Ten times the Chernobyl television series lets artistic licence get in the way of facts

Ten times the Chernobyl television series lets artistic licence get in the way of facts
The memorial to the Chernobyl disaster in front of the reactor, now encased in its new containment shield. Credit: Jorge Franganillo, CC BY

Audiences have been gripped by Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky series that charts the events and aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of April 1986.

I have coordinated a number of international research projects on the impacts of the Chernobyl accident, and made dozens of visits to the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. There has been considerable praise for the attention to detail in the sets, props and clothes that helped immerse viewers in a sense of being in late-period Soviet society – including from those that remember it first hand. But there are also errors, or aspects of how the story plays out that have been invented to add drama to the story.

1. The helicopter crash

The dramatic scene early on in which a helicopter crasheswhile attempting to fly over the reactor—apparently due to the —never happened. But helicopter video footage taken the time shows static and distortions generated by the intense radiation field above the , and there were reports of pilots getting from their sorties.

2. The 'Bridge of Death'

The unforgivably late response of the authorities meant that citizens of Pripyat were out in the open after the accident—and some did go to the so-called "bridge of death" nearer the plant to watch the fire. But I've seen no evidence that all the people on the bridge died, and no evidence that radiation doses there were so dangerously high.

3. Radiation sickness in Pripyat

In fact, on average, residents of Pripyat received an average dose of around 30 millisieverts (mSv) – about the same as three whole-body CT scans—due to the late warning about the danger. There is a scene in the local hospital that appears to show children suffering from radiation sickness: Experts confirmed 134 cases of radiation sickness among the firemen and plant operators, but none among the population of Pripyat.

4. 'You're sitting next to a nuclear reactor'

In highly emotional scenes we see the pregnant wife of a firefighter visiting her husband suffering from acute radiation syndrome in Moscow Hospital Number Six. This happened, and is one of numerous first-hand accounts the series draws from Voices from Chernobyl by the Belarussian journalist and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. But the drama implies that the baby absorbed such high doses of radiation from the husband that it subsequently died. A US doctor who helped treat the plant workers and firefighters says that the patients didn't present a significant radiation risk to staff and visitors. Studies after Chernobyl have found no convincing evidence that pregnancy outcomes were affected by radiation exposures.

5. Reactors aren't nuclear bombs

The fears of a nuclear explosion in the two to four-megatonne range due to reactor core meltdown, which, it was claimed, would destroy the nearby city of Kiev and make large areas of Europe uninhabitable, turned out to be wrong. Nuclear power stations don't explode like nuclear bombs – and certainly not thermonuclear ones in the megatonne range. In any case, such an explosion wouldn't have destroyed Minsk, nor would it have made Europe uninhabitable.

6. The divers

The three heroic men who worked to drain the tanks of water below the primary containment chamber to prevent coming into contact with water which was believed would cause an explosion did so in vain. Subsequent analysis found that the tanks were already mostly empty, and the interaction of the melting fuel with the water might even have helped cool it.

7. The helicopter pilots

The incredibly brave attempts by helicopter pilots to drop boron, sand and lead onto the melting fuel rods likely helped to put out the fire burning in the graphite moderator, but it largely missed the nuclear fuel and the melted core which, after burning through the primary containment, cooled down by itself.

8. The miners

The brave miners who made huge efforts to dig a tunnel under the reactor building to install a heat exchanger to remove heat from under the core also did so in vain: The heat exchanger was never used as the core cooled before it was installed. The risk of radioactivity entering the water table under the reactor (sited near a lake and river system) was found to be elevated, but still low.

9. The liquidators

At the end of the series, claims about the aftermath shown onscreen imply that no studies were made of the hundreds of thousands of liquidators who cleaned up after the accident. In fact there were many studies of this group, and they have proved inconclusive on whether there was an increase in cancer. It is likely they did experience an increased cancer risk, but this was very small compared to the many other health risks they faced and continue to face, including cardiovascular disease, smoking and—a general problem across former Soviet countries – excess alcohol consumption.

10. Failings

Scientists come out as heroes from the show. While there were countless heroes, including scientists, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, ultimately, the Soviet scientific community as well as its political system was responsible for the design flaws of the RBMK reactor, the lack of safety culture, and unforgivable lack of preparedness for such an accident.

A cautionary tale

It is important not to underestimate the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. Studies have found an increase in thyroid cancer, mainly due to the failure of the Soviet authorities to prevent consumption of products contaminated with short-lived radioactive iodine-131 in the weeks after the accident.

Recent analyses of affected populations up to 2015 found 5,000 out of a total of 20,000 thyroid cancer cases to be due to radiation. Fortunately, though serious, thyroid cancer is treatable in 99% of cases. Some reports suggest that the consequences of relocating hundreds of thousands of people, the economic consequences of abandonment of land and the understandable fear of radiation have had greater negative effects than the direct health consequences of radiation.

