All Research

Chernobyl: History vs. Hollywood

Jared Harris
Born: August 24, 1961
London, England, UK
Valery Legasov
Born: September 1, 1936
Birthplace: Tula, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Death: April 26, 1988, Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union (suicide by hanging)
Stellan Skarsgård
Born: June 13, 1951
Gothenburg, Västra Götalands län, Sweden
Boris Shcherbina
Born: October 5, 1919
Birthplace: Debaltseve, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union
Death: August 22, 1990, Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Jessie Buckley
Born: December 28, 1989
Killarney, Ireland
Lyudmilla Ignatenko

Wife of Fireman Vasily Ignatenko
Adam Nagaitis
Born: June 7, 1985
Chorley, Lancashire, UK
Vasily Ignatenko
Born: March 13, 1961
Birthplace: Brahin District, Gomel Region, Byelorussian SSR
Death: May 13, 1986, Moscow, Soviet Union (acute radiation syndrome)
Soviet Firefighter
Paul Ritter
Born: March 5, 1966
Kent, England, UK
Anatoly Dyatlov
Born: March 3, 1931
Birthplace: Krasnoyarsk Krai, Soviet Union
Death: December 13, 1995, Kiev, Ukraine (heart failure)
Deputy Chief Engineer
Adrian Rawlins
Born: March 27, 1958
Stoke-on-Trent, England, UK
Nikolai Fomin
Born: abt 1937

Chief Engineer
Con O'Neill
Born: August 15, 1966
Weston-super-Mare, England, UK
Viktor Bryukhanov
Born: December 1, 1935
Birthplace: Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Plant Director
Sam Troughton
Born: March 21, 1977
Alexandr Akimov
Born: May 6, 1953
Birthplace: Krasnoyarsk Krai, Soviet Union
Death: May 11, 1986, Moscow, Soviet Union (acute radiation syndrome)
Supervisor of the Night Shift
Douggie McMeekin
Alexander 'Sasha' Yuvchenko
Born: abt 1961
Death: 2008

Chernobyl Engineer-Mechanic
Ralph Ineson
Born: December 15, 1969
Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, UK
General Nikolai Tarakanov
Born: May 19, 1934
Birthplace: Voronezh Oblast, Russia

Head of the Chernobyl Liquidators
David Dencik
Born: October 31, 1974
Stockholm, Sweden
Mikhail Gorbachev
Born: March 2, 1931
Birthplace: Privolnoye, North Caucasus Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Leader of the Soviet Union

Questioning the Story:

Did one of the fireman really pick up a piece of graphite from the core of the nuclear reactor?

Yes. According to the show's writer and creator, Craig Mazin, this actually happened. A fireman picked up a piece of graphite that had come from the core of Chernobyl's Reactor Number 4 when it exploded. The firefighters also reportedly complained of tasting metal as they battled the fire. The true story reveals that a few of them didn't have helmets and some of them didn't have jackets, so they were just walking around in t-shirts. According to eyewitness accounts, the red skin of some of the first responders is historically accurate. The skin either looked brown like a suntan or red like a deep sunburn. -The New York Times

A fireman picking up a piece of graphite from the exploded reactor core is based on a real account.

Did the men who came in close contact with the radiation begin to bleed all over their bodies?

No. For example, Alexander Yuvchenko, the man who props open the door to the reactor hall in the HBO miniseries, begins to bleed excessively in patches on his body. However, in exploring the truth about Chernobyl, we learned that radiation doesn't do that. If he did bleed, it would have had to have been due to thermal burns from the fires, steam burns, or where the hot steel door came into contact with his skin. It's possible that the bleeding may be foreshadowing the severe radiation burns that over time gnawed away at the flesh on his hip, calf, left shoulder and left arm, the areas of his body that had come into contact with the door. Implying that radiation caused spontaneous bleeding seems to be a way to conflate the victims of the disaster with victims of war or a horror movie, only here the radiation is the enemy. More on that later.

Like in the miniseries, as Yuvchenko wedged his body between the massive steel and concrete door to keep it open, Valeri Perevozchenko and two junior technicians went to see if they could lower the control rods into the core by hand (despite Yuvchenko telling them that the rods were gone). The three men, who gazed into the blazing ruined reactor for no more than a minute, had in that moment written their own death sentences. "They were the first to die," Yuvchenko recalled, "in the Moscow hospital." -The Guardian

The miniseries certainly makes it seem like Yuvchenko is a goner not long after the men return. However, in researching the Chernobyl true story, we learned that not only did he survive, he remained in favor of nuclear energy. "I'm fine about it," Yuvchenko said during a 2004 interview. "If you keep safety as your number one priority at all stages of planning and running a plant, it should be OK." -Forbes

A Chernobyl fact check reveals that Yuvchenko indeed suffered from acute radiation syndrome (ARS). About an hour after the explosion, he began to vomit uncontrollably and his throat felt raw. At the hospital, it was calculated that he had received 410 rem (400 rem is a lethal dose in half of those affected). The radiation had debilitating effects on his left arm, which over time was left scared and half the size of his right. He underwent numerous operations, including skin grafts, and spent a year in the hospital. -The Guardian

Is Valery Legasov's home portrayed accurately?

