How Accurate Is the "Chernobyl" Miniseries?
The HBO mini-series "Chernobyl" is now television's highest-rated series. On June 5, 2019, it jumped into the No. 1 spot on IMDb's all-time TV rankings, with a 9.7-star rating (out of 10).
That puts it ahead of AMC's "Breaking Bad" (9.5), BBC's "Planet Earth II" (9.5), HBO's "Band of Brothers" (9.5), the original "Planet Earth" (9.4), HBO's "Game of Thrones" (9.3) and HBO's "The Wire" (9.3).
Obviously, "Chernobyl" is good television, but how accurate was it in its retelling of the disaster?
Ulana Khomyuk wasn't real and Dyatlov wasn't that bad
First, the character of Ulana Khomyuk, brilliantly played by Emily Watson, was not a real person.
At the end of Episode 5 of "Chernobyl", a picture is displayed showing a bus full of people with overlaying text saying, "(Valery) Legasov was aided by dozens of scientists who worked tirelessly alongside him at Chernobyl.
The character of Ulana Knomyuk was created to represent them all and honor their dedication and service to truth and humanity."
The undoubted villain of "Chernobyl" is Deputy Chief Engineer, Anatoly Dyatlov. It was he who insisted that the test of the turbine's ability to supply electricity to coolant pumps in the event of a power failure continue despite instability in the core.
However, scientists have concluded that, "poor quality of operating procedures and instructions, and their conflicting characters put a heavy burden on the operating crew, including the Chief Engineer."
In spite of that Dyatlov, along with Plant Director Viktor Bryukhanov, and Chief Engineer, Nikolai Fomin, were sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp for "gross violation of safety regulations."
Bryukhanov was even sentenced to an additional five years in prison for abuse of power, with that sentence running concurrently with his 10-year term.
Legasov wasn't at the trial
Valery Legasov didn't give evidence at Bryukhanov, Fomin and Dyatlov's trial, he had actually presented his evidence at another time.
Screenwriter Craig Mazin cleverly had Legasov, played by Jared Harris, present the complicated reasons for the reactor exploding using a visual aide — a set of tiles.
Each tile displays a condition of the core, and Legasov balances them on an easel, blue tiles on one side, and orange tiles on the other. This balancing is actually similar to the balancing act that takes place within a nuclear reactor.
The reaction within a nuclear reactor sits poised between a runaway nuclear reaction and a complete shutdown. With all of Legasov's orange tiles stacked on one side of the easel, it was inevitable that there would be a runaway nuclear reaction within the core.
Effects of acute radiation syndrome
The series did a remarkable job of portraying the effects of radiation poisoning.
We followed Lyudmilla Ignatenko into Moscow's Hospital No. 6 where her husband, firefighter Vasily Ignatenko, is hanging out with his fellow firefighters playing cards. Soon, they will all be too weak to stand, much less play cards.
The nurses and doctors warned Lyudmilla not to get close to her husband for fear that she could be affected by the radiation. In reality, the radiation Ignatenko was exposed to was on his clothing and skin.
That clothing, along with that of his fellow firefighters, is now lying in a basement room at the abandoned Pripyat hospital, where it is still radioactive.
Once Ignatenko had showered, he posed no serious radiation threat to those around him.
People with radiation sickness are quarantined so that they don't infect others, but also to protect the sick themselves, due to their severely weakened immune system.
No "Bridge of Death"
In Episode 1, townspeople from Pripyat are shown gathering on a railway bridge to watch the fire and eerie glow emanating from the power plant.
In the epilogue at the end of Episode 5, an overlay states:
"Of the people who watched from the railway bridge, it has been reported that none survived. It is now known as 'The Bridge of Death.'"
While the bridge is mentioned in historical information, the reality is that statistics on fatalities attributed to Chernobyl are unreliable. Official Soviet and Ukrainian records put the total at 31, not including the people on the bridge.
To Screenwriter Craig Mazin and Director Johan Renck's credit, nothing could have made the insidious nature of radiation more real than showing it drifting invisibly over families with children watching a fire, on a warm Spring night.
The three heroes
The miniseries didn't tackle the ultimate fate of the three men who volunteered to enter the basement under Reactor No. 4 and release 5 million gallons of water that was used as a coolant.
Had the melting reactor core, which had become something akin to lava called corium, reached that water, there would have been a steam explosion.
According to a March 16, 2011 article in The Scotsman, that explosion would have:
- Triggered a nuclear explosion that would have vaporized the fuel in the other three reactors in Chernobyl
- Leveled 200 square kilometers (77 square miles)
- Destroyed the city of Kiev
- Contaminated the water supply used by 30 million people
- Rendered northern Ukraine uninhabitable for more than a century
A 2009 study by the School of Russian and Asian Studies had an even bleaker assessment:
If the melting core had reached the water, the resulting explosion "would have wiped out half of Europe and made Europe, Ukraine, and parts of Russia uninhabitable for approximately 500,000 years."
Instead, Alexey Ananenko, Valery Bespalov and Boris Baranov volunteered to wade through radioactive water to valves that would release the water and avert the explosion.
While many histories had the three men dying soon after their heroic action, in fact Ananenko and Bespalov are very much alive, while Baranov died in 2005.
A passion for accuracy?
Chernobyl was filmed at the decommissioned Ignalina power plant in Lithuania.
Costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux found actual period clothing in Eastern Europe. But, it was makeup and prosthetics artist Daniel Parker whose work mostly amazed.
As reported in The Express, Director Renck said of the makeup:
"Daniel had to become almost a physician because it wasn’t enough to say 'someone is experiencing the effects of radiation,' there are levels to it and he came up with these stages and then substages."
On the other hand, Matt Wald, spokesperson for The Nuclear Energy Institute said of the series: "It's not a documentary, it's a dramatization and it has events and characters that were made up in order to be able to present it as a story, as a narrative."
Wald went on to describe how the design of the RBMK reactor, which was the type of reactor used at Chernobyl, contributed to the disaster. While all nuclear reactors produce xenon, in Western reactors under normal conditions, that xenon breaks down over time.
In Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl, the xenon was able to "poison the core" due to the reactor being run at low power for its impending test.
Wald described another difference between Western reactors and the RBMK reactor, and that is its void coefficient.
Western reactors have what's called a negative void coefficient. This means that as the temperature within a reactor increases, and more steam is created, the reaction is slowed down and the reactor starts to cool. This is because water slows neutrons down, allowing them to strike more atoms and continue the reaction. Steam doesn't slow the neutrons down, and their speed causes them to miss atoms.
The Chernobyl reactor had a positive void coefficient, so as the temperature within the reactor rose and steam formed, the reaction didn't slow due to the presence of graphite in the core. This formed a positive feedback loop, which quickly boiled all the coolant in the reactor, and caused the explosion in Reactor No. 4.
Regardless of the accuracy of the miniseries, at the end of Episode 5, Valery Legasov says, "Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid."
There can be no greater truth than that statement.