Warning: Contains Spoilers
There’s an abundance of positives about HBO and Sky’s new show Chernobyl, but there are also a few plot points which are more questionable.
The five-part series aims to re-enact the horrific events which unfolded leading up to, during, and after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 that killed countless people and harmed many more.
Episode one details the explosion which took place at the power plant, the initial denial about the scale of the issue, and the decisions made immediately after realisation dawned.
There’s no denying the series of events was dramatic, but because Soviet officials publicly downplayed the incident it’s difficult to determine the exact truth surrounding the Chernobyl disaster.
Speaking to Variety, Craig Mazin, director and producer of the new show, explained how he had to work his way through ‘conflicting accounts’ of how things played out in order to try and tell the story.
I always defaulted to the less dramatic because the things that we know for sure happened are so inherently dramatic. I never wanted to undercut that in any way.
For the most part, the haunting events which unfold in the series are derived from fact, but there are some details from the show which verge more towards myth.
One debatable plot point is the suggestion the Chernobyl fire gave off nearly twice the radiation from the bombing of Hiroshima, in World War II, every hour.
Jan Haverkamp, a senior nuclear energy expert at Greenpeace, told Business Insider it’s difficult to compare the radiation exposure of the two events because the major health impact of Hiroshima was caused by direct exposure to radiation. In comparison, radioactive material in Chernobyl was spread over a very large area and ingested by people over a long period of time.
Another myth comes in the form of one of the show’s main characters, Soviet nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, who supposedly helped orchestrate the cleanup.
While Mazin told Variety the Soviet Union had quite a large percentage of female doctors, Ulana is actually an amalgamation of many nuclear scientists who were involved in the Chernobyl cleanup, rather than the representation of one person.
In episode two, Khomyuk says a follow-up explosion would carry a force of between two and four megatons, which would wipe out ‘the entire population of Kiev and a portion of Minsk’, and ‘impact all of Soviet Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarusia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungry, Romania, and most of East Germany’, supposedly leaving much of Europe uninhabitable.
However, Haverkamp explained there are too many hypotheticals considered in this scenario, saying ‘that situation might play out if all of the melting corium hit groundwater,’ but adding when corium starts melting, it melts ‘in a very uneven way.’
He also said the claim a second explosion would carry a force of up to four megatons is ‘an exaggeration.’
Another discrepancy between the show and real life is with the helicopter in episode two, which appears to fall out of the sky after flying too close to the radioactive core.
While a helicopter crash did take place, it was actually a couple of weeks after the initial disaster – but considering Mazin had to squeeze all of the details into five hours, I think we can forgive the chronological inaccuracy.
However, the crash wasn’t caused by radiation; Business Insider report real-life footage shows the aircraft colliding with a crane before falling to the ground.
Although the use of artistic license is evident, the majority of what we see in Chernobyl is factual. The Soviets really did try to use robots to clean up the site – before they broke down in the toxic atmosphere – and devastatingly USSR squads were ordered to kill stray animals to avoid the spread of contamination.
The show also tells the true story of firefighter Vasily Ignatenko and his pregnant wife, Lyudmilla, who we meet in the first episode. Vasily’s severe radiation poisoning forced him to be taken to the hospital, and when Lyudmilla went to visit she was ordered not to touch him.
Lyudmilla lied to the radiologist about being pregnant in order to see her husband, and tragically her baby only lived for four hours following birth.
Although some of the details in the show are more myth than fact, the events of Chernobyl were so devastating that there was no need for Mazin to fabricate excessively. The series does a good job of re-enacting the tragedy in a mostly truthful way.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.