HBO’s Chernobyl review
A review by Dr Alex Cherlin, principal physicist medical imaging
Not only is Alex a physicist but he specialises in radiation detector technology and was living in Russia at the time of the events at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. He was the natural choice from Team Kromek to review the HBO historical drama about the Chernobyl disaster, as you would expect Alex has a lot to say.
Living in the Soviet Union at the time of the Chernobyl disaster
Being a nuclear physicist and working with radiation detection technology almost inevitably means that you will come across something related to the Chernobyl catastrophe, sooner or later. For me, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that I was born in the Soviet Union (as it was called at the time) and was 12 years old when the disaster happened. At the time, we lived in Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan, an independent country nowadays) which is about 3,000 km from Ukraine, and I was in the 5th grade of a secondary school.
This is how I first heard of the Chernobyl disaster
Once a week, we used to have these political information meetings in the morning, before the classes start. Those meetings were delivered by pupils on rotation and the teacher was usually just observing the whole thing. On one of such mornings (I don’t remember when exactly of course), our teacher had suddenly sent the pupil who was supposed to present back to his place and told us that she needs to tell us something important. Until that moment, we knew absolutely nothing about the catastrophe. I am not sure about our parents, since even if they had heard something, they would not discuss any of it with us. And then she began telling the story: “A few days ago, in the morning of 26th April there was an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station…”. I don’t remember too many details about what exactly she said, but it was quite a shallow briefing, no detail which could upset the kids too much were given. But for some reason I do remember very well that very first sentence. I still can see the whole scene in front of my eyes. She did tell us that the nearby city (Pripyat) had to be evacuated, but I never knew the whole extent of the nuclear pollution fallout until much later years, when I emigrated from the USSR to Israel in 1991.
Soviet media coverage of Chernobyl was missing details
The coverage of the disaster in the Soviet media was quite extensive but very limited in terms of giving the actual information. And of course, it never went beyond the borders of the USSR, the information was limited to what was happening in the USSR only. Most of the time we were told just about what was happening near the power plant itself.
The first time I heard that people from more distant places like Kiev (about 100 km away) were affected at all was in Israel when I met people from those parts of the former USSR. There was a girl from Kiev who had scars on her throat because of the thyroid treatment which she had to undergo. There was a young couple from Minsk who became our best friends along the years – they were advised to wait to have a child for a few years after moving to Israel. As it happened, it didn’t turn out that way, but everybody is perfectly fine and healthy despite the concerns. And then there is my mum’s best friend from the high school, whose husband volunteered to be one of the Chernobyl liquidators – he was one of these people who spent 90 most important seconds of his life one that roof. Sadly, he passed away from a related disease a few years ago and I never got a chance to have any conversation with him.
Does the series look accurate?
Virtually everything what I heard about the series was so positive, that I couldn’t resist for long and started watching. I swallowed the first two episodes in one evening, but after that decided that it requires much longer mind-processing time and I’ve finished the other three episodes in the course of the next few days. Now, when all of that has settled in my head, I think that I can try to sort out my thoughts and feelings. The most overwhelming emotion which I can express is simply “wow”. I have hard time finding anything negative to say about the series, apart from some highly politicised opinions from Russia claiming the series to be a political propaganda hit job on the glorious Soviet Union. First, one must remember that this is not a documentary, therefore it should not be judged on the literal precision of accounting the events and scientific details. But having said that, I think the creators did get it almost as good as I think was practically possible.
It’s difficult though to assess that in relation to the documentary details. We will never know the full truth of what and how happened. The Soviet authorities invested a lot of efforts to conceal the truth and the main tool which remains for us nowadays is the witnesses and participants in the events. Enough documentary reporting has been released after the series premiered to allow concluding that at least what has been shown is close enough to what really was going on.
Look and feel of the series
What really amazed me right from the beginning was absolutely realistic presentation of the atmosphere, the environment, the people and the interaction between them on all levels. I was old enough to remember all that and I was literally taken back into being a child growing up in the Soviet Union from the first minutes of the show. There were so many little details which were authentic that I could feel myself being a part of what was going on in the screen – the colours of the walls in the staircases of apartment buildings, the striped thermos on the physicist Ulana Khomyuk’s desk, I had exactly a same one. The windows, the electricity meter, the clothes on the people and the rest of the set design and costumes were spot on to what I remember. And the most important thing – nobody spoke that horrible broken Russian which you can find in many Hollywood movies. Everybody speaks in their native accents in English and the few genuine Russian inclusions are accompanied by English subtitles. Therefore, nothing distracts you from immersing into the story.
How accurate is the science?
A lot has been written already about the storyline and how well the account of the events was portrayed. I don’t think that I can add anything to that, after all I am neither a historian nor a nuclear power plant engineer.
However, my nuclear physics and radiation safety background still allows me to appraise the scientific side of the show. Perhaps some small details were a little too theatrical for the sake of increasing the visual impression, but the overall scientific representation was very correct. The terminology, the explanations, the technical details – everything is rather accurate. The only exaggeration I could see is the speed with which the people were exhibiting the symptoms of the radiation poisoning. I would expect it to be slower, even in the case of extremely high exposure – more like hours and even days and not mere minutes. However, the level of radiation was so unimaginably high that we simply lack reliable evidence of what is really happening in such conditions.
