmen doomed to a single task: donning laughable ‘protective’ clothing, then hurrying out onto the bare roof of a building under the shadow of the shattered power station to desperately shovel bare rubble into a pile. Irradiated rubble.
The men could only be out on the roof for as long as it took to shovel three loads of life-threatening masonry before the radiation dose they’d received would reach dangerous levels. Which is black comedy itself, given that by this time they had already received a dose dangerous enough to leave them vomiting for days, and doubtless with more than a few years (decades?) trimmed off the long end of their lives.
Edge of Darkness uses the spectre of radiation as a superb hammerblow. Fittingly the radioactive heart of the plot (is there a secret ‘hot cell’ producing weapons grade plutonium under a Yorkshire mine-turned-nuclear waste store?) remains unseen for much of the six episode series, hidden behind a screen of detective work, political game-playing and classic capitalist conspiracy.
On occasion there’s the familar (well, to a child of the 80s) earnest crackle of Giger counters, raising worries of radiation ‘infection’ – see the crowd of plainfaced police back away from a washed up poisoned corpse. But it’s only when the protagonist ventures into the ground and through the gas and water flooded tunnels of the Northmoor storage facility that the invisible threat of radiation creeps in.
The two characters in the mine are thrashed with water drafted straight from the literal hot end of the nuclear waste plant. Their Geiger counter makes a sound that can only mean very bad things. But it’s not until they’ve stepped over the discarded bodies of facility personnel in radiation suits and into the hot cell itself, complete with shrieking alarm bells and stacks of plutonium bars laid out like Dairy Milk that you understand our heroes will not be leaving in good health.
The consequences are immediate and matter-of-fact. Burns appear, then sores, over the next forty-five minutes, together with zombie-pale clammy faces and the constant promise of a swift and muscle-clenching upchuck. Their lives are measured in days. Like the series, there’s no upbeat closure or promise of a salve. Just a bullet in the back for one man and sickness and death for the other.
On occasion, the series is unavoidably dated, but it’s never less than topical and relevant. Reading the Wiki entry for the recent film adaptation, though, it’s perhaps the radiation angle that doesn’t carry as much weight now. I have my own tenuous once-removed connection to the nuclear industry to provide me with enough morsels of knowledge to make any cold night long and lonesome. But a glance at the dumb-headed Mel Gibson film adaptation of Edge of Darkness suggests we’ve forgotten just how fist-bitingly horrifying the consequences of radioactive waste and the employment of nuclear power really is.
With the (hopefully nonsense) hints at the privatisation of the nuclear power and waste industry – another theme of EoD – of recent years, it’s time we remembered those fears. Look at the cost-cutting farce behind the BP rig disaster. It doesn’t take an A-bomb to swipe radioactive disaster across our lives. Just an ambitious man with a ballpoint and a budget who doesn’t appreciate just how spectacular the fallout can be.