Compelling HBO Drama Exposes the Truth of What Actually Happened at Chernobyl

  “Show me a fantasy novel about Chernobyl – there isn’t one! Because reality is more fantastic.” ~  Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Fiction writers understand the importance of telling lies that reveal human truths – it’s the basis of all good storytelling. In fiction though, the lies have to be believable, but sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

The recent HBO/Sky five-part miniseries Chernobyl, created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, shows in chilling detail the chain of events that led to the worst peacetime nuclear disaster in human history.

Finding out the truth, no matter the personal cost, is the central tenet of this gripping drama, which seamlessly blends fact and some fiction (in a small amount of artistic license), that respectfully tells the untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.

Part historical and political thriller, part scientific drama, part disaster biopic, it brings home in startling intimacy and authenticity the impact of Chernobyl on those who were there, as well as the wider consequences of a nuclear reactor explosion.

Chernobyl highlights the unseen heroism of the firefighters, miners, engineers and scientists, as well as the conscripted men brought in to contain the spread of radiation, exposing with intelligent and dramatic flair, the incompetence of the Chernobyl power plant management and the Soviet State in relation to safety issues and propaganda.

I was 16 years old when reactor 4 of the RBMK nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded – something that was thought to be impossible by the Soviet establishment.

The drama reminded me a little of the Titanic, (the ship they said couldn’t sink), only the hubris and ignorance that lead to Chernobyl was far more deadly.

The Cold War was at its zenith in the eighties, and there was a nuclear bunker not far from my rural childhood home. I remember the dreadful fear of nuclear war that plagued me for most of my teens. Had I understood the true scale of the disaster at that time, I don’t think I could have functioned properly.

The show creator on how society detaches itself from the truth:

This Sky/HBO miniseries utterly captivated me for five emotional episodes,  depicting the horrific fate of the plant workers, those first on the scene, residents living nearby in Pripyat, the town built to service the power plant at Chernobyl; as well as the ensuing challenges of the two men ordered to deal with the immediate and long-term aftermath of the disaster.

In the course of their investigation and intervention, the main protagonists prevented what would have been a further inevitable nuclear meltdown just days after the reactor blew – but that was only part of their difficulties – which encompassed the subsequent battle to dismantle the lies of the Soviet State surrounding Chernobyl, in order to prevent a similar catastrophe occurring in the future.

Chernobyl draws a bleak picture of the impossible tasks assigned to the brave souls who did their duty to prevent the premature deaths of over 50 million people living in the Ukranian SSR, Belarus and across Europe.

Chernobyl is now the most popular and highly rated drama ever to air, (9.6 on IMDb) – a position it well deserves. The fact that it is based on actual events and real people’s lives makes it truly heart breaking to watch. The quality of the script, the acting and the visceral storytelling all combine to make it a powerful and impactful viewing experience.

The first episode’s podcast on Chernobyl:

Real-life heroes

The key characters in Chernobyl are Soviet inorganic chemist, First Deputy Director of the Kuchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, Valery Legasov, clearly an intelligent, kind, rational, complicated and conflicted man, (played to perfection by Jared Harris) and senior Soviet politician, Boris Shcherbina, who was head of the Bureau for Fuel and Energy.

Stellan Skaarsgard gives a stellar performance of a brash, acerbic man with a raspy, fifty-a-day voice, initially filled with contempt for the scientist he must work with – Valery Legaslov.

Boris had no inkling of the danger and calamity that awaited him when he was appointed head of the Chernobyl Commission by the then General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev.  Valery’s sickened expression, as he is summoned to give the committee scientific advice, indicates he knows he will be a dead man walking if he is ordered to go to Chernobyl.

The cast and crew discuss making Chernobyl:

Emily Watson portrayed the strong and determined fictional character of nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, a composite of the dedicated Russian scientific community who collaborated with Valery and Boris to mitigate the effects of the disaster.

Chernobyl made my blood run cold. It also took me back to my teens for a few hours.

Actual BBC news footage of the disaster from 1986:

Valery Legasov being interviewed on NBC in 1986 (most likely with KGB presence nearby) :

The first episode begins with Valery Legasov dictating his memoirs. The air in his small, dingy apartment is thick with smoke and a bloodied handkerchief on the table indicates a radiation related illness.

The first words we hear are: “What is the cost of lies? Who is to blame? If we hear enough lies, we no longer recognise the truth.”

We learn that deputy chief engineer and control room supervisor, Anatoly Dyatlov was officially blamed, sentenced to ten years in a prison labour camp, and we hear the resignation in Legasov’s voice for the short-term punishment for his criminal mismanagement. But he is also scathing about the deeper issues underlying the disaster, citing far greater criminals.

