Fact vs Fiction : How Close Is HBO's 'Chernobyl' To Reality?
HBO has recently unveiled a five-part miniseries entitled ‘Chernobyl’ in reference to the worst nuclear disaster in history, involving reactor 4 at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Station located in the city of Chernobyl, Ukraine. During a safety test executed by the midnight shift, an explosion ruptured the containment cap of the reactor and the core of nuclear material was exposed, releasing intense radiation into the atmosphere.
The Chernobyl disaster is the most culturally significant event involving a nuclear accident given the role it played as a catalyst in multiple world events : The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the expansion of nuclear energy, and the rapid growth of anti-nuclear sentiment from various groups. Although the Fukushima incident was controversially given the same accident rating as the Chernobyl disaster, there is no doubt as to which had a greater impact on global affairs.
HBO’s Chernobyl is very similar to an episode of the BBC’s Surviving Disaster docudrama which covered the accident in 2006, albeit only having one episode to cover the incident versus HBO’s five-part miniseries. The overall tone of the two productions is the same, a dramatized version of events rather than a pure documentary. With a larger budget to spend on the production, HBO will have the opportunity to grab the attention of viewers with top-notch visuals, horrifying depictions of the effects of Acute Radiation Syndrome and more comprehensive sets than those used in the BBC series.
Given the potential for sensationalizing an event central to the debate on nuclear energy, it’s important to compare fact with fiction. In this series, I will compare the actual events with what is seen in the HBO series, and provide some context that will inevitably not be included in a dramatized retelling of the events of April 26, 1986. Before looking at the first episode however, it is necessary to outline key actors in the events that unfolded. It is also important to note that these players were not those who were originally intended to carry out the test, a power shortage in Kiev necessitated that an earlier attempt at the test during the day when more experienced operators were present be cancelled, leaving the test to the night shift.
Toptunov was the operator responsible for the operation of the reactor, most critically of which was the operation of the control rods. These act as the throttle for the operation of reactor number four, and played a central role in the disaster. Toptunov was qualified, but inexperienced, having only been acting as a senior engineer for three months.
Akimov was chief of the night shift, supervising his staff as the events of the disaster unfolded. He made one of the fateful decisions leading to the explosion, choosing to press the reactor’s emergency stop button as the reactor became more unstable. Both he and Toptunov were initially blamed for the accident, until further investigation placed the majority of the blame far higher up on the chain of command. He opposed the decision to continue with the test at multiple points, but was outranked and threatened with termination if he did not comply.
Dyatlov was the deputy chief engineer of the Chernobyl power plant, and the highest ranking staff member present during the test and initial events of the disaster. He ignored safety regulations at several key points during the test, and threatened subordinates with termination if they did not comply with his directions. He was eventually found guilty of criminal mismanagement and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp.
Fomin was the chief engineer of the nuclear power plant, but was not initially present during the test. Along with Dyatlov, he was sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp for his role in mismanagement of the disaster, during which he suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide.
Bryukhanov was the director of the nuclear power plant, not only having overall responsibility for the site itself but also being the point of contact for communist party officials and the politburo itself. He reported an inaccurate version of events, massively downplaying the actual radiation present following the accident which contributed to the sluggish response from local officials and lack of urgency from the politburo and Premier Gorbachev. Along with Dyatlov and Fomin, he was sentenced to a 10 year prison term but only served 5 years.
Reactor Number 4
The nuclear reactor itself is perhaps the most important character in the story of Chernobyl. The reactor was a RBMK graphite-moderated nuclear reactor, using carbon to moderate neutrons to facilitate nuclear fission. There are several problematic characteristics of the reactor which contributed to the disaster.
Positive Void Coefficient
As a nuclear reaction unfolds, it is possible for areas in the reactor normally kept at an acceptable temperature to form steam voids, where water has been prematurely converted to steam. Most reactors have a negative void coefficient, meaning that as a reactor heats up, steam voids become harder to form and thus so is the path to a chain reaction or meltdown. RBMK reactors have a positive void coefficient, which make it easier for steam voids to form and an escalating chain reaction more likely.
Graphite-Tipped Control Rods
Control rods, when inserted into a nuclear reactor, slow down nuclear fission, and the reverse occurs as they are removed. The control rods present in the RBMK reactor were tipped with graphite, resulting in an initial increase in reactivity rather than a decrease during their initial insertion. This fatal flaw at Chernobyl was not widely known to nuclear operators, a near-accident at the Ignalina nuclear power plant was covered up by Soviet nuclear authorities.
The RBMK reactors were generally unstable at low temperatures, and control room staff took the reactor below the minimum acceptable power level at the start of the test. The test itself was prompted by concerns about the reactor coming under attack, and power to the primary coolant systems being affected as a result. It was theorized, but never proven, that the rotational momentum of the turbines would be enough to power the coolant systems until the diesel-powered backup systems could come online. As such, the test involved taking the reactor to a near-halt, leaving it in a dangerously unstable state.
Now that you have the foundational information necessary to interpret the events depicted in the HBO Chernobyl production, the next part of this series will examine how accurate part 1’s portrayal of events is.