No. Despite the Chernobyl miniseries depicting much of the culture of the Soviet Union accurately, Valery Legasov, a member of the Academy of Sciences, would not have been living in similar squalor as a fireman in the town of Pripyat, even after Legasov was shunned by the Soviet state. This reflects the HBO series' general failure to accurately depict the significant divisions between different socioeconomic classes in the Soviet Union. Also, the real Valery Legasov was married and had children. He would have been calling home to his wife and family while he was at Chernobyl, but they're entirely omitted from the story.

From various aspects of the clothing, such as the rivets in the firefighters uniforms, to the vehicles and their license plates, the miniseries is meticulous in its historical accuracy with regard to such details, minus a few. Russians have pointed out that the glassed-in balconies and insulated dual-pane windows visible in scenes of Pripyat would not have existed there in 1986, but that's likely more a constraint of the shooting location than a deliberate error.

Actor Jared Harris (left) in the Chernobyl HBO miniseries and the real Valery Legasov (right).

Does the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the miniseries look like the real thing?

Yes. According to New York Times science writer Henry Fountain, who has visited the Chernobyl plant, Reactor Number 4's control room in the series is historically accurate. He had visited the adjacent Unit 3 control room several years ago. He noted the show's accurate depiction of the control-rod dials on the walls and the white outfits worn by the operators. Those who visit the plant today are still given the strange white coat and cap to wear as they tour the facility. In addition to the power plant itself and its workers, the firefighters' uniforms and the liquidators' homemade protective outfits were replicated to look identical to what was worn at the time.

The aftermath of the explosion of Chernobyl's Reactor Number 4 as seen in the HBO miniseries (left) and in real life (right). See aerial footage of the Chernobyl disaster ruins.

Was Valery Legasov an expert in RBMK Nuclear Reactors?

No. Though Legasov (Jared Harris) tells Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) this in the HBO miniseries, fact-checking Chernobyl reveals that Legasov actually wasn't an expert on Chernobyl's reactors. Legasov had been working as head of the laboratory at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. However, his specialty was inorganic chemistry, and though he was well-versed in the chemistry of radioactive materials, he was not an expert on the function of the RBMK Nuclear Reactor. This is emphasized in the miniseries when Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) steers him in the right direction at times as he works on the Chernobyl problem.

Is Zharkov, the elder statesman who tells the men to contain the spread of misinformation, based on a real person?

No. The Chernobyl true story exposes the fact that Donald Sumpter's character, Zharkov, is fictional. In the miniseries, the elderly Bolshevik tells the men at the emergency meeting, "We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor." Though that particular speech is fiction, it's in line with the bureaucratic indirectness of Soviet speech, favoring the "fruits of labor" over the individuals who produced them, not to mention the complete lack of concern for human life. -The New Yorker

Donald Sumpter's character Zharkov is fictional, but his speech at the emergency meeting is in line with Soviet ideologies.

How many workers and first responders died immediately following the Chernobyl disaster?

In answering how accurate is Chernobyl, we learned that while the HBO miniseries makes it seem like more than a couple workers and firefighters were killed immediately, page 66 of the official United Nations report reveals that there were only two Chernobyl deaths in the first several hours of the explosion and neither of them succumbed to radiation. One of the men, Valery Khodemchuk, was the night shift pump operator and is thought to have been killed instantly by the explosion (his body was never recovered). The other lost his life as the result of burns from the fire.

It wasn't until two weeks later that first responders and firefighters began to die from Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). However, 80 percent of the first responders who did suffer from ARS survived. Of the first responders who did perish, two-thirds had fire burns in addition to high levels of radiation exposure, and burns were the sole cause of death in five of the men. This is because fire victims run an elevated risk of succumbing to infection since the skin is the body's best defense against harmful microbes. According to page 624 of the UN report, "six patients who did not suffer fatal skin burns" survived. Of the victims, two were women who had been working at the plant.

Is radiation really like "a bullet"?

No. We're told this by Jared Harris's character, scientist Valery Legasov, who says that radiation is like "a bullet" and Chernobyl is like "three trillion bullets in the air, water and food... that won't stop firing for 50,000 years." It appears that science has once again gone out the window in favor of dramatization. The series is again attempting to weaponize the radiation to remind us of warfare.

Radiation isn't like a bullet. If it were, we'd all be dead since we're constantly being shot by radiation bullets from cosmic rays that strike the Earth from outer space. Some of the people living at higher elevations, who are exposed to the most bullets, like residents of Colorado, actually live longer.

Is Emily Watson's character, Ulana Khomyuk, based on a real person?

No. The HBO Chernobyl miniseries makes it seem like Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) didn't have much help as he investigated what happened at Chernobyl, except for fellow scientist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson). However, the real Legasov was assisted by dozens, if not hundreds, of scientists who worked on the problem of Chernobyl. Emily Watson's character is fictional and was created to be an amalgamation of all of these individuals.

Exploring the truth about Chernobyl led us to discover that Khomyuk's actions are equally fabricated. A Soviet scientist would not have traveled to Chernobyl uninvited or took it upon themselves to investigate the accident. Nor would they have found themselves in the presence of Mikhail Gorbachev at the Kremlin not long after. Khomyuk's gender, however, is somewhat realistic. The USSR had a history of training females for STEM positions.

Like Valery Legasov (and Ulana Khomyuk in the miniseries), some of the other scientists who worked on the Chernobyl problem spoke out against the Soviet Union's official account of events. They faced similar denunciation as Legasov, in addition to arrest and imprisonment. However, they would not have been as directly defiant as Legasov and Khomyuk are in the miniseries.