He hides his tapes from the KGB and feeds his cat before hanging himself – an ignominious end to a hero’s life.

We are then introduced to real-life characters Ludmilla and her husband, fireman Vasily Ignatenko, in their Pripyat apartment late at night. From their high-rise window Ludmilla witnesses the initial explosion in a flash of bright light as the building shakes momentarily, as it would perhaps from an earthquake tremor, and dogs bark in alarm.

After the initial blast they see an eerie, glowing jet of radiation, spewing up in a relentless beam, seemingly beyond the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. Her husband is then required to attend the incident at Chernobyl, at this point completely ignorant of the catastrophic nature of it.

Their friends go out to stand on a nearby railway bridge to get a better view, but Ludmilla is wary and stays home, clearly worried about her husband.

We are then taken into the control room of reactor four, as the stunned power plant workers struggle to process what has just happened. Anatoly Dyatlov barks an order at junior engineer Leonid Toptunov, “Get water moving through the core!” The shocked and terrified Toptunov repsonds, “There is no core.”

The mercurial Dyatlov goes into another rant, shouting and scolding the men that a core can’t explode, it has to be the tank. Disbelief and panic permeates throughout the control room.

Meanwhile, firemen are hosing flames at the now demolished reactor building, and it’s like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. A man picks up a chunk of graphite from the ground, not knowing its a small part of the obliterated reactor core, and the equivalent to holding 4 million X-rays in his hand!

He screams and takes off his glove, his hand is badly burned. Many of the men are vomiting and their faces are visibly reddening with radiation burns.

Back at the reactor control centre Dyatlov continues to berate his colleagues, in complete denial of the facts. Paul Ritter does an excellent job of portraying a thoroughly vile man: arrogant, intimidating, volatile and abhorrent; willfully disregarding safety precautions in his pursuit of promotion. He was going to complete that safety test no matter what.

At 2.30 am the power plant director, Viktor Bryukhanov and his chief engineer, Nikolai Fomin meet in the Chernobyl underground bunker with an unrepentant Dyatlov. The brusk Bryukhanov opens with: “Looks like the safety test didn’t go well.” That being the understatement of the year!

They summon the local executive committee, who are rightly concerned about the safety of their families. There are no safety announcements made as radioactive ash falls on Pripyat.

A gnarled, older member of the party drones on about the apparatus of the state and Soviet socialism, encouraging them to have faith in the state. No order is given to evacuate and the phone lines are cut in order to prevent ‘misinformation’ getting out. The irony being that they are all operating under the gross misinformation that it’s just a rooftop fire and the radiation level is at a relatively safe 3.6 roentgen, given from a maxed-out, low-level dosimeter reading.

In episode two we are introduced to Ulana at the Minsk Institute. Her colleague happens to open a window to circulate some air, when a radiation alarm goes off. Ulana duly wipes off the outer grime and runs a test confirming it’s radioactive. She calls Chernobyl, but ominously there is no answer…

In Moscow, the full scale of the problem is slowly starting to dawn on the politicians, as Legasov educates the committee about the reactor’s Uranium 235 fuel, telling them in his eloquent manner, but with a heavy heart, that every atom of reactor fuel is like a bullet travelling at the speed of light, penetrating everything in its path. Every gram of fuel contains a billion, trillion atoms, and now 300 million grams have been released into the atmosphere from the reactor core explosion – unleashing a terrifying and incomprehensible number of uranium bullets, contaminating water, food and air for at least a hundred years, maybe for as long as 50,000 years…

On the helicopter ride to Chernobyl, Boris asks Valery how a nuclear reactor works. We get the answer that it makes electricity from steam generated by nuclear fission, and that neutrons in motion are known as ‘flux’. Meanwhile my body is in a state of flux as I watch with my heart in my mouth.

Boris orders the helicopter pilot to fly over the massive plume of back smoke coming from what was left of the reactor so that he can see if it is, in fact, still there, and when Valery becomes alarmed at this, Boris threatens the pilot with being shot. Valery musters all his courage to plead with the pilot not to fly directly over the radioactive smoke, telling him, “If you do, I promise you you’ll be begging for that bullet!”

Ulana’s warnings to the local governor about issuing iodine pills and evacuating the region fall on deaf ears. He would rather listen to the spin from Moscow than protect lives.

Over the course of the five episodes it struck me how everything looked like the seventies rather than the eighties behind the iron curtain, with characters (perhaps a tad stereotypical), drinking copious amounts of vodka and chain smoking. The suits are dour and Valery Legasov’s thick rimmed glasses look virtually the same as the ones the real Valery wore.

