April 26th 1986, the reactor 4 of the nuclear plant of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, exploded, releasing deadly radiation in the atmosphere. More than 300.000 people were evacuated as a result. The 30km Exclusion Zone that was once their home remains to the day, exceedingly polluted and uninhabitable for centuries to follow. More than half a million liquidators were called to clean the irradiated surroundings, and to entomb the exposed reactor and its deadly contents, capable of killing a human within minutes of exposure. On 2019 HBO released a successful miniseries, Chernobyl, which deals with the accident and its immediate aftermath. Highly praised for its performance and plot narrative, it got equally savage criticism for its historical inaccuracies. Scroll below to find what aspects they followed to the letter, and which ones they altered for the sake of dramatism.
1. How deadly the radiation was?
Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) commonly known as radiation poisoning or radiation sickness, was researched and detailed during the miniseries. Particularly good are the constant depiction of plant staff, firefighters, and liquidators throwing up and weakening from constant exposure. The first symptoms are ARS are nausea and in severe doses, burning on the skin, of which the plant staff and firefighters suffered the most, since their dresses and equipment were drenched in radioactive water. The necrosis, alopecia, and ultimately death of characters like Toptunov, Akimov or the firefighter Vasily Ignatienko were also correct in portrayal.
In the show, Lyudmila, the wife of Vasily, looses her baby. The radiation she acquired after ignoring medical advice and touching her ailing husband, is pointed as the responsible for it. However, now we know that touching someone with acute ARS after they have been thoroughly cleaned from any external irradiated particles, is completely safe. Back then not even all medical staff knew about this, believing that touching someone with ARS was contagious. Whether the miniseries knew it or not, it’s up to debate.
2. In denial or State Cover-up?
Bryukhanov, the plant director; chief engineer Fomin who authorised the test; and Dyatlov who supervised the test himself, are depicted as discussing about the accident and determining that a hydrogen explosion has damaged the reactor. Even when the evidence is clear, they still refuse to believe the core has exploded and act as though the situation is under control. Although this is correct, Bryukhanov admitted later that day that the reactor was no more. In a similar manner, the Politburo of the USSR (the highest authorithy in the country) is depicted as struggling to believe the truth, often choosing to believe a convenient truth that fits their ideas.
Although true, the miniseries overdid this, choosing to portray the KGB as the bad guys, caring little whether another reactor exploded and only seeking to bury the damaging truth. In reality, the Politburo acknowledged in private that the RBMK lacked safety measures and likely ordered something be done about it, before their country became a nuclear wasteland. Nevertheless, transparency and self-criticism were in short supply in the USSR, and the Politburo refused to release their conclusions to the people, instead pointing Bryukhanov and his staff as the sole responsibles for the tragedy.
3. The truth of the accident. Who knew?
It is only during the last episode that the causes of the accident are fully explained, how the AZ-5 button, a safety measure designed to shutdown the reactor, strangely ends up destroying it. During the trial it is explained the much-delayed safety test that was carried on reactor 4 on the fateful night it exploded, yet again another critical delay, and the chain of events that led to catastrophe. The xenon poisoning the reactor, the insufficiency of the valves (due to the aforementioned test) that ran water to cool the reactor, and the graphite on the control rods that spiked the reactivity. The latter was key to understand the accident, and the show runners made a good job in stressing how this ‘Positive Void Coefficient’ was kept hidden from the RBMK’s operators all across the USSR by the Soviet bureaucracy and KGB. For them the illusion that Soviet enginnering was flawless was more important than the safety of the people.
Is it true then, than Soviet scientists just as those portrayed in the trial were either blissfully ignorant, or fearful of the KGB’s repression if they spoke the truth? There was certainly a degree of repression, one could probably lose his job or risk imprisontment for openly critcising the state, but the USSR of the late 80’s was a far cry from the 1930, when Stalin and his purges could see you shot or get you a free ticket to the Gulag for no apparent reason. Moreover, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Gorbachev, had promised Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in 1985, so it’s doubtful his KGB had free hand to execute dissident scientists. In fact, Legasov was not alone in speaking against the state’s version of the accident in the last years of the USSR.
4. Legasov and the Trial
Valery Legasov, the scientist tasked by the government to assess the situation in Chernobyl, together with Boris Shcherbina, deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. Legasov was deputy chief of the Kurchatov Institute, the leading research and development institution for the development of nuclear energy, and as such, a respected expert in this field. Almost all major details of Legasov’s involvement in the accident, including his talk in Vienna to explain the causes of the accident to the West, and his suicide in 1988 are quite accurate.
Said that, the miniseries also made some important changes. One of them is not portraying other scientists in the comission, some as important as Legasov himself, such as Evgeny Velikhov, who was Gorbachev’s personal assessor and future head of the Kurchatov Institute. He led the new team of scientists after Shcherbina’s commission was relieved on 2nd May by Ivan Silayev. Although Shcherbina would return later on, Legasov chose to stay all along and help the new commission. The other inaccurate aspect, is his participation in the trial of Plant Director Bryukhanov, Chief Engineer Fomin, and his deputy chief Dyatlov, the only one of the three present and supervising the test on the fateful night. The reality was, Legasov never took part on that trial as a witness. Therefore, he couldn’t have lashed against the culture of secrecy of the Soviet Union, which had caused the deficiencies of the reactor RBMK to remain secret from its operators at Chernobyl. Nevertheless, it’s true he went back on his biased report on Vienna before he commited suicide, even warning on the journal Novy Mir that another Chernobyl could occur at any moment, on any of the RBMK reactors still operating in the USSR.
