HBO series Chernobyl: What’s fact, what’s fiction?

Snip: HBO series Chernobyl

If you lived through the 1980s as an adult in the United States, you heard about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine (then in the USSR), the worst such acknowledged disaster of its kind at the time. Ronald Reagan was president of the US; Mikhail Gorbachev was general secretary of the ruling communist party. Despite widespread analyses, investigations, and reports, there is still an element of distrust about the impacts of the explosion and fires that blew a small part of the reactor core into the atmosphere. The HBO series is riveting so far—I’ve watched four of the episodes. If you read about Chernobyl and if you watch series like this, you may come away as I have asking yourself exactly what we can believe and trust.

Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky (1826-32), north facade, with Monument to Victims of Chernobyl (1998), Petrozavodsk, Russia
Photo from US Library of Congress: Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky (1826-32), north facade, with Monument to Victims of Chernobyl (1998), Petrozavodsk, Russia.

The series is certainly frightening. As a nuclear disaster gains momentum, soviet era officials seem mired in committee meetings and politics. Above all, there was a general consensus, with a few exceptions, to downplay the crisis in order to protect the ruling powers. Some posit this was done to protect the country. It wasn’t. At that time, the Soviets had one-party authoritarian rule. There was legitimate fear in speaking truth to power. Spin benefited the party, not the people.

There was fear even among the party faithful, and there was widespread ignorance about what was happening at the plant until forced evacuations began. In the series, conscripted workers are seen shooting animals in the disaster area. I wondered if that really happened, and the best source I could find to validate the action was at The Smithsonian, via reportage from The Guardian (UK), in a story about an organization attempting to find homes for offspring of these pets:

“The pups have a heartbreaking story, as The Guardian’s Julie McDowell detailed earlier this year. During the evacuation, more than 120,000 people were herded onto buses to escape the meltdown of the Unit 4 reactor, leaving most of their valuables and their pets behind. Many dogs tried to follow their owners onto the buses but were kicked off. People left notes on their doors asking authorities not to kill their animals, but Soviet Army squads were dispatched to put down as many contaminated animals as they could find.”

There’s an interesting essay by a writer who actually lived in the Soviet Union when the explosion occurred. The writer, Leonid Bershidsky, viewed the series positively while pointing out some historical inaccuracies that had little bearing on narrating events accurately. Bershidsky also chastised countries directly affected by the disaster because they haven’t told the story yet as they saw it.

The HBO series doesn’t have to work hard to frighten the viewer. It’s enough that the most dangerous substance, the radiation, is invisible. While injuries to the workers in the plant were obvious and horrendous, the long term effect of injuries to people exposed remains a subject for debate. Some studies reflect a rise in thyroid cancer in children, but the consensus seems to be that the overall impact to humans was not as catastrophic as originally anticipated.

National Geographic reported:

“At least 28 people initially died as a result of the accident, while more than 100 were injured. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has reported that more than 6,000 children and adolescents developed thyroid cancer after being exposed to radiation from the incident, although some experts have challenged that claim.”

The World Nuclear Association, whose members are involved in some commercial aspect of nuclear energy, noted:

“A particularly sad effect of the accident was that some physicians in Europe advised pregnant women to undergo abortions on account of radiation exposure, even though the levels concerned were vastly below those likely to have teratogenic effects. The foetal death toll from this is likely very much greater than directly from the accident.”

Vice cited statistics about abortions of babies who were wanted, attributing the numbers to the International Atomic Energy Agency:

“According to the [International Atomic Energy Agency], an estimated 100,000-200,000 wanted pregnancies were aborted in Western Europe because physicians mistakenly advised patients that the radiation from Chernobyl posed a significant health risk to unborn children…”

The young mother in the series whose husband, a firefighter, was exposed to significant amounts of radiation as what we call first responders struggled to contain the fire, is based on a true story. As Vice notes, and as I noted to my husband as we watched the episode, the young expectant mother disregarded advice to not touch her husband, and to remain behind a barrier if she saw him.

A UN study found results similar to that of the WNA.

If you study reports and analyses of the Chernobyl disaster, bear in mind negativity towards nuclear energy that some consider ill-founded. The US Government provides some facts about nuclear power that is the cleanest energy if the sole criterion is emissions, including a fact that surprised me:

“All of the used nuclear fuel produced by the U.S. nuclear energy industry over the last 60 years could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards!”

The Chernobyl disaster occurred because of human error and a flaw in the design of the reactor. The disaster was made worse by an initial response on the parts of officials to deny that it could even happen. Distrust ensued as more information came forth amid media coverage.

The greatest sin, perhaps, was in the officials’ initial tendency to downplay a crisis that would affect thousands and thousands of people in one way or another. Relocation traumatized many. The denial and spin were politically necessary perhaps, but morally speaking, they were dead wrong.

For interesting commentary on fiction versus fact, including quotes that weren’t real, see the essay at The Week.

Overall, the HBO series on Chernobyl is well worth your time.

(Kay B. Day/June 3, 2019)

Something to say? Do it here.