Emily Watson's character, Ulana Khomyuk, represents a combination of dozens of scientists who worked alongside Valery Legasov.

Could a beam of blue light be seen shooting into the sky above the open reactor?

Yes. Nuclear reactors can produce a blue hue from Cherenkov radiation, but that's not what caused the unique light. New York Times science writer Henry Fountain points out that there's no way it would have looked like "the 'Tribute in Light' in Lower Manhattan on the anniversary of Sept. 11." The show's creator, Craig Mazin, defended the scene by saying the beam of blue light was described by various eyewitnesses and it was essentially the ionization of the air because the radiation was so intense (Legasov also describes it this way in the miniseries).

Midnight in Chernobyl author Adam Higginbotham says that engineer Alexander Yuvchenko, who was on duty that night, saw the light coming up from the unshielded nuclear reactor and described it as "a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity." The Chernobyl miniseries seems to adhere to the true story in its depiction of the light. During an interview at the time of the accident, Valery Legasov himself said that "it made the sky turn purple."

Did all of the people who watched from the railway bridge in Pripyat die?

No. However, this is what has been reported in the media over the years, earning the bridge, which lies between the town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, its nickname The Bridge of Death. In the miniseries, Pripyat residents gather on the bridge, which is roughly a kilometer away from the plant, to watch the clouds of smoke and rays of blue ionizing light beaming into the sky. They're covered in a cloud of radioactive ash and dust that is blowing their way. In real life, how it affected their health would have depended on how long each resident remained outside watching and how much radioactive debris was actually reaching them during that time. Today, the stories about The Bridge of Death are widely considered to be more urban legend than fact, in part perpetuated by the odd tourist industry that has sprung up in the Exclusion Zone.

What we know from a simple Chernobyl fact check is that not every single person who watched from the bridge died from radiation poisoning. The Guardian interviewed former Pripyat resident Pasha Kondratiev in 2016. The 62-year-old said that on the day of the Chernobyl accident, he and his wife Natasha, along with daughters Marina, 10, and Tatiana, 12, walked to the bridge to get a better view of the plant. "I could see the ruins of the reactor. It was completely destroyed and there was a cloud of smoke coming from it. Nobody gave us any information but we knew it was serious. We knew it was something terrifying." He and his wife do wonder if the exposure is what led to their daughter Tatiana developing asthma two years later and ultimately dying from the condition at age 19. There are other survivors who watched from the bridge and offer similar accounts as to what they saw.

Unlike what's stated at the end of the miniseries, not everyone died who watched from what has since been nicknamed The Bridge of Death.

Did the three "divers" who drained Reactor Number 4's bubbler tanks die as a result of their heroism?

No, and thankfully, the miniseries clarifies this in its epilogue. Author Andrew Leatherbarrow, who spent five years researching the disaster for his book 1:23:40: The Incredible True Story of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, says that though the three men who drained the bubbler tanks were unbelievably heroic, they did not die within weeks from acute radiation syndrome (ARS), as was often reported in the past.

According to Leatherbarrow, the events in the basement unfolded mostly like we see in the miniseries. The molten reactor core was slowly burning its way toward the giant pool of cooling water under the reactor. If the molten radioactive metal reached the water, it would have triggered a steam explosion that would have easily wiped out the entire plant, including the other three nuclear reactors. In the second episode, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) tell Gorbachev that this would devastate Belarus and Ukraine for hundreds of years. Nuclear energy experts agree that it would have been a bad situation, but not as bad as the miniseries would have us believe (Power Technology).

What the miniseries gets wrong is that the three men did not dramatically volunteer to go under the reactor and drain the water. The three men were part of the plant staff and they worked in that area of the station. Oleksiy Ananenko was on shift at the time and the other two men, Borys Baranov and Valery Bespalov, were called in by their manager to go down and open the valves. Unlike what's seen in the miniseries, they were never offered a reward, nor were they applauded on their successful return.

Like in the miniseries, the men wore wetsuits and used searchlights to find the pipe that would lead them to the valves. However, according to Oleksiy Ananenko, their faces were not covered by respirators and they didn't take oxygen tanks. They could talk to one another. They also moved more quickly than they do on the show. In researching the question, "How accurate is the Chernobyl miniseries?" we learned that fireman had actually drained a significant amount of the water in the basement prior to them going down. According to varying accounts, their lights did go out. -BBC

As stated at the end of the series, author Leatherbarrow confirms that none of the men died of ARS. According to his findings, shift leader Borys Baranov died of a heart attack in 2005. Chief engineers Oleksiy Ananenko and Valery Bespalov are still alive and live in Kiev, the capital. -BBC

The three Chernobyl divers did not volunteer. They were plant employees who were ordered to open the valves.

Did people really act out of fear of being shot?

No. The miniseries relies heavily on the stereotypical notion that the Soviet state used the fear of being shot (or executed in other ways) as a persuasive tool. "Fly the helicopter over that reactor or I'll have you shot." "Tell me how a nuclear reactor works or I'll have one of these soldiers throw you out of the helicopter." This is an inaccurate portrayal of Soviet life in the 1980s. Summary executions were not common in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin in 1953. They wouldn't have gone around threatening to kill everyone as they attempted to deal with the Chernobyl disaster.

Did a helicopter really crash as it flew over the reactor?