5. The secrets of the KGB and the reactor RBMK
The miniseries depict the government and its loyal dog, the KGB, wanting to keep a lid on Chernobyl no matter the cost, specially its causes, for they could tarnish the Soviet reputation abroad and with its allies. Legasov and Ulana Jomyuk discover the RBMK designers reported the glitch causing the Positive Void Coefficient, which caused the reactivity to skyrocket when it had been supposed to shutdown with AZ-5. And this information was kept as classified by the KGB. This was true, for the Soviet State was very zealous, and even kept secret all history from previous accidents from all plant operators in the Soviet Union. Disasters like Leningrad 1975 or Chelyabinsk-40 in 1957 (better known as Kyshtym disaster), which could have helped the Plant Staff in Chernobyl work more safely and avoid the arrogant belief that the RBMK was foolproof.
On the other hand, the KGB and state didn’t simply ignore all red lights and reports that came up after the accident, involving the glitches of RBMK. In the miniseries, Legasov is shown complaining to the KGB that the RBMK reactors had not been yet upgraded after his talk in Vienna, as agreed. But in reality Legasov openly acknowledged in Vienna that half the RBMK reactors in the USSR had been already withdrawn to be upgraded. Was he pressed by the KGB to say that? Or did he spoke the truth? Judging by his suicide almost two years later, it’s likely the former.
6. The Liquidators
The miniseries did a great job in portraying the cleanup of the Exclusion Zone and containment operations. The hunters, whose job was to kill all domestic and wild animals to prevent the spread of contamination; the biorobots, who went to the rooftop to dispose of the hugely irradiated graphite, which not even the robots could deal with; or the helicopters that threw sand, lead, and boron to the crater of the reactor in order to smother the fire.
The only major discrepancy is that of the commission and the liquidators constantly standing, and even camping next to the reactor or even in Pripyat itself. Although Shcherbina, Legasov and company initially stayed in the Hotel Polissya of Pripyat, they soon relocated their HQ to the town of Chernobyl, 20km south of Pripyat, which gave name to the accident. Trips to the most contaminated areas were only done in helicopter or in armoured personnel carriers henceforth. Contrary to the miniseries depiction, the liquidators weren’t kept totally in the dark when it came to the radiation, often ignoring the advice of not eating or smoking outside and doing away without their uniforms and masks. The truth was, noboby had really a clue how to deal with Chernobyl, for nothing of that calibre had ever happened.
7. The miners and the tunnel
It was true that miners were brought to excavate a tunnel underneath the reactor. This was meant to be used to cool down the molten fuel or lava bubbling over their heads in the reactor hall, and which threatened to burn the concrete floor, thus creating an even bigger enviontmental disaster. Eventually the lava cooled on its own so the tunnel was made redundant, still it was a dangerous job and the miners had one of the worst lots of all the liquidators.
The miniseries were criticised in Russia, amongst other reasons for their carefree depiction of the miners, fully stripping after their request for ventilators is denied by Shcherbina, or their hostitlity and disrespect towards Mikhail Shchadov, Minister of Coal Industry, when he requests their help. That miners or any other workers in the Soviet Union for that matter, would have been so antagonistic or defiant with a minister is hard to imagine, and rather improbable.
8. Vodka and the Bridge of Death
It is well known that vodka is like a god for Russians and Ukrainians, and so it was little strange that common people with no knowledge of radiation believed that vodka could alleviate the symptoms or even cure it. Desperate times requires desperate measures. All the same, radiation or not, they would have kept drinking vodka all along. Just as the miniseries so accurately depicted.
Not so brilliant were in their depiction of the so-called Bridge of Death. On the first episode, a group of Pripyat citizens move to a bridge at night, to observe the fire on the power plant. They don’t know that the blue light they’re seeing is ionising radiation, and that the particles floating in the air they breathe are radionuclides. As a result, they’re eventually affected with burnings caused by the radiation, and in the last episode the show runners confirm all people who stood on the Bridge of Death died as a result of ARS. Although said bridge is real and nigh to the blown-up reactor, almost contiguous to the Red Forest―one of the most irradiated areas―no person was reported to be there to watch the fire on the night of 26th April. All the victims who died of extreme exposure were plant workers and firefighters, all 31 of them brought to the Clinical Department of Hospital Number Six of Moscow. Moreover, since no historical source mentions the Bridge of Death, we must regard it as a mere urban legend.
All in all, I believed HBO did a fantastic job in trying to explain the causes and consequences of the Chernobyl accident, together with a good, but not as brilliant depiction of the political system responsible for it. The exception of a few historical innacuracies, sometimes perhaps necessary to keep us on the edge of the sofa, do not manage to smudge this fantastic piece of entertainment and its educational potential. That if looked with a critical eye and contrasting it with proper historical sources.