HBO’s Chernobyl – A Personal and Comparative Historical Analysis

  • I applaud the authenticity and how accurate the Soviet atmosphere was depicted in 1986.
  • None of them had any experience handling such a situation; there were no manuals to prepared anyone for such a mass catastrophe.
  • The other claim made in the series, that half of Europe could have been destroyed if the melted fuel enters under the reactor, from the physics prospective it is nearly impossible.

HBO’s hit Chernobyl series is spawning quite 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, just a fact-based set of observations on my part.

The Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR. It is one of only two nuclear disasters rated as INES 7.

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 accident 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 displays the massive research and effort that went into it, including delivering all the key factors. I also applaud the authenticity and how accurate the Soviet atmosphere from 1986 was depicted. It is almost identical to the movies shown by the Soviet’s biggest movie producer of that era Mosfilm. For your own comparison you can watch Soviet movies with English subtitles on the website for free. Just select the time period of the 1980s. Without knowing the culture, mentality and issues during the era, the creators made almost perfect identical scenarios and understood the Soviet culture very deeply. It is a clear attempt at 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, and commanders of the nuclear station who are aggressive and border line criminal. The evacuation of the city started 36 hours after the tragedy, however many people knew prior to leave the area. In Kiev, a majority of public servants were evacuating their families within 24 hours to different former Republics, going to stay with extended family 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, and the response to the evacuation was inadequate 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 with high level portfolios to deal with the explosion the following morning. The academics and political machine arrived on the evening of April 26. None of them had any experience handling such a situation; there were no manuals to prepared anyone for such a mass catastrophe. At the time, the Chernobyl and surrounding regions weren’t on lockdown. Any resident could have gotten out to another area, if they wished to do so.

The series continually refers to the nuclear explosion. The Reactor 4 at the nuclear station was taken out of rotation on April 25, 1986 for maintenance. According to the Nuclear Energy Agency, the consensus is the tragedy occurred primarily due to excessive amounts of steam, secondarily due to hydrogen. The additional steam occurred due to the entrance of cooling water, causing steam build up in the cooling pipes, which in turn created a gigantic power surge. This released radiation via fission products Iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137. Here are two videos that can aid in understanding how nuclear reactors work (VIDEO 1) and (VIDEO 2).

“A huge amount of energy was suddenly released, which vapourised superheated cooling water, rupturing the reactor pressure vessel in a highly destructive steam explosion, which was instantly followed by an open-air reactor core fire.”Wikipedia

The other claim made in the series, that half of Europe could have been destroyed if the melted fuel enters under the reactor, from the physics prospective it is nearly impossible. You can read more in regards to the reactors functionality, including what happens during a nuclear meltdown.

Valery Alekseyevich Legasov (September 1, 1936 – April 27, 1988) was a prominent Soviet inorganic chemist and a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. He is now mainly remembered for his work as the chief of the commission investigating the Chernobyl disaster.

According to the Soviet records and a myriad of Russian independent researchers, politician Boris Shcherbina did not call the scientist Valery Legasov as depicted in the show. 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 is also an odd detail 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.

Scenes in the series depicting 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 after with nightmarish suffering.

It is also not mentioned that within a few months robots were designed by the Soviets including Robot RR-G1, Robot TR-A2, Robot TR-B1, TR-G1, TR-G2. The robots were primitive in comparison to today’s highly sophisticated machines, but they served a purpose and were successful in their tasks. Sadly, prior robots could not provide mechanical solutions and be used for the decontamination of the Chernobyl disaster site and officials were forced to use human labor, exposing workers to a death sentence carrying out tasks wearing only cotton attire.

Overall, the series is a great historical artifact, including for my millennial generation, and provides an understanding of history and the tragic events that followed.

I am grateful the US-British project provided insights into the tragedy. Sadly Russia picks and chooses which historical facts to show.

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Christina Kitova

Christina Kitova spent most of her professional life in finance, insurance risk management litigation

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