How Much Of HBO's Chernobyl Really Happened?

HBO's Chernobyl is being heralded as the most thrilling drama on TV right now. As its name suggests, the mini series is a dramatisation of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Soviet-era Ukraine.

While the broad plot is authentic to what really happened, some significant deviations were made for the sake of brevity and/or entertainment. Here are 12 of the biggest changes made by HBO.

Chernobyl tells the real-life story of a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the No. 4 nuclear reactor near Pripyat, Ukraine. Scores of servicemen lost their lives due to the explosion and it is estimated that up to 200,000 additional deaths were caused by radiation fallout.

It was a harrowing incident in world history that makes for great televised drama. But how much of Chernobyl is fictionalised? As the above video from Business Insider explains, quite a lot actually.

From the depiction of the reactor's explosion to the existence, interactions and motivations of various characters, a lot can be chalked up to artistic licence.

If you can't watch the clip above for whatever reason, here's a transcript of the main changes. (Spoilers ahead, obviously!):

    #1 The explosion's smoke was different

    "See that thick pillar of black smoke that’s coming out of the power plant? It makes for an ominous shot, but in reality, it was more likely thin trails of white vapour that were escaping from the reactor."

    #2 Zharkov never existed

    "In episode one, Game of Thrones fans might have recognised Donald Sumpter, the actor who played Maester Luwin. It turns out that his character in Chernobyl, an elderly Bolshevik by the name of Zharkov, is fictional. His speech urging officials not to raise alarm about the accident, that’s also a fabrication."

    #3 Neither did Ulana Khomyuk

    "Khomyuk travels to Chernobyl uninvited, interrogates the plant supervisors in their hospital rooms, and soon enough even finds herself in the presence of General Secretary Gorbachev. If that storyline seems unrealistic for one person, it’s because Khomyuk was imagined as a composite character to represent the many scientists who led the cleanup effort. (Her gender is definitely realistic as the USSR had an impressive record of training women for STEM roles.)"

    #4 The government's blackout of the incident is probably exaggerated

    "That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some effort to contain the spread of information in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown. But we don’t know if [the cutting of phone lines] accurately reflects the government’s rationale at this point in time."

    #5 Chernobyl wasn't "worse" than Hiroshima's atomic bomb

    "The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was so devastating because of the number of people that suffered direct exposure to radiation. At Chernobyl, on the other hand, radioactive material enters the atmosphere and disperses, so its health effects were more indirect and long-term."

    #6 There was no helicopter crash in the immediate aftermath

    "In episode two, a helicopter crashes as it flies over the open reactor. There was a helicopter crash in the wake of Chernobyl, but the show moved this event up chronologically. The crash actually took place in October of that year, months after they were done fighting the fire."

    #7 The potential "4 megaton" second explosion is probably an exaggeration

    "In episode two, Khomyuk warns the council that a second explosion could occur, ejecting even more radioactive material from the core at a force of up to 4 megatons. This estimate is probably an exaggeration. The rest of her description doesn’t quite hold up either."

    #8 And so was the wider threat to Europe

    "The [show's] assertion that all of Europe would be affected involves a lot of hypotheticals. That situation might play out if all of the melting corium hit groundwater. But when corium starts melting, it does so in a very uneven way. So if the second explosion had actually occurred, it’d be pretty difficult to predict the fallout."

    #9 There's no proof miners stripped off protective clothing

    "In one of the series’ more comical moments, the miners digging the tunnel underneath Unit 3 strip naked to cope with the heat. It’s possible that a few of the miners actually did this, but even the show’s writer and creator, Craig Mazin, said that there were some varying accounts of how much clothing got taken off."

    #10 There are noted deviations from the source material

    "One of the sources that [writer Craig] Mazin consulted was Midnight in Chernobyl, a book based on real accounts of the accident compiled by journalist Adam Higginbotham. In an interview with Inverse, Higginbotham said the show exaggerated the denial and delayed response of the Soviet government.

    "Within 36 hours of the explosion, reactor specialists travelled to Chernobyl from Moscow and were able to promptly identify the most likely cause of the accident. Therefore, as Higginbotham said, there was no need for a crusading whistleblower to uncover the causes. But raising awareness about the problems that led to Chernobyl did take Soviet scientists several years of hard work and research."

    #11 Shcherbina and Legasov weren't fast friends

    "Sadly, the friendship we see develop between Boris Shcherbina, chairman of the Chernobyl commission, and Valery Legasov, the chief scientific investigator, was largely an imagined one. The duo’s scenes together show their growing bond, but there’s no evidence that any of these scenes actually happened."

    #12 Legasov's suicide letter was less meditative

    "Legasov did die by suicide two years after the explosion, and he did dictate a final letter reflecting on the liquidation effort he spearheaded. But in this message, he didn’t ask, “What is the cost of lies,” the show’s tagline, nor did he contemplate any abstract questions about the meaning of truth. Legasov did have concrete grievances about the handling of Chernobyl, which he outlined in great detail in his message."

[Via Business Insider]


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