Fact vs Fiction : HBO's 'Chernobyl' Finale
Episode 5, the last one in the miniseries, opens on an idyllic scene in Pripyat, 12 hours before the explosion. Lyudmilla looks on fondly at another couple’s child, Dyatlov marches to work with a briefcase, and we cut to the inside of Bryukhanov’s office. This scene serves two purposes, both accurate to reality : Demonstrating the urgency to complete the test, mostly for personal glory and promotions. Also covered is the power shortage reported by the Kiev grid controller, necessitating a delay of the test until shortly after midnight.
Cutting back to the ‘present’, Legasov is freshly returned from Vienna, and his sanitized report was well received by the international community. Also true to reality, Legasov’s initial report was heavily slanted in the direction of operator error, only later to be amended with an appendix detailing the RBMK reactor’s design flaws.
The trial itself is modified from reality: There were six defendants, not 3. Aside from the 3 we see on screen, Yuri Laushikin, Alexander Kovalenko, and Boris Rogozhkin were also tried for negligence. While the on-screen defendants did accept some measure of guilt at the actual trial, the others rejected any culpability for the accident.
In the episode we also see the toll the cleanup efforts have taken on Legasov and Shcherbina, both are suffering from the effects of radiation exposure with symptoms such as hair loss, and coughing up blood. Also true to reality, Boris Shcherbina died 4 years after the accident, and it’s likely Legasov would have soon succumbed had he not taken his own life.
The opening scene with Legasov and the KGB director as well as the trial itself is where we deviate significantly from reality, Legasov kept up his public ‘cover story’ until some time after the trial was over, and although testimony was given at the trial about the design flaws, it was not from Legasov. Although the episode paints Legasov’s colleagues as the ones who would argue for reform in a unified voice, in actuality physicists repeated the state’s narrative about blaming the operators wholly for the disaster and not the reactors they had designed.
One accurate element of the trial regards the judge dismissing testimony regarding the fact that the operators did not know about the reactor flaw. Although the prosecutor only gets a few lines on-screen, in reality he was extremely critical of all involved in the accident, calling Toptunov a ‘weak specialist’ and highlighting that Akimov lived in fear of Dyatlov. He reserved some of his most caustic remarks for Dyatlov, calling him a ‘nuclear hooligan’.
Legasov’s testimony is accurate as to what finally caused the accident, Xenon poisoning can be a difficult concept to understand but the visual aid Legasov uses makes it very clear that the reactor was out of balance and the reckless actions of the control staff robbed them of all control. There is more detail to add to Legasov’s explanation of ‘it’s cheaper’ for the graphite-tipped control rods however.
The rods were tipped with graphite for a few different reasons, at rest they were very near the top of the core, the graphite tips would ensure they did not hamper reactivity, resulting in more efficiency. Another reason is that the graphite combined with boron increases the overall impact of reactivity in the core, having a reactivity accelerant in close proximity to a reactivity inhibitor actually increases the impact of inserting the control rods. These attributes however are probably not worth the extreme downside of an emergency shutdown command resulting in an extreme power surge.
After the trial, Legasov tried to argue for improvements, and advocated for new reactor designs, cooled with molten salt. The director of the innocuously named ‘Ministry of Medium Machine Building’ responsible for nuclear reactors, Efim Slavsky, was not amenable however. He had persisted with ignoring the design issues inherent in the RBMK reactors and in no uncertain terms told Legasov to mind his own business.
Legasov then became more extreme in his reforms, arguing for changes that would challenge the hegemony of the state, and for the breakup of the Ministry of Machine Medium Building. The reaction to this was even more pronounced, not only did the old guard resent him, but even his colleagues amenable to reforms saw his rise to power and prestige as a function of the very communist state he was now arguing against.
In declining health, Legasov submitted proposal after proposal for reform, but his ability to effect change was gradually slipping away. His own colleagues at the Kurchatov institute voted against him being placed on an advisory council, and a further humiliation was yet to come. Chernobyl depicts the KGB offering and then rescinding the highest civilian award, Hero of Socialist Labour. In reality it was the director of the Kurchatov institute that had promised this to him, but he never received it due to Gorbachev deciding that no one from the institute should be rewarded for a disaster he perceived them as helping to create.
After this humiliation, Legasov attempted suicide on two separate occasions. Afterwards, he began to attack the very foundations of communist society as lacking moral guidance, and proposed a truly autonomous nuclear regulatory body to oversee the Soviet nuclear industry. This was, of course, rejected, and drove Legasov to suicide, as depicted in episode one he was found hanged, by his son.
While Legasov’s suicide undoubtedly was a factor in the truth coming to light, it was actually an expose by Grigori Medvedev known as the Chernobyl Notebook which shook the scientific community to its core. Despite his altruistic portrayal in the series, Boris Shcherbina attempted to have this suppressed as it covered his delay in evacuating the city of Pripyat.
The Final Verdict : Mostly Fact
The finale of Chernobyl is easily the strongest episode in the series, and can be watched apart from the rest of the production and still give an accurate and engaging account of what happened on that fateful night. It does, however, deviate significantly in portraying both Legasov and Shcherbina as varying degrees of highly moralistic crusaders for the truth.
On the whole, the series itself is very accurate, and is not the anti-nuclear propaganda piece many had feared it would be. It is not the responsibility of .a docudrama to spin the nuclear industry in a positive light, but rather to avoid sensationalizing a horrific tragedy, which Chernobyl is careful to steer clear of. There is little doubt that the series has captured the attention of many who would have otherwise not been interested in reading historical accounts, and is very clear about the systemic issues of authoritarianism, deceit and corruption in the USSR that were the ultimate cause of the disaster.
On a purely technical note, the final depiction of the explosion of reactor 4 is truly impressive, as most other productions simply did not have the budget that HBO did for this series. The acting is also superb, in particular Stellan Skarsgard who portrays Shcherbina.
The final question to ask : what does Chernobyl mean for the nuclear industry? It is undeniable that the gruesome portrayal of ARS is going to be used as a club against further development of the nuclear industry. The silver lining, however, is that the series does not shy away from calling out the deceit inherent in the soviet nuclear industry and regulator as prime factors in the disaster, and not that nuclear power itself is inherently unsafe.
Ultimately, modern innovations such as thorium and molten salt reactors have a lot of stigma to overcome to gain widespread acceptance, but Chernobyl does open the door to start the conversation, and acknowledge the mistakes of the past without granting those mistakes a veto over responsible development of nuclear power.
In closing this series, I would like to acknowledge in particular Adam Higginbotham and his book Midnight in Chernobyl, an excellent history of the disaster and aftermath which clears up a lot of misinformation that came from English language accounts in prior publications.
Although some other productions on Chernobyl do contain some amount of misinformation, they generally offer different perspectives on different parts of the story. The Battle Of Chernobyl focuses mainly on the relief efforts, Surviving Disaster is another take on a docudrama, and both Zero Hour and Seconds From Disaster offer a more clinical analysis of the technical causes of the explosion.