AT 1.23am, on April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, sending a plume of radioactive material into the air, and illuminating the night sky over Pripyat, Ukraine, with an eerie blue glow.

What followed became one of the biggest cover ups in history, as Communist Russia attempted to downplay an incident which quickly became the worst nuclear disaster in history. Today it's estimated that the explosion and its deadly radioactive aftermath may have resulted in as many as 93,000 fatalities to date. The Soviet Union's official death toll is still listed as 31.

It's hardly surprising that given this source material, HBO has thrown the kitchen sink at its new five-part drama series, which boasts the acting talents of Emily Watson, Jared Harris and Stellan John Skarsgård. Part disaster movie, part conspiracy thriller, Chernobyl's opening episode was as gripping an hour of TV as I'd seen in a long time and one that came as a decent dose of reality after the fantasy excesses of Game of Thrones and the overrated ridiculousness of Line of Duty.

I was nine-years-old when the disaster occurred and it had quite the effect on me back in the late 80s. A few years after the explosion, children from the surrounding area in Ukraine and Belarus began arriving in my small village for charity-funded holidays and I still remember their pale, thin faces visiting our school. The nuclear threat seemed to hang over the whole era and here were its very real victims playing in our playground.

We see plenty more children in Chernobyl, but here they're playing with the radioactive dust like it's snow or marvelling at the fire in the distance that's slowly poisoning them. One of the drama's most memorable scenes shows residents from the nearby town of Pripyat gathering on a railway bridge in order to get a better view of the inferno while they kiss, cuddle and share bottles of vodka. It's now thought that none of the people on that bridge survived.

Harrowing, terrifying and heartbreaking, Chernobyl isn't an easy watch, but given our own environmental ticking clock, it's an essential one.