Fact vs Fiction : HBO's 'Chernobyl' Episode 3
Episode 3 continues the story of the plant workers headed into a flooded basement to open sluice gates to allow contaminated water to be pumped out of the basement of the plant. As mentioned in Episode 2’s summary, this is largely accurate to historical events.
As Lyudmilla goes to visit Vasily, we see an example of the latency period of Acute Radiation Syndrome. After initial exposure, the first symptoms of skin redness and vomiting will decrease and mostly disappear altogether for a brief time. This is unfortunately a very temporary reprieve from the effects of ionizing radiation, as soon after the body begins to again decline as the immune system and bone marrow itself falter and disintegrate.
Despite bone marrow transplants, and the soviet physicians going so far as to enlist the help of Dr.Robert Gale from the UCLA Medical Center, very little could be done for the plant workers and firefighters who absorbed massive doses of radiation. While gruesome, the road to death portrayed in Chernobyl is largely accurate to how ARS behaves in real life : Hair falls out, tissues swell, and the body is burned from the inside out by the effects of radiation. The bodies of the dead were actually buried in specially made coffins to contain the effects of radiation.
Legasov receives news that the temperature is increasing, and that the meltdown that was feared has begun. In reality, separate initial plans were conceived to deal with this threat. Firstly, Legasov wanted to attempt to pump liquid nitrogen through pipes in the core to smother the fire, a measure that unfortunately proved pointless since the reactor was exposed to open air and any nitrogen would have simply floated upwards.
Secondly, specialized Japanese drilling equipment was procured and utilized to drill horizontally from a pit dug by unit three to unit four, with the intention of running pipes containing liquid nitrogen and freeze the ground to prevent the mass of lava-like corium from reaching the water table. This also proved fruitless as many obstacles not on survey maps were encountered by the drilling team, and experiments showed that the corium would be able to flow through gaps between the pipes filled with liquid nitrogen.
These failed measures lead to the plan we see depicted in Chernobyl for which the miners are recruited, installing a custom built heat exchanger that would stop the flow of corium. Ironically, this work proved to be as fruitless as the other measures as the device was never turned on as temperature inexplicably began to drop just before the mining operation was completed. It was later determined, in the search for where all of the fuel from the reactor had gone, that fire essentially burned itself out.
Midway through the episode we start going back to the cause of the accident, and in reality as they lay dying, Toptunov and Akimov were repeatedly interrogated about the events that led to the explosion. Ulana begins to discover the pressing the AZ-5 emergency stop button seemed to cause a power surge. In reality, this is what happened and was the ultimate cause of the disaster.
RBMK reactors use control rods constructed of Boron carbide, but are tipped with graphite. As these rods are lowered, the graphite itself not only temporarily increases reactivity, but displaces water at the bottom of the core. The increase in reactivity due to these effects was referred to as a ‘positive scram’, and observed in 1983 at the Ignalina power plant, which also used RBMK reactors. This information was classified as a state secret and not disseminated to plant personnel.
Due to Toptunov allowing the core power to fall extremely low, the bottom of the core was already unstable, and the solution used to raise power for the test was to remove all control rods. With these conditions present, the positive scram was all that was needed to cause the explosion. Practically however, the explosion was caused by both the refusal of soviet nuclear authorities to fix design flaws in the RBMK reactor and the refusal to communicate the positive scram effect observed at Ignalina to plant operators.
The episode ends with the burial of some of the initial radiation victims, in a nod to reality Lyudmilla is seen holding her husband’s shoes, in reality his body was so badly swollen his feet would not fit into his footwear. As mentioned, the bodies of the dead were still dangerously radioactive so they were buried in specially crafted coffins and covered with concrete.
Fact or Fiction?
Episode 3 continues Chernobyl’s trend of being accurate in a broad sense to the events it portrays. We do step deeper into dramatization however, the most liberal description of the miners attire described them as being half-naked during the latter phase of the operation, it is unlikely they were devoid of any clothing while working to dig the space.
This dramatization also follows Ulana through the episode, constantly tracked and eventually arrested by the KGB. There is no doubt that the concern of soviet authorities for keeping the accident contributed to several negligent decisions, however this tended to result in situations like phone privileges being revoked rather than outright arrest during the incident.
The creative liberties taken in this episode do not impact our understanding of the overall story, although the lack of detail on the differing measures taken to combat the descending mass of corium may lead us to believe the solution was far more obvious than it actually was.