This intense scene is misleading in relation to the Chernobyl true story. In the HBO miniseries, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) attempts to explain to Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and the pilot that if they fly over the reactor, either the radiation they'll be exposed to will quickly kill them or the electronics on the helicopter will be destroyed and it will fall from the sky. A short time later, they watch as a helicopter assigned to drop a mixture of sand, clay and boron heads over the reactor. After it appears to slow and possibly malfunction, its blades hit a chain dangling from a crane, which sends it crashing down. It's true that a helicopter crashed, but it happened over five months later on October 2, 1986. As depicted in this footage of the Chernobyl helicopter crash, the chopper's blades struck a chain that was hanging from a construction crane. However, unlike what's implied in the HBO miniseries, the Chernobyl helicopter crash had nothing to do with radiation.

A helicopter did crash, but it happened months later and had nothing to do with radiation.

Would an apparatchik really be drinking vodka at work during the day in front of a complete stranger?

No. This is one of the worst stereotypes in the HBO Chernobyl miniseries (the other being the ever-present KGB). In Episode 2, Emily Watson's character, Ulyana Khomyuk, tells an apparatchik (Communist Party official), "I am a nuclear physicist. Before you were Deputy Secretary, you worked in a shoe factory." At his desk, the apparatchik then pours himself a glass of vodka from a carafe. He responds, "Yes, I worked in a shoe factory. And now I'm in charge." This scene is full of stereotypical nonsense and a lack of understanding of the socioeconomic divisions in the Soviet Union. If he had worked at a shoe factory, he didn't work on the factory floor. He would have worked in an office at the factory. He would not have poured himself a glass of vodka in the middle of the day in front of a hostile stranger. In addition, this was during the time of Gorbachev's Anti-Alcohol Campaign, when alcohol was sometimes not even found at weddings, let alone consumed at work by a party official. He also would not have boasted, "I'm in charge." -The New Yorker

Did the confrontation between the miners and the Minister of Coal really happen?

There was a real-life meeting between the Deputy Minister of the Mining Industry and the Tula miners, which took place on May 12, 1986. "He gave us 24 hours to gather our belongings," says miner Vladimir Naumov (The Heroes of Chernobyl). However, the scene that depicts the confrontation between the coal minister and the miners never happened in real life. In the HBO series, the scene ends with the miners patting their dirty hands on the minister's suit, an obvious moment of fiction. It's a rare instance of levity in the series that not everyone has found amusing. Russian journalist Alexander Kots says that the scene simply promotes gruff ethnic stereotypes. -Komsomolskaya Pravda

The coal minister's confrontation with the gruff miners in the miniseries is fictional.

Did the miners at Chernobyl work naked?

No. This is a gross exaggeration. Even the miniseries' writer and creator, Craig Mazin, said that there were varying accounts of how many articles of clothing actually came off, in addition to the number of miners who took off clothing. Chernobyl engineer Oleksiy Breus commented on the show's portrayal of the miners working completely in the buff, saying, "They took off their clothes, but not like it was shown in the film, not right down to nothing" (BBC). Vladimir Naumov, who was part of the mining crew, says that some of the miners took off their shirts (The Heroes of Chernobyl). Russian journalist Alexander Kots, who is well-informed on the disaster, says that the miners working in the buff while tunneling under the reactor is fiction.

In researching the true story behind the Chernobyl miniseries, we learned that the miners' work was for nothing. They had been assigned to dig out an area under the concrete pad so that a heat exchanger (refrigeration unit) could be installed that would cool the space above it using liquid nitrogen. This would reduce the heat of the "lava" and prevent it from burning through the concrete pad and entering the water table. However, the lava never reached the pad. The miners were essentially preventing a possibility that never happened. Yet, they dug the tunnel believing it was absolutely necessary. The scientists were basing the project on probabilities. The chance of the groundwater being contaminated was too great to not carry out the project. See footage of the Chernobyl miners tunneling under Reactor Number 4.

Accounts vary as to how much clothing was shed. However, the Chernobyl miners didn't work naked like in the HBO miniseries.

Was the firefighter's wife, Lyudmilla Ignatenko, really saved because her unborn baby absorbed the radiation?

Lyudmilla Ignatenko did lose her husband and four-hour-old baby. She recalls the harrowing experience in Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel Prize winning book Voices from Chernobyl (also titled Chernobyl Prayer), which is a collection of oral testimonies from survivors. The baby apparently died from heart and liver issues. Though the miniseries takes Lyudmilla's position that the fetus absorbed the radiation coming from her husband to save her, that notion seems to be more an embrace of pseudoscience than fact. In addition, given that her husband's clothes would have been discarded and his body washed by the time she reached him, his radioactivity would have been internalized by that point.

Radiation is not contagious. The miniseries fails to explain that the plastic enclosures around victims were not meant to protect the people on the outside, the plastic was meant to protect the patient's weakened immune system from infection. Generally, Lyudmilla would have been more of a threat to her husband, firefighter Vasily Ignatenko, than vice versa. Simply being in the room with her husband would not have been a threat to Lyudmilla or their unborn child. So what happened?

It is possible that a certain amount of harmful exposure can occur from coming into contact with a person's blood, sweat, urine, and other bodily fluids, and according to Lyudmilla, she was wrapping her hand in a bandage and reaching into Vasily's mouth to clear the vomit away. While she could have been exposed to radiation this way (and from tending to the open wounds on his skin and cleaning up his soiled body and clothing), there is no reported evidence of exposure linked to bodily fluids during the treatment of Chernobyl victims. However, in Lyudmilla's case, she doesn't seem to have been wearing gloves and using the necessary precautions while tending to Vasily. Another possibility is that Lyudmilla was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation while still in Pripyat, which affected her pregnancy. -Forbes

Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel Prize Winning book Voices from Chernobyl includes Lyudmilla Ignatenko's harrowing account of losing her husband and her baby.