Chernobyl data could have advanced radiation safety more
This brings me to issue which I consider to be the biggest crime of the Soviet government against the whole world, after their part in causing the explosion itself. One of the biggest difficulties and uncertainties in radiation safety is the actual knowledge of the symptoms and ramifications of the exposure to radiation. It’s difficult to calculate or simulate and everything we know is based on studying the accidents which have happened along the years. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still among the main sources of that kind of information.
In a twisted and horrible way, the Chernobyl disaster could have been a priceless source of information for health studies. It would have advanced the radiation safety science tremendously and provided incalculable service to the whole of humanity. The lives of all the people who died or were hurt there would not have been lost in vain. Humankind could have learnt a lot about the consequences and prevention of similar disasters.
The series does show the politics of the time
The Soviet government tried to cover the whole thing up, and when the truth inevitably leaked out still prevented access. That was the aspect of life in the Soviet Union which many people in the West did not fully appreciate until now. The relation of the State towards its people was completely skewed and twisted. I really liked the way it was portrayed in the show – the dominance of the Communist Party and its Central Committee over most of the aspects of the Soviet people’s life. It was exactly like that – the ranking party leaders had supreme power at all levels of the governance except for KGB-related matters. Every aspect of life was devoted to pleasing the Party leadership and reporting a success to the upper echelons. That fear of reporting the accident to the Central Committee which Viktor Bryukhanov expressed in the beginning episodes was absolutely truthful, that’s exactly how it was supposed to happen. Everything was built around demonstrating the success of the Soviet State and its supremacy over the Capitalist West.
I think that most of the secrecy which penetrated our lives so much was absolutely unnecessary, and its sole purpose was to help to present a good face to the outside world. For people who didn’t experience that life first-hand, it’s hard to understand the extent of the concealment which the Soviet State-operated, basically since the times when Josef Stalin rose to full power. The objective of showing the supremacy of Socialism over Capitalism was the ultimate Party objective and any means necessary including sacrificing human life were acceptable.
The scene with Joker – the robot from West Germany – which died just after a few minutes of operation on the roof of the reactor building illustrates this point. It was simply impossible for the Soviet government to admit to the true level of radiation on the roof since it would have derailed the whole narrative of the supremacy of the Soviet nuclear industry, which meant the robot failed as it was not built to withstand the radiation levels it encountered.
Admitting the lies surrounding the Chernobyl disaster would be seen as a direct betrayal of the Party founding principles, hence worth a very high price tag in other people’s lives to maintain. In addition to the political consideration, we also must remember that the awareness of most people to the danger of ionising radiation (apart from the nuclear scientists) was almost non-existent. I cannot say for sure about the situation in the Western countries at that time, but in the USSR, everything related to the nuclear industry was a State military secret stringently protected by the KGB. There was no information of that kind in open access and even asking questions could land you in serious troubles. Any radiation monitoring devices were considered a potential strategical threat and it was forbidden for a person without proper clearance to have one of those. All dosimeters and other such devices in the USSR were registered at the KGB and they had to be secured at all times. It was considered as a potential source of disinformation and anti-Soviet propaganda, which was one of the worst crimes in the book. That was the reason why the dosimeters at the power plant were locked in safes and there were only a few of them.
Chernobyl and the future of nuclear energy
I would like to conclude my review with a very important message to many people who started feeling serious reservations regarding the nuclear power industry as a result of watching the HBO miniseries on the Chernobyl disaster. Nobody, of course, can guarantee a 100% safety in anything, but it’s important to remember that the Chernobyl catastrophe was a result of a very unique combination of two factors – human errors and reactor design flaws, combined with serious disregard of the safety measures and absence of radiation monitoring. The latter one would not prevent the explosion but could have reduced the impact and the cost in terms of human life very considerably.
The modern nuclear reactors have a very different and much safer construction, designed specifically to disrupt any build-up of dangerous situations. The reactors have containment structures around them, radiation monitoring is very advanced and abundantly available, and finally, the awareness of the whole population to the radiation safety is incomparably higher. The chances of having a nuclear disaster of the same magnitude are extremely low and containment process would be different. The whole world would know about any serious accident literally in minutes; therefore, everybody operates under the full understanding that a cover-up is now impossible and the personal consequences for all people involved including the most powerful ones in the top would be completely devastating. That realisation that our global world is one of the best deterrents to keep people focused on making nuclear energy the most efficient, safest and greenest ways to provide electricity.
You can read more about Alex’s on his profile page here.
Want to learn more about the Chernobyl disaster
Kromek radiation detectors mapping the Red Forest
Kromek radiation detectors have been used to map the Red Forest. This huge area of dead trees featured in the HBO miniseries and was shown going red as the trees died due to the radiaiton exposure.
Read more in our User Story about radiation detectors to map the Red Forest.
World Nuclear Association article on the disaster
The World Nuclear Association in-depth article on the Chernobyl disaster can be read here. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx
How BBC Newsnight reported the news to the UK
How ABC News reported the news in the US
Books about the Chernobyl disaster
There are a lot of books about the Chernobyl disaster we’d recommend this one: Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy as a great place to start as it covers the political climate at the time, the actual disaster, clean up and the collapse of the Soviet Union.