Fact vs Fiction : HBO's 'Chernobyl' Episode 1
In the first part of this series, I outlined the background of the setting, several major players, and the reactor itself involved in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Now, with that groundwork having been laid, it’s time to dive into Episode 1.
One individual that was not mentioned in Part 1 was Valery Legasov, for the simple reason that his involvement with the Chernobyl disaster takes center stage in the HBO docu-drama, as it did in the earlier BBC Surviving Disaster episode on Chernobyl. At the time of the disaster, he was the First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. Tragically, he took his own life near the second anniversary of the disaster in 1988. Prior to his death he was twice nominated for civilian awards, but was rejected both times, likely due to the poor light his work cast on the communist regime.
Both Chernobyl programs open in exactly the same way, with Legasov’s suicide 2 years after the disaster. Surviving Disaster does not dramatize his suicide, choosing to open instead with local authorities finding his body. HBO’s Chernobyl on the other hand opens with Legasov recording the last of a series of audio tapes, hiding them in a dead drop location and then taking his own life. You can view transcripts of these audio tapes here , if you are fluent in Russian or handy with Google Translate. The opening narration in Chernobyl about the cost of lies is poignant, but completely fabricated.
We see the explosion at reactor number 4 not from the plant itself, or inside the control room, but from the apartment of one of the firefighters and his pregnant wife. We also see an eerie blue glow traversing up into the sky, indicating the escape of radioactive particles from the reactor.
Events then shift to the control room, where we meet Dyatlov, Akimov, Toptunov and others. Each production on Chernobyl seems to take a different approach to portraying the dynamic between Dyatlov and his staff, in some Dyatlov is seen as having total control, others show the control room staff attempting to convince him not to proceed with the test, or to believe the initially correct reports of the reactor having exploded.
The events portrayed in the control room are largely accurate to the historical accounts, problems being reported in the turbine hall, eyewitnesses reporting the reactor had exploded were disbelieved. Most tragically of all, the lives of Akimov and Toptunov were thrown away in a futile attempt to cool down what was utterly destroyed by pumping water through the ruined reactor.
It’s unlikely that Dyatlov would have left the control room for a stroll in the middle of an emergency, the segment where he observes burning graphite is likely largely dramatized, but is an effective way to underscore how most of the decision makers on that evening would not believe the evidence seen with their own eyes.
The actual audio recording of the call to the fire brigade is used, and the description of the roof of the power plant is accurate, in a rush to get the building completed the roof was constructed with bitumen instead of fire-resistant materials.
The next events show staff hurriedly looking for dosimeters, devices that will give a reading of the ambient radiation in the surrounding area. Today most radiation readings are done in Sieverts, however the dosimeters in use at Chernobyl used roentgens instead. The dosimeters most easily accessible to the staff had a limit of 3.6 roentgens, and as the episode continues it is again faithful to reality in this clearly inaccurate reading being reported as fact, lulling authorities into a false sense of security that the accident was actually quite minor.
As staff traverse the bowels of the power plant, we see the initial effects of Acute Radiation Syndrome begin to take hold, primarily vomiting and reddening of the skin. This is in-line with what happened in reality, as operators fell ill replacements took their place, and they themselves then became ill. The most tragic example is Anatoly Sitnikov, after Dyatlov fell ill he was ordered to go on the roof of unit C and observe the reactor, where he received a fatal dose of radiation.
This episode also mirrors reality in that control room staff were honestly puzzled as to why the control rods only went one-third of the way in, not knowing it was these control rods which had caused the explosion and were now useless. Lives were also lost in the futile attempt by some staff to lower the rods manually.
The depiction of the initial firefighting efforts is also fairly accurate in that the firefighters were not told of the immense radiation danger of the general area or of the extreme radioactivity of the blocks of graphite that were scattered around the site. Many firefighters fell ill shortly after starting firefighting operations. Survivors did report ‘tasting metal’ as is shown in the episode, as well as feeling pinpricks on their face, two signs of radiation poisoning.
Interludes in the town of Pripyat itself are dramatized, but within the realm of possibility given the town was not evacuated until days after the disaster and curiosity would likely have gotten the better of many of the town’s residents with them not being aware of the immense danger.
Dyatlov’s initial meeting with Fomin and Bryukhanov did happen, but it is unclear as to whether the hydrogen accumulation theory was advanced by Dyatlov or was a counter-proposal by either of the 2 other men to downplay the seriousness of the disaster. The same question remains for whether the decision to report 3.6 roentgens as an accurate measurement was Dyatlov’s, or some combination of Fomin and Bryukhanov.
A pivotal moment of the episode is the gathering of local communist party officials with Bryukhanov and Fomin. This is largely dramatized, with the communist party official invoking Lenin’s name likely being an amalgamation of many actual officials if they were present so soon after the disaster at all, but the overall sentiment is accurate in terms of the Soviets treating the escape of information about the disaster as far worse than the real human costs.
Sitnikov’s meeting with Bryukhanov and Fomin is also dramatized, but accurate in that his superiors refused to believe the reactor had exploded, and essentially ordered him to his death to try and confirm their delusions that the reactor must still be intact.
The episode ends with Legasov receiving a call from Boris Shcherbina, Vice-Chairman of the Council of Ministers informing Legasov of the accident and that he has been drafted to serve on a committee overseeing crisis management of the disaster. This diverges significantly from reality, in actuality Legasov learned of the disaster and his assignment to the committee from a meeting of communist party officials rather than a phone call.
Fact or Fiction?
Overall, episode 1 stays very true to reality, with some dramatizations of actual exchanges and only a few outright fabrications. The omission of events prior to the explosion is significant however: In the context of the dramatic presentation, the ‘why’ or ‘how’ might not matter, but in the larger context of the nuclear energy debate simply presenting the horrific aftermath of the disaster is likely to inflame rather than inform. It does remain to be seen as to whether these questions will be answered in subsequent episodes, and I will return to what the lasting impacts of Chernobyl will be at the end of this series.