According to the epilogue at the end of the HBO miniseries, in addition to losing her husband and four-hour-old baby, Lyudmilla Ignatenko suffered multiple strokes and was told by doctors that she would never be able to bear a child again. It states they were wrong and that she eventually had a son who she currently lives with in Kiev.

Would the firefighter, Vasily Ignatenko, have wasted away like that from acute radiation syndrome?

Fact-checking Chernobyl confirms that it's certainly possible the firefighter's body would have changed like that, and the miniseries adheres very closely to his wife Lyudmilla's account. His skin, especially what was exposed, would have initially looked like a bad sunburn, with moist desquamation (skin peeling) and some blistering. He would have endured vomiting and headaches. For several days or more, it might have seemed like Vasily's skin wasn't getting worse, even healing, only to be followed by intense reddening, blistering, and ulceration of the irradiated areas. "Every day I met a brand-new person," his wife said of his changing appearance. What was happening to him internally was even more excruciating.

During the two weeks it took Vasily Ignatenko to die, the radiation would have been gravely affecting his gastrointestinal tract, stomach, lungs and bone marrow. According to Lyudmilla, he defecated blood and mucus stool over 25 times a day and coughed up fragments of his own internal organs. "The last two days in the hospital — pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I'd wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff." -Voices from Chernobyl

Firefighter Vasily Ignatenko's decline in the miniseries is similar to his real-life death.

Did Chernobyl cause birth defects?

There is no strong evidence that Chernobyl led to an elevation in birth defects. To the miniseries credit, it doesn't actually show birth defects, though it is subtly implied as we see a number of pregnant women and babies. Of course, if you type "Chernobyl birth defects" into Google, you'll find plenty of troubling images and websites that display them. Disregarding the images that have clearly been Photoshopped, many display the effects of other diseases and conditions that people have blamed the Chernobyl disaster for. Just how people have blamed vaccines for autism simply because the vaccine had been given at some point prior to a child being diagnosed, Chernobyl has similarly at times been blamed for birth defects.

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission's report concluded, "The available evidence does not show any effect on the number of adverse pregnancy outcomes, delivery complications, stillbirths or overall health of children among the families living in the most contaminated areas." However, we must keep in mind that the evidence was possibly limited due to the fact that the Soviet government had prohibited doctors from reporting similar diagnoses.

Yet, a 1987 UCLA study and a 2017 Oxford University review also found "no convincing evidence of increased risk of birth defects from exposure to radiation in contaminated areas." The Oxford review found that research that does show an increase in birth defects fails to include "data about confounding risk factors such as maternal alcohol intake and diet." The initial fear of birth defects became so bad that women who lived in areas that were subjected to low levels of Chernobyl radiation terminated 100,000 to 200,000 pregnancies in a panic. -Forbes

Did they really try to use robots and lunar rovers to clean radioactive debris off the roof?

Yes. Like in the miniseries, following the explosion of Chernobyl's Reactor Number 4, they first tried using two Soviet STR-1 lunar rovers to remove the radioactive debris from the two lower level regions of the rooftop. An estimated 700 tons of radioactive graphite had been blown around the plant during the explosion. Although the rovers worked for a total of around 10 hours, they ultimately succumbed to radiation exposure and failed. See video of the STR-1 lunar rovers clearing radioactive debris at Chernobyl.

In addition to trying other remote controlled vehicles, it's true that they then tried a larger tracked West German police robot called "Joker", which is pictured below. It was deployed on the higher level "Masha" region of the roof. As we worked to uncover the truth about Chernobyl, we learned that the Soviet government had indeed lied to West Germany about the amount of radiation on the roof, underrating it by a factor of 10. As you can see in the photo, the filmmakers did an impressive job recreating the Joker robot for the miniseries.

Joker had a mechanical arm that could pick up pieces of debris and drop them over the side back down into the reactor. However, it quickly ran into problems. First, a graphite chunk became wedged in its tracks. After a group of men risked their lives to manually free the tracks, the robot soon stopped functioning due to radiation levels that were higher than it could handle. You can view the Ukrainian documentary Chernobyl 3828, which highlights the failure of the Joker robot at Chernobyl and the subsequent use of 3,828 biorobots.

The Soviet Union obtained the Chernobyl Joker robot from West Germany after lying about the radiation levels on the roof, which was littered with debris from the reactor. Not surprisingly, it quickly succumbed to the radiation.

Did they use humans (aka biorobots) to clear the radioactive debris from the rooftop after the rovers failed?

Yes. Each biorobot brought to Chernobyl could shovel radioactive debris for a total of approximately two minutes before they would reach their lifetime limit for radiation exposure. They were then sent away from Chernobyl. The protective homemade uniforms with lead sheets that they wore were also discarded after each use since the material became highly radioactive. This included the aptly named "egg baskets", or codpieces.
A total of 3,828 biorobots worked to clear the radioactive debris off of Chernobyl's roof. Depending on their total exposure, some of the men chose to go out on the roof more than once. "Only one was mandatory. But some volunteered to go twice or even three times," says General Nikolai Tarakanov, portrayed by Ralph Ineson in the HBO show. -RT News

In the miniseries, we see a biorobot stumble as he's coming in from the rooftop. This was likely inspired by actual footage of the Chernobyl biorobots, which shows a man stumbling. However, it's unclear whether anyone got their foot caught or fell into a puddle.

