Chernobyl – Inside the New HBO Series

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BY August 16, 2019

There’s a new HBO hit brewing on the premium cable network. As Game of Thrones ended, a new show with all the intensity and action of Westeros debuted. HBO’s Chernobyl is a great way to fill the Game of Thrones sized hole in your heart, and there’s so much that goes into the show. The program based on a real life incident that gripped the lives of millions and has consequences to this very day. It’s hard to believe, but nuclear power does have its downfalls from time to time. Between the real history behind Chernobyl and the show, there’s a lot to go over. Here’s what you need to know about HBO’s new hit program.

The Real History of the Chernobyl Disaster

When people refer to Chernobyl, they are talking about a nuclear power plant that was located in Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. Today, the disastrous nuclear accident that took place at Chernobyl is one of the worst in history. During a routine test, two massive expolosions occur. These explosions release 400 times the radiation of a nuclear bomb.

Where is Chernobyl

Chernobyl is located in northern Ukraine, some 80 miles away from Kiev. The construction of the plant began in 1977, and a small town called Pripyat was constructed near the plant for workers and their loved ones. By 1983, the plant is almost completed, with four nuclear reactors up and running, and more to come. Those were never built, seeing as the nuclear plant was nearing the year of its disaster.

What Happened During the Chernobyl Disaster

As the HBO show will explore, the Chernobyl disaster was an accident that may or may not have been preventable. During a test of the emergency water cooling system, the nuclear power plant lost power at around 1:23 in the morning. When power was cut to the plant, pressure begins to build in nuclear reactor number four. The pressure was uncontrollable, and growingly strong, because of the loss of power. Nuclear power needs to be controlled carefully with systems and tools that keep its power in check. With no power, radiation began to create steam, which ended up blasting the roof off the reactor. Reactor number four then began releasing radiation and causing everything from fires to radioactive damage.

Because of the power of the explosion, a second fire and explosion wrecked havoc at reactor number three. Because of this reaction, the entire facility began to fall apart. Regularly, a nuclear reactor and nuclear plants in general utilize automatic safety systems that stop any reactions from getting more out of control. Unfortunately, without the power being on, the entire facility and area became at great risk.

Initial Response to the Chernobyl Disaster

When the incident begins, firefighters go quickly to the scene. Firefighters came to the scene within minutes, but they were in such a rush they did not bring adequate gear. They attempted to fight the fire without any gear that protected them from radiation. Many of the first responders would go on to die from acute radiation exposure. Accounts from the scene said the firefighters were tasting metal in the air, which is a sign of radiation exposure. There are a number of things that exposed individuals noted feeling as well. Some report feelings of getting stabbed with tiny needles in the face and neck. Those who go to help do not return. Many of the brave souls die later.

Here is a great example of United States coverage of the incident. This is from ABC when the news of Chernobyl hit the mainstream American news. You can see in the video that a lot is still unknown about the incident, but news soon starts to spread.

https://abcnews.go.com/video/embed?id=9843882

When did the Chernobyl Disaster End?

The initial disaster at Chernobyl lasted until sometime after five in the morning. Reactor number three was not able to be shut down until the next day, and within 24 hours, the other reactors were turned off for cautionary measures. That being said, many smaller fires were still burning on site, meaning that the firefighters would continue to work well past the time the reactors were shut down. By that afