Fact vs Fiction : HBO's 'Chernobyl' Episode 2
Episode 2 opens on nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk discovering something is wrong by the radiation counter in her office going off, and she proceeds to collect some dust and analyze it to find out where the source of the radioactive particles might be. Her character is entirely fabricated by Chernobyl, but both this event and the nature of her character do have some roots in reality.
Nuclear engineers at power plants in Sweden and elsewhere were among the first outside of the Soviet Union to discover there had been an accident somewhere, as the radiation detectors that were part of the entry procedures to their power plants kept going off and preventing workers from entering. Eventually, workers used radiation detecting equipment to perform the type of analysis Ulana does and discover the likely source is the Chernobyl power plant. In reality, radiation was detected by a botanical institute located in Kiev.
Ulana herself is said to be a composite of many soviet nuclear scientists, but her main inspiration is likely Evgeny Velikhov. Evgeny was a colleague of Legasov’s at the Kurchatov Institute and his chief rival for leadership of the institute. Although most documentaries and docudramas depict only group of people on the commission throughout the whole disaster, Shcherbina, Legasov and others were given relief by a second group, of which Velikhov was one. Legasov stayed behind, and had some conflict with Velikhov as he does with Ulana on-screen.
Scenes at the local hospital in Pripyat are largely accurate to reality, as a general hospital they were not equipped to deal with radiation sickness to the magnitude that was encountered after the disaster. While disposal of the workers irradiated clothing did occur, it happened much later than shown in this episode, contributing to the health impacts on the workers. It is however unlikely that enough residual radioactivity existed to immediately give surface radiation burns as depicted.
The story of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of Vasily Ignatenko, one of the firefighters is largely accurate to what actually happened. She did visit and stay with him until the end, they did engage in physical contact and her child was eventually lost due to cirrhosis of the liver and a congenital heart defect, likely consequences of radioactivity.
Legasov’s confrontation with Gorbachev is unlikely to have occurred at the outset of the disaster, however Gorbachev did have direct contact with the scientific leaders of the Chernobyl commission. Velikhov was Gorbachev’s scientific advisor and did contact him directly several times during the disaster, and conversely Gorbachev took a dislike to Legasov as events unfolded as he felt he was not being told the whole truth. Scherbina’s assignment was also not done on a whim, he was always intended to chair the first group on the Chernobyl commission.
The helicopter flight close to the destroyed reactor did occur, but neither Legasov nor Shcherbina were aboard. Instead, Boris Prushinksy, chief engineer of the Ministry of Energy’s nuclear department was aboard with some photographers and was able to finally dispel the fiction that the reactor was still intact.
The scene depicting a vehicle taking radiation readings did occur, however Alexander Logachev did not undertake the journey alone, and it was not what led to the suspension of delusions about the reactor being intact. After the helicopter survey indicated the core was exposed and the reactor destroyed, Fomin finally admitted as much at 4:00 PM, and the results of the ground radiation survey were not reported until 5:00 PM.
The effort to drop a mixture of sand, boron and dolomite into the reactor is another largely accurate depictions with some departures made for dramatic effect such as the timing of the helicopter crash, it did not occur until much later in the effort. It is also important to note that this effort was largely futile, later investigation inside the reactor itself showed that virtually none of the drops hit their intended target, with some actually damaging the roof of reactor 3.
The phone call to Shcherbina reports actual events, the US did turn spy satellites on Chernobyl after the initial reports by Sweden and other states of an increase in radiation from that area and did discover the extent of the disaster. The evacuation of Pripyat did eventually occur when the USSR could no longer hide the danger the residents were in.
The direct conflict between Legasov and Ulana is rooted in the reality of the differing opinions between Legasov and Velikhov, but happened in a much more structured fashion than we see in Chernobyl. As Legasov was on the ground at the power plant, Velikhov was leading a team in Moscow to gather experimental data on the behaviour of the materials.
They had intended to instead review scientific documents that had been flown over from contacts in the West, but concluded the research would progress more quickly if they instead gathered experimental data themselves, during which Velikhov confirmed his fears about reactor materials melting through the floors of the plant, a phenomenon which was popularized in The China Syndrome which Velikhov had recently seen.
The episode ends with the commission enlisting the help of plant workers to drain the water below the core to prevent a massive thermal explosion. On this event, Chernobyl is more accurate than Surviving Disaster which leads the viewer to believe that the team never returned from the reactor after opening the sluice gates. In actuality, none of these men died following the relief efforts, and at least one is still alive to this day. The overall effort is depicted mostly as it happened, including the celebration of their efforts as they emerged from the basement of reactor four.
Fact or Fiction?
Episode 2 is where Chernobyl starts the process of dramatization in earnest : Ulana is a fictional construct, and Shcherbina and Legasov were never on the helicopter that flew over Chernobyl.
As with Episode 1 however, the dramatizations do mostly paint a picture that is congruent with what actually happened, and it is possible that the creators of Chernobyl felt that splitting the action between Legasov at Chernobyl and Velikhov in Moscow might have hurt the presentation of events, and opted for a more condensed and simplified depiction of the conflict between Legasov and other scientific members of the Chernobyl commission.
The best way to succinctly summarize whether the episode is accurate is to ask ‘After viewing this episode, would a layperson have an accurate understanding of what transpired and why?’. According to this metric, Episode 2 does communicate a mostly accurate version of events, if a condensed one which does leave out some important players in the crisis and moves others around.