Chernobyl the series is amazing to watch, and the reconstruction of events before and during the accident was remarkable. But we should remember that it is a drama, not a documentary. In the years since 1986, many myths have been perpetuated about the accident, and these myths have unquestionably hindered the recovery of the affected populations.

More than 30 years on, this recovery continues. If it is to have any chance of success it must be based not on the emotion and the drama, but on the best available scientific evidence. Evidence which shows that, except at the extreme doses which plant operators, firemen and helicopter pilots received during the Chernobyl disaster, the risks of are tiny compared to other health risks we all face in our lives.

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Jun 21, 2019
Yeah, so what????
It's a dramatic television series, not a documentary.
All you're doing here is critiquing a television show.
Completely, worthless.

Jun 21, 2019
Actually, having a post-mortem report (as it is) on the Docu-Drama Show concerning Chernobyl is a good thing. Pointing out that certain things, while heroic, were unsuccessful is actually very useful. In the Navy we had to watch such films of real accidents, such as the film called "Learn or Burn: The Story of the USS Forrestal" which shows in complete gory detail what happened, how, where, when and why, as well as what happened afterwards, what people tried to do that worked, what people tried to do that killed themselves and others.

Having an article to point out actual historical inaccuracies is actually a help to those who really want to know what REALLY happened, the Documentary part and dropping the Drama, aside from that which really was, with the helo pilots and firefighters.

I was specially trained for such firefighting in 1982, and knew that if it did happen, putting it out was Primary and personal survival was starkly limited to what you knew and did, and still Not Likely.

Jun 21, 2019
Back then, while we knew a lot, we still did not know everything, the Soviet System was a large portion of the whole problem. It would have been better to actually have had it under their military rather than as a separate section.

As a past high-end firefighter, welder and metalworker with an extreme interest in physics and history, especially about something in my field of training, so such an article on a Show I have yet to see; Not being a 'TV Type', I miss a lot of shows, but I certainly learn a lot more, and without the mistakes, drama and dross!

Well, less dross-drama unless DerSchneib, Jonesy, Benni and CD get into a snit-fit, blocking out what COULD otherwise be Good Discussion, but they vent their egos instead.

Fact is that Benni and CD are Constantly being shown to be Mostly Right (not always), DS is still usually Partly Right, Jonsie is old-math wrong, and profane in the doing. We know who is who with the sockpuppets.

The REST of us ask you to stop it, Please!


Jun 22, 2019
Excellent clarification of the hyperbole. The real Chernobyl disaster already had lots of intense drama. Why would the producers change the story? It looks like they're trying to add another chapter to the false narrative about nuclear power started by radical environmentalists in 1960's. It's unfortunate because at a time when those same environmentalists are demanding "green energy" that doesn't burn fossil fuels and release CO2, the only practical large-scale base load power technology that can accomplish that for the foreseeable future is emissionless, clean, incredibly efficient, abundant and safe nuclear fission. Wind and solar PV won't do it. We need facts, not lies.

Jun 22, 2019
It's unfortunate because at a time when those same environmentalists are demanding "green energy" that doesn't burn fossil fuels and release CO2, ........... We need facts, not lies.

You would do well to realize that these hippycrites continue to burn fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow. There agenda is not about the environment but rather, population control.

Jun 22, 2019
To add to the documentation, I can add that the Swedish rap artist, now career changed through television ad creation to his first movie, has labeled the - admitted - drama as a "labor of love". Hopefully it will build his new career as soon as he has recovered from the work load.

Well, less dross-drama unless DerSchneib, Jonesy, Benni and CD get into a snit-fit, ... Fact is that Benni and CD are Constantly being shown to be Mostly Right (not always),


And while we are on provoking posts like yours (ironically seeming to reference other provoking posts) the fact as we all know them or should know them is that both Benni and cantdrive are constantly wrong as they are conspiracy nuts (Benni: cosmology is 'Pop-Cosmology', CD: cosmology is 'Electric').

That you cannot see that seems odd as well as you refer to sockpuppet conspiracies of your own - more lack of references (evidence)? So is the fact that those individuals are trolling science sites.

Jun 23, 2019
Eschew infotainment as eristic and inimical virtue signaling.

Jul 02, 2019
You have a point about many liberties taken with this story, Mr. Smith, however I fail to see how the story of the miners or the divers is in error, or invented. Their efforts may not ultimately have accomplished their goals, but they did do the things that were portrayed in the series, and the point of showing them making efforts to end the disaster is part of the portrayal of the human cost of the disaster itself.
Also, to your diminishment of the evacuation/relocation of people around the reactor, due to the "understandable fear of radiation" - a nuclear reactor exploded and burned! Even if the soviets didn't understand what they were dealing with, would you expect them to just shrug off the danger? An unprecedented event in human history had occurred, with unknown consequences to the health of the population. It's just too bad you weren't there to pat them on the back and say, "I'm sure this isn't as serious as you think it is."

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