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Born: August 24, 1961
London, England, UK
Born: September 1, 1936
Birthplace: Tula, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Death: April 26, 1988, Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union (suicide by hanging)
Born: June 13, 1951
Gothenburg, Västra Götalands län, Sweden
Born: October 5, 1919
Birthplace: Debaltseve, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union
Death: August 22, 1990, Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Born: December 28, 1989
Wife of Fireman Vasily Ignatenko
Born: June 7, 1985
Chorley, Lancashire, UK
Born: March 13, 1961
Birthplace: Brahin District, Gomel Region, Byelorussian SSR
Death: May 13, 1986, Moscow, Soviet Union (acute radiation syndrome)
Born: March 5, 1966
Kent, England, UK
Born: March 3, 1931
Birthplace: Krasnoyarsk Krai, Soviet Union
Death: December 13, 1995, Kiev, Ukraine (heart failure)
Deputy Chief Engineer
Born: March 27, 1958
Stoke-on-Trent, England, UK
Born: abt 1937
Born: August 15, 1966
Weston-super-Mare, England, UK
Born: December 1, 1935
Birthplace: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Born: March 21, 1977
Born: May 6, 1953
Birthplace: Krasnoyarsk Krai, Soviet Union
Death: May 11, 1986, Moscow, Soviet Union (acute radiation syndrome)
Supervisor of the Night Shift
Alexander 'Sasha' Yuvchenko
Born: abt 1961
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
Born: October 31, 1974
Born: March 2, 1931
Birthplace: Privolnoye, North Caucasus Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Leader of the Soviet Union
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
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
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. -Express.co.uk
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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" (Express.co.uk). 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).
Roughly 300,000 people were displaced from their homes. Despite being told it would be temporary, it is still forbidden to return.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.