The Chernobyl biorobots clear radioactive debris from the rooftop in the miniseries (top) and in real life (bottom).

Did the reactor explode because the miniseries' main villain, Anatoly Dyatlov, insisted on running a test?

The miniseries puts much of the blame on the actions of one man, Chernobyl Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov. He is shown threatening his underlings into carrying out the test, all because he wants a promotion. Though there is evidence that the real Dyatlov was hoping for a promotion, he is largely a fictionalized villain. The truth about Chernobyl is that the disaster wasn't the result of one man's desire for a promotion, nor was it the collateral damage of one abusive boss.
"Their characters are distorted and misrepresented, as if they were villains. They were nothing like that," says former Chernobyl engineer Oleksiy Breus of the historical accuracy surrounding the show's three main antagonists. He says their portrayal is "not a fiction, but a blatant lie." Breus admits that Dyatlov was strict but says that he was "still a high-level professional." It is true that at the trial Dyatlov claimed that he was on the toilet and never told them to raise the power, a statement that was easily proven to be a lie. You can hear his own account of the events in this Anatoly Dyatlov interview-BBC

To a large degree, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the result of a rotting political system composed of mostly pliant men and women, who ignored precautions and blew up a reactor because they were more concerned about adhering to a system based on lies and deceit, than they were about protecting the people. -The New York Times

Did Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina really become friends?

There is little evidence that scientist Valery Legasov and the chairman of the Chernobyl commission, Boris Shcherbina, developed a close friendship. The only evidence is a photo of the two men looking at each other and smiling. So, in the least, we know that they were cordial with one another, but we don't know anything more about a potential friendship. The show's creator, Craig Mazin, says that the photo is what inspired their fictional friendship in the miniseries. Their scenes together are entirely imagined, and the part they played in the response to the disaster was reworked and amplified to keep the plot moving along. -Business Insider

The friendship between Boris Shcherbina and Valery Legasov is fictional, and the conversations between them are imagined.

Did Valery Legasov expose the truth at the trial?

No. In the HBO miniseries, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) testifies at the trial and places part of the blame on the Soviet state's "cheap" nuclear reactors. A quick Chernobyl fact check reveals that in real life, Legasov wasn't present at the trial. His big moment in court in the miniseries is fiction. The idea that a Soviet citizen would have spoken out against the state in that manner in a Soviet court is entirely far-fetched.
At the IAEA Chernobyl post-accident review meeting in Vienna in August 1986, Legasov did present a somewhat candid and detailed assessment of the circumstances and consequences of the accident, but he failed to reveal his complete findings and placed most of the blame on human error coupled with poorly designed reactors.

According to creator Craig Mazin, the trial scene was "inspired by factual circumstances" instead of being a literal version of what happened. The trial was heavily compressed for the film. In reality, it lasted several weeks and involved lots of people who were never introduced in the series. -Chernobyl Podcast

With this perhaps being the biggest deviation from the Chernobyl true story, it's evident that Legasov wasn't the martyr figure that the miniseries makes him out to be. In addition to not being at the trial, he never raised his voice at Gorbachev, nor did he openly challenge the top brass of the KGB.

Valery Legasov's A Few Good Men moment at the trial is fictional. He did not attend the trial.

Was Valery Legasov really a whistleblower?

No. Much of the miniseries focuses on the heroic scientists, specifically Legasov and the fictional Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), trying to discover what caused Chernobyl's Reactor Number 4 to fail. This creates a great deal of tension that is largely fictional. According to Midnight in Chernobyl author Adam Higginbotham, Soviet scientists "were well aware of the faults of the RBMK reactor years before the accident" and "reactor specialists came down from Moscow within 36 hours of the explosion and quickly pinpointed its probable cause." The miniseries also exaggerates the delayed response and the denial of the Soviet government.

What happened to the men who were put on trial for the Chernobyl disaster?

Upon the conclusion of their 1987 trial, Victor Bryukhanov, Anatoly Dyatlov and Nikolai Fomin were sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. What's not shown in the miniseries is that Nikolai Fomin had a mental breakdown before the trial and he attempted to kill himself. He broke his glasses and tried to slit his wrists with a piece of lens, which delayed the trial. None of the men served a complete sentence, in part due to health reasons. Fomin was released early for mental health reasons and spent time in a hospital.

Victor Bryukhanov, Anatoly Dyatlov and Nikolai Fomin at their trial in the HBO miniseries (top) and in real life (bottom).

According to what we're told prior to the credits at the end of the last episode, Chernobyl's chief engineer, Nikolai Fomin, returned to work at a nuclear power plant in Kalinin, Russia sometime after his release. Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov passed away from a radiation-related illness in 1995. The director of the Chernobyl site, Victor Bryukhanov, was released after serving only five years of his sentence. According to the New Zealand Herald, he currently lives in Kiev.
The HBO Chernobyl miniseries also leaves out the fact that Bryukhanov, Dyatlov and Fomin weren't the only ones on trial. While researching Chernobyl's historical accuracy we discovered that in real life a total of six people stood trial. The others included the block shift leader of Reactor 4, Boris V. Rogozhkin; the supervisor of Reactor 4, Aleksandr P. Kovalenko; and a senior engineer, Yuri A. Laushkin. -The New York Times

Did Valery Legasov smuggle his recordings out of his apartment?

No. It's true that Legasov dictated his memoirs about the disaster into a recording machine. He addressed his grievances over its handling, including the accusation that Soviet security had prevented plant operators from knowing about earlier accidents with RBMK reactors. He concluded that Chernobyl was the "apotheosis of all that was wrong in the management of the national economy and had been so for many decades."

At the start of the Chernobyl HBO miniseries, we see Valery Legasov smuggling his tapes out of his apartment. This is fictional. The show's creator, Craig Mazin, said that he was never able to find out how Legasov disseminated the tapes, so he just fictionalized it by having a confederate come pick them up.

Did Valery Legasov really commit suicide?

Yes. Our fact check confirmed that the real Valery Legasov hung himself on April 26, 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster (his body was found by his son on the 27th). He was 51. What's not shown in the miniseries is that Legasov had attempted suicide prior and recovered in the hospital. According to his daughter, Inga Legasova, he was indeed seriously ill with radiation sickness during the last few months of his life (RT News).

Scientist Valery Legasov hung himself two years after the Chernobyl accident.

Prior to his death, he urged the government to create an Institute of Technological Risk and Security, and he wrote a newspaper article titled "My Duty is to Let Everyone Know", in which he criticized the Soviet nuclear reactor building scheme, the poorly qualified personnel, and the lack of concern for nuclear security in the Soviet Union. He also warned that Chernobyl could have happened much sooner. Unfortunately, the article didn't pass the government censors. It was never published.
On the day of his death, Legasov made one final push to be heard. In front of the Academy of Sciences, he presented his plan for a special council to be formed that would address the stagnation in Soviet science and reform it. The academy rejected his plan. Devastated, he returned home and hung himself in his Moscow apartment (RT News). Although Legasov wasn't exactly the whistleblower he's made out to be in the miniseries, his suicide on Chernobyl's anniversary is believed to have been his way of making sure the government and scientific community finally listened to his concerns.

Did the Soviet Union ever acknowledge the RBMK nuclear reactor's design flaws?

Yes. Soviet scientists spent several years working to raise awareness about the reactor's design flaws, which led to the Chernobyl disaster. Eventually, Soviet officials were left with little choice but to acknowledge the risks posed by the RBMK nuclear reactor.

Were the remaining RBMK nuclear reactors ever fixed?

Yes. After the Soviet Union finally acknowledged the potentially fatal design flaws in the RBMK reactors, the remaining reactors were retrofitted to help ensure that a disaster like Chernobyl would never happen again.

Did Boris Shcherbina die of radiation effects?

In the miniseries, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) repeatedly warns Soviet politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) that the radiation will shorten his life. We're told at the end that Boris Shcherbina died at age 70 on August 22, 1990, four years and four months after he arrived at Chernobyl. The series certainly implies his death was the result of radiation exposure, but in reality, an official cause of death for Shcherbina has never been released. A 1988 Soviet decree prohibited doctors from listing radiation as a cause of death or sickness. The Soviet press simply said that he passed away after "a serious illness" ( It is impossible to know to what extent his death was the result of radiation, but General Nikolai Tarakanov, who was in charge of the liquidators and knew Shcherbina "very well," said that Shcherbina "exposed himself to large doses of radiation, being the head of the government commission" (RT News). 

It is unknown to what degree radiation played a part in the death of the real Boris Shcherbina, pictured on the right in 1990. Stellan Skarsgård (left) portrays Shcherbina in the Chernobyl HBO miniseries.

How many people were permanently displaced from their homes as a result of the Chernobyl disaster?

Roughly 300,000 people were displaced from their homes. Despite being told it would be temporary, it is still forbidden to return.

How long will the city of Pripyat be unsafe to live in?

Built in 1970 to house the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Soviet authorities ordered the city be evacuated 36 hours after the test on Chernobyl's Reactor Number 4 went awry, causing the reactor to explode. A fleet of 1,200 buses carried more than 49,000 people out of Pripyat never to return. The city won't be suitable for human habitation again for at least 24,000 years. To house some of the people who were displaced, a new city composed of eight districts was built 30 miles northeast of the Chernobyl plant. It was named Slavutych. Before building began, the area was covered in two meters of uncontaminated soil. -The Guardian

A truck in the miniseries (top) and in real life (bottom) spray decontamination liquid that fixes the radioactive dust to the ground. The product that they sprayed was called "bourda", meaning molasses.

Did the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant close after the 1986 accident?

No. The other three reactors continued to operate after the accident. To limit the employees' exposure to radiation, they worked five-hour days and spent half of each month outside the Exclusion Zone. The new town of Slavutych was built to house the workers. Chernobyl would remain a functioning plant until it was shut down in 2000. However, dozens of employees still work there, monitoring the electrical switches since the plant is still part of the grid. It takes decades to fully decommission a nuclear power plant.

Are people able to tour Chernobyl and the uninhabited city of Pripyat?

Yes. Tours into the Exclusion Zone, including to the ghost city of Pripyat and the Chernobyl plant itself, can be arranged through travel agencies. The exposure to limited amounts of elevated radiation during the tours is considered safe. After the miniseries aired, Reuters reported a 40% increase in tourism to the Exclusion Zone.

A present-day look at the ghost city of Pripyat with the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the background (inset is a close up of the New Safe Confinement over damaged Reactor 4). The iconic Pripyat Ferris wheel (bottom) was brand new at the time of the 1986 disaster and had yet to be used by the public.

How many people died from the Chernobyl disaster?

The United Nations report attributes 31 deaths directly to the disaster. Three perished at the scene and 28 died a number of weeks later. It is impossible to know exactly how many civilians died as a result of cancer from radiation exposure in the affected areas. However, it is likely that the number is significantly less than the HBO miniseries would have us believe.
In people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 20,000 have been documented as developing thyroid cancer (some due to drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine). The United Nations most recent findings from 2017 concluded that only 25% (5,000 cases) can be ascribed to Chernobyl radiation. Given that thyroid cancer has a very low mortality rate of just one percent means that only 50 to 160 people will likely die from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl (of course, this doesn't mean that we should ignore the thousands who have suffered from Chernobyl-related thyroid cancer and survived).

According to the United Nations findings, the total number of long-term deaths expected from Chernobyl is approximately 4,000. Organizations like Greenpeace place the number much higher (93,000), but their estimates are arguably elevated for political reasons. Author Michael Shellenberger, the president of Environmental Progress who also writes about energy and the environment for publications like The New York Times and Forbes, says that nuclear disasters like Chernobyl are fictionalized because in reality they kill a relatively small number of people when compared to other man-made disasters. -Forbes

To put things into perspective, the most severe energy disaster was the 1975 collapse of the Banqiao Hydroelectric Dam in China, which killed between 170,000 and 230,000 people. The Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984 claimed the lives of approximately 15,000. This isn't to say that Chernobyl deaths weren't tragic, not to mention the health consequences, but in reality, nuclear accidents haven't been all that deadly.

The Chernobyl miniseries attempts to arouse our fears, in part by playing on the fact that nuclear disasters remind us of nuclear bombs. "Is it war? Are they bombing?" a plant worker asks early in the miniseries. Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) later makes references to the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed a combined total of 129,000–226,000 people. Similar films like 1979's The China Syndrome helped to fuel paranoia over the safety of nuclear energy, which contributed to the halting of the construction of nuclear power plants and the burning of more fossil fuels instead.

Since nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of energy, studies have calculated that 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths to date have been prevented as a result of using nuclear energy. It's hard to say how many millions more lives could have been saved if fact and not fiction had won the battle for the public's perception of nuclear energy. "Nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide and have been statistically safer than every competing energy industry, including wind turbines," notes Adam Higginbotham, author of Midnight in Chernobyl. Unfortunately, with HBO's miniseries, Hollywood is once again attempting to steer the public's perception through the use of fiction and fear.

Adam Higginbotham's New York Times Bestseller Midnight in Chernobyl tells the story of the disaster by drawing on firsthand accounts of the men and women who lived through it.

Was there really a dramatic spike in cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus?

No. This is what we're told at the end of the miniseries, but according to the World Health Organization, it's not true. Citizens of Belarus and the Ukraine were "exposed to doses slightly above natural background radiation levels," states the WHO. If there is an increase in deaths from cancer, it will only be "about 0.6% of the cancer deaths expected in this population due to other causes."

Why is HBO's miniseries so misleading when it comes to the truth about Chernobyl?

In the final line of the Chernobyl miniseries, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) states, "where I once would fear the cost of truth, I only ask"—the screen fades out to black—"what is the cost of lies?" That question can certainly apply to the miniseries as well, which has ramped up the public's fear of nuclear power by resorting to sensationalism.

"I'm in a full blown panic," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Sarah Todd after watching the first episode. "I need someone to explain to me how it is at all okay to live on the east coast when this is the situation." Fans of the show took to Twitter to express similar fears, with some Googling the closest nuclear power plants. "I have watched a lot of gore and horror, but this takes it over the top. Why? Because it could happen again one day," Tweeted one viewer.
Perhaps the real question should be, "What is the cost of fear?" The miniseries implying that radiation is contagious like a virus is essentially zombie logic, that anyone who suffers from radiation poisoning is therefore poisonous themselves. Such false logic was used to isolate, terrify, and stigmatize people not only in Chernobyl, but also in places like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and more recently in Fukushima. Natasha Yuvchenko, wife of Chernobyl engineer Alexander Yuvchenko (the man who held the steel door open), says that for many years people literally ran away from them, afraid of being contaminated (The Guardian).

In addition, those who were exposed to elevated radiation outside the vicinity of Chernobyl were four times more likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. All health and epidemiological studies have concluded that long-term mental health effects led to far more health issues and deaths outside the immediate area than radiation ever did. Approximately 50,000 Chernobyl refugees died from alcoholism, heart disease and suicide in the decades following the accident. Add to that the 100,000 to 200,000 terminated pregnancies that were largely the result of fear (rather than fact), and the sensationalism in both Hollywood and the media becomes far more troubling.

Turning nuclear power into a horror movie villain might terrify audiences and make for good entertainment, but it's far from the Chernobyl true story. That miniseries will likely never be made.

Chernobyl Disaster Footage & Survivor Interviews

Learn more about Chernobyl's historical accuracy by watching footage of the events that unfolded in the aftermath of the catastrophe. This includes the helicopter crash, the miners digging under the reactor, and the biorobots clearing the roof. Then watch an interview with the miniseries' main villain, Anatoly Dyatlov. Finally, the Chernobyl Podcast features creator Craig Mazin talking about the fact vs. fiction in the show.