On the ground, Valery suggests cladding a vehicle with a lead shielding and attaching a high-level dosimeter on the front so that they can ascertain the true level of radiation. After a nervous wait they come back with the news that it’s at 15,000 roentgen, meaning the core is open. Legasov explains that amount is twice the radiation of Hiroshima, and because of the length of time the radioactive material has been spewing out, it’s equivalent to 40 nuclear bombs by now.

Boris’s ebullience and blind faith in the state has quickly evaporated and been replaced by fear of the indisputable, sobering facts that he and Valery uncover. He is starting to respect Valery’s knowledge and his increasing concern for the population.

Boris asks if the fire can be put out with water, but Valery tells him it’s not a normal fire, and at 2,000 degrees, the water will simply vaporise. He suggests their only course of action is to drop sand and boron over the reactor.

The challenge of the brave pilots who had to fly dangerously close to the reactor perimeter in order to get the pay-load dropped was distressing to watch – as was pretty much every scene in every episode – there is no escaping the stark human and ecological cost of the disaster.

In a quiet moment Boris asks Valery how long he can expect to live, and receives the sobering reply of probably not more than another five years, given their proximity to, and time spent at the site. Boris agrees to evacuate nearby Pripyat, but it’s now 36 hours after the explosion.

When they arrive back to Moscow to report on their progress there is more bad news: the solution of sand and boron, although suffocating the blaze, is causing the temperature to rise, creating lava. Gorbachev asks in disbelief, “You created lava?”

The water tanks beneath the core that Valery had assumed were empty are in fact full of water, which apparently was a very big problem!

In the scene Ulana is with them, and she explains to the committee that 7,000 cubic metres of this super-heated material will cover a radius of 30 km and the shock wave from the thermal explosion of around 2-4 megatons will travel as far as 200 km and ignite the remaining three reactors at Chernobyl.

Just as they are absorbing this new cataclysm, she goes on to say that it would kill everyone living in Kiev, as well as many in Minsk and impact all of Europe. She calmly states that they have 48-72 hours before the meltdown will occur…

The horror of what they had to deal with is unimaginable. Perhaps it’s for the best that the general public in Europe was not aware of any of this.

It becomes apparent they need plant workers to go into the basement full of radioactive water to release the sluice gate valves and open the water flow so they can drain the tanks. Boris and Valery have to persuade three men from a room full of engineers to do their duty in the face of likely death.

Boris makes an impassioned speech about them having a thousand years of sacrifice in their veins. It’s a tense scene when they go in, dosimeters clicking like mad, their flash lights dimming and going out. Those three men deserve all the praise in the world for what they did.

There are devastating scenes in Moscow’s Hospital 6 as a pregnant Ludmilla bribes her way in so she can see her husband. He looks a bit better, and she hugs him against the nurse’s advice. But soon we see the horrific effects of radiation poisoning, and within two  weeks he and his fellow firemen die gruesome deaths.

Boris and Valery pass on their success in Moscow, but despite their jubilation there is still imminent danger to millions of people as the meltdown has begun and the concrete pad won’t be sufficient to stop it seeping into the water reserves that supply a huge chunk of Europe.

Valery suggests they use heat exchangers to halt the meltdown, and Boris asks Gorbachev for all the liquid nitrogen available in the Soviet Union!

In a tense phone call, Gorbachev enquires when Chernobyl will be made safe, and Legasov blurts out not for 24,000 years, so not in their lifetimes…

Chernobyl brings home the absolute disregard for human life by Soviet party officials, and how they made uniformed decisions that would affect millions of people.

View of Chernobyl from Pirpyat

View of Chernobyl from Pripyat

One scene that brought a lump to my throat was when Boris asks Valery what a high radiation dose does to the body. His reply is really grim; essentially it tears cellular structure apart. The lesser steady dose that they had been exposed to would not be strong enough to destroy their cells, but would certainly damage their DNA, inevitably causing cancer.

Valery and Ulana discuss the cause of the explosion, trying to get their heads around how the core exploded, as it should not have been possible for this to happen. He urges Ulana to interview Akimov, Toptunov and Dyatlov in hospital to find out from them exactly what happened so that it could not happen again.

In those dreadful scenes Toptunov and Akimov’s human forms are blistered almost beyond recognition. They both tell her that they followed Dyatlov’s orders, and when they realised the reactor was out of control they pressed the button to shut it down: AZ-5.

Unbeknown to them, this supposed ‘safety feature’ had the opposite effect – causing the chain reaction that sealed their fate.

