HBO Show Chernobyl-A Personal and Comparative Historical Analysis
HBO’s hit Chernobyl series spawned a stir of dialogue about the evils of the Soviet system and nuclear energy production. After watching this drama and being from a family that survived the tragedy, I thought it would be important to discuss things as I saw and knew them, what is true, and what is not. This is not a defense of the Soviet system, but a fact-based set of observations on my part.
The chronology of the events appears to be accurate. Especially the fact that my family immediately evacuated the region to Tashkent, Georgia to avoid the radioactive remnants brought on by the nuclear and traditional winds. I vaguely recall this. Most of this was told to me by my mother a long time ago, as I craved to know further my family’s history.
The event reconstruction put together by HBO is impressive and it shows the massive research and effort put into it. I also applaud the authenticity and accurate portrayal of the Soviet atmosphere as depicted in 1986. It is almost identical to the movies shown by the Soviet Union’s biggest movie producer of that era, Mosfilm. For your own comparison, you can watch Soviet movies with English subtitles on the mosfilm.ru website for free, just select the time period of the 1980s. Without knowing the culture, mentality and issues during the era, creators made almost perfect identical scenarios and understood the Soviet culture very deeply, whilst clearly attempting an unbiased presentation of the situation.
However, a few factors seem to be missing or misconstrued.
The show specifically created an atmosphere of lying Politburo members, commanders of the nuclear station, who are aggressive and borderline criminal. The evacuation of the city started 36 hours after the tragedy, however many knew prior to that to leave the area. In Kiev, the majority of public servants were evacuating their families within 24 hours to different former Republics, going to stay with extended families and friends. It is true the information in the government-controlled media channels was very limited, the magnitude of the tragedy was not immediately understood, nor was the response to evacuate adequate in comparison to Western standards. Hence, my personal fortune to be living in North America, where the government would not let their own people suffer to that degree.
Furthermore, the Politburo created a commission pertaining to the explosion with high level portfolios immediately the following morning. The academics and political machine arrived on the evening of April 26. They had no experience handling such a situation prior to Chernobyl, nor could manuals prepare anyone for the mass catastrophe. At the time the Chernobyl and surrounding regions weren’t on lockdown to get out, get in yes, to leave any resident could have gotten out to another area, if they wished to do so. The series continually keeps referring to the nuclear explosion, to clarify, there was an explosion of the nuclear reactor meltdown. The Reactor 4 at the nuclear station was taken out of ration on April 25, 1986 for maintenance. According to the Nuclear Energy Agency, the consensus is the tragedy occurred due to excessive amounts of steam, secondary by hydrogen, whilst the additional steam occurred due to the cooling water, causing steam build up in cooling pipes, in turn creating a gigantic power surge. In turn releasing radiation via fission products Iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137.
Here are two videos that can aid in understanding how nuclear reactors work:
The other commentary made in the initial series, that half of Europe could have been destroyed if the melted fuel enters under the reactor, from a physics perspective is nearly impossible. You can read more in regards to the reactors functionality here: http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-power-reactors/nuclear-power-reactors.aspx, including what happens during a nuclear meltdown.
According to the Soviet records and myriad of Russian independent researchers, Sherbin did not call Legasov. Legasov found out from his colleague Yarmakov, the knowledge about the commission was told by Meshkov (first deputy minister of atomic energy at the time). There are also odd details about Legasov flying in the helicopter to Chernobyl, when in fact there was a chartered flight to Kiev and he was driven by a chauffeur to the area of the tragedy.
Moreover, the threats to the first responders and engineers weren’t exactly documented by the accounts of their family members or the survivors. Many didn’t understand the ramifications and first responders did not have the proper gear to protect themselves from radiation and some died horrible deaths afterward in nightmarish suffering.
Overall, the series is a great source of information and provides an understanding of the history of Chernobyl and the tragic events that followed after.
I am grateful the US-British project provided insights into the tragedy, sadly Russia picks and chooses which historical facts to show.