Fact Check: Does HBO's "Chernobyl" Accurately Reflect the Tragic Nuclear Disaster?

By Kimmy FitchLast Updated Apr 26, 2021 6:17:09 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: HBO

On April 26th, 1986, a nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl power plant rocked the area near the Ukrainian town of Pripyat, spreading giant clouds of radioactive material across 77,000 square miles of land. It became one of the world’s worst catastrophes and, to this day, still impacts the people who live there.

Retelling the story isn’t an easy task. But HBO’s Chernobyl convincingly managed to do so, winning more than 70 awards, including 10 Emmys. In this article, we’ll explore just how accurate the show is compared to the real-life events that took place.

Both True & False: The Portrayal of the Catastrophe & Aftermath

When portraying the catastrophe and its aftermath, Chernobyl expertly blends fact and fiction. After all, some things just play better on TV and help up the dramatic stakes.

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Photo Courtesy: HBO

For example, in the show, Ulana Khomyuk notes that the Chernobyl plant might undergo a follow-up explosion — one that could wipe out Kyiv and Minsk and spread radiation across Europe. However, Jan Haverkamp, a senior nuclear energy expert at Greenpeace, said that this was a pure exaggeration. If a follow-up explosion had happened, the melting corium — the material found in a nuclear reactor — would have to evenly hit groundwater. Haverkamp noted that corium doesn’t melt evenly enough to create such a powerful explosion.

The cleanup is the part that the show got entirely right. It involved removing radioactive graphite, and, in real life, workers had to clear out 100 tons of debris. Initially, the cleanup was set to involve remote-controlled robots, but, due to the high levels of radiation, those bots weren’t able to function. And although Ukraine could’ve asked the United States for more advanced robots, the tension between the two countries at the time stopped the impacted nation from doing so.

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The one element of the cleanup that was entirely made up? The addition of Ulana Khomyuk, a stand-in for the nuclear scientists who helped in the wake of the disaster. The show’s executive producer noted that adding a woman to the main cast was actually a tribute to the Soviet Union’s large percentage of women doctors, which, at the time, was progressive. So, while Dr. Khomyuk may be fictional, her storyline definitely remains important.

True: The Story of Vasily & Lyudmilla Ignatenko

On the morning of the explosion, Sergeant Vasily Ignatenko was informed that the power plant caught fire and rushed to the scene. At the time, Lyudmilla, his wife, was pregnant, and he told her he’d wake her up when he returned. In the show, he never makes it back home.

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Photo Courtesy: BBC News/Русская служба/YouTube

In reality, Vasily and Lyudmilla Ignatenko did exist, and, tragically, Vasily did lose his life in the explosion, leaving behind his wife. In fact, Lyudmilla lied to radiologists about being pregnant so that she could visit her husband in the hospital. Their daughter, who Vasily named Natasha, died four hours after her birth after suffering from heart and liver malformations linked to radiation exposure.

Lyudmilla noted that there are some heartfelt moments between the couple that the show decided to leave out. During the time Vasily was in the hospital, he reportedly gave her three carnations as parting gifts. Moreover, Lyudmilla also claims she never allowed HBO to tell their story. These days, she lives a rather private life, but, back in 1997, she did publish a personal recollection of the disaster in Voices From Chernobyl.

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False: The Radiation Experienced at Chernobyl Was Contagious

While the show was lauded during awards season, scientific experts criticized the HBO series for its inaccurate portrayal of the radioactivity of the victims. Dr. Robert Gale, who treated more than 200 radiation-exposure victims, has said that it’s important to know that the radioactive firefighters weren’t actually "contagious." Moreover, Dr. Gale stated that Chernobyl wrongly portrayed baby Natasha dying because the series implied she’d absorbed the radiation from her dying father.

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Photo Courtesy: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Lydia Zablotska, of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), explained this in more detail, noting that gamma radiation can no longer expose other people to radiation after it has passed through the body. While there are radiation types that could make a victim "contagious," that’s not the type of radiation related to Chernobyl. Moreover, scientists have noted that the radiation experienced at Chernobyl can be eliminated by washing the victims’ clothing. While the contagious element may have been off base, the show did portray the effects of radiation on the human body in a truthful, accurate way.

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False: Boris Shcherbina Evacuated Pripyat Quickly

Soviet leader Boris Shcherbina was real, but his storyline on the show is slightly different from the course of action he took in real life. On the show, Shcherbina was heavily involved in the evacuation process right from the beginning. However, in reality, he was actually on a business trip in Siberia, which meant he arrived in Pripyat 18 hours after the explosion. At that point, the town was finally allowed to evacuate. So it certainly wasn’t quick, by any means.

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Photo Courtesy: Missing Pieces/YouTube

Not much is known about the real-life Shcherbina, which is why Chernobyl’s creators decided to portray him in their own way. In fact, Shcherbina passed away four years after the explosion, though the official records don’t state whether his death was radiation-related. Despite rumors swirling around exposure complications being the main factor in his death, it’s likely that we’ll never really know.

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True: Valery Legasov’s Cassette Tapes

Valery Legasov, Chernobyl’s chief scientific investigator, was a real person. Although the show portrays him as an independent man free from commitments, he was, in fact, a family man in real life. Known to be a rational figure, Legasov tried to expose what happened and raise awareness about the effect the tragedy had on the local population.

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Photo Courtesy: Florido's Film Channel/YouTube

The real-life Legasov recorded a diary of sorts, so that a detailed description of the disaster would be preserved on cassette tapes. After recording the account, he ended his life. On those tapes, Legasov took aim at the government, criticizing officials for how they reacted, which is why some conspiracy theorists believe that, during his research, Legasov discovered just how involved the government was in the disaster — hence his tragic end.

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While that last part is entirely speculation, the cassette tapes do exist. You can even read the transcripts online. One of Legasov’s stand-out quotes notes that Chernobyl is an "apotheosis of all that was wrong in the management of the national economy and had been so for many decades." Trust us: in some cases, you can’t write something that cutting — even if you are an Emmy winner.