They also drafted in around 400 miners to build tunnels beneath the heat exchangers, telling their supervisor (played by Alex Ferns) that they only have six weeks to complete their work to avoid a nuclear meltdown. These tough men laboured round the clock and completed their work in just four weeks, excavating the area under the reactor by hand so that it would not disrupt the ground beneath the melting core. It was very hot work and they could not use fans, so they worked naked. They were absolute heroes.

As Boris and Valery work to establish the cause of the disaster and prevent nuclear meltdown, they are aware that they are being followed and monitored by the KGB and its soulless chairman, Charkov, a character devoid of decency; grey haired and bespectacled, wielding absolute power, present at every committee meeting.

In the Kremlin, as they report to Gorbachev and the committee, despite the good news of the miner’s efforts and the narrowly averted thermo-nuclear meltdown, Valery spells out the huge amount of work still to be done to set-up an exclusion zone.

Entire regions have to be evacuated, the remaining animals terminated so as not to spread contamination, the surrounding forests have to be razed and the top soil has to be ripped up over an area of 100 square metres. He tells them to create a containment structure to cover the reactor. He notes that it will take approximately 750,000 men around three years to complete this thorough clean-up.

There are sad scenes of coffins being placed inside lead ones, then placed in a mass grave and covered in concrete. Ludmilla watches holding a pair of Vasily’s shoes. She later miscarries their baby. She has a happier ending than some, in that in real life she went on to remarry and have a son.

The scenes where they are forced to conscript men to clear the radioactive debris from the reactor roof are disturbing to watch. The first attempt to use a lunar vehicles fails, as the intense radiation particles shred its circuitry. It comes to light that the ‘state’ had told the German manufacturers a much lower level of radiation than there actually was, rendering the vehicle useless.

The men had to go onto the roof in protective gear for up to 90 seconds, throwing the graphite blocks back into the exposed core. There were three rooftops that were littered with graphite, nicknamed Katya, Mina and Marsha. Marsha was the most lethal of the three, with radiation levels of 12,000 roentgen, enough to kill a man after just three minutes of exposure.

Valery: “Boris, it would be fair to say that piece of roof is the most dangerous place on earth.”

The pet extermination scenes are horrible and harrowing. There is also a poignant scene where a young soldier tries to evacuate an elderly woman from her home. She refuses to leave, citing the wars and famine that she has survived for nearly a century, and unconcerned, continues to milk her cow. In frustration, the soldier shoots her cow.

Episode five brings the timeline of the chain of events together in flashbacks as the 1988 trial of Anatoly Dyatlov, Viktor Brukhanov and Nikolai Fomin unfolds. In real life Valery Legasov wasn’t there, but the drama still conveys what he and his colleagues had uncovered, and how the information disseminated from the scientific community forced the Soviet State to take action in the wake of the disaster.

The Safety Test

The Chernobyl disaster boiled down, paradoxically, to a long overdue safety test. As Boris points out in the trial, reactor four had been operational since December 20th 1983, and director Bryukhanov and his deputy Fomin had fudged the paperwork to say that all relevant safety tests had successfully been carried out.

Spoiler alert! You may not want to watch these clips if you haven’t yet seen the drama:

Valery Legasov’s fictional testimony:

The official death toll released by the Soviet State in 1987 was 31. However it’s estimated that the deaths caused by Chernobyl range from 4,600 to as many as 93,000.

Valery’s valour should be widely known and applauded, especially after the Soviet State did their best to scrub him from the history books. He deserves posthumous recognition for his role in ensuring such a tragic situation would never happen again, and the Chernobyl miniseries achieves that to some degree.

In 2017 a new 2 million euro safe containment structure was completed at Chernobyl, designed to last for another 100 years.

Inside the clean-up of Chernobyl:

Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in 2006 that he considered Chernobyl to be the main reason for the break-up of the Soviet Union.

HBO Chernobyl featurette:

The Chernobyl miniseries has rightly inspired much interest and discussion:

I remember David Attenborough commenting on Our Planet how wildlife was now flourishing in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, free from human interference for three decades. This eerie drone footage shows Chernobyl and Pripyat in 2016:

Tourism has sprung up in the region over the last few years, with people taking tours to Pripyat. I can’t say it’s at the top of my ‘must see’ list!

The future of nuclear power

Of course, nuclear power has a PR problem in the wake of Chernobyl, and to a lesser degree, Fukushima. But there is the controversial view that when run properly and safely, nuclear power contributes to a cleaner atmosphere as part of a nation’s energy portfolio.

Michael Shellenberger, an American author and environmental policy writer, was once part of the anti-nuclear movement, but now advocates nuclear power as the way forward to combat climate change.

So, if like me you have been scared witless by Chernobyl, I would recommend watching this!

“I’m not afraid of God. I’m afraid of man.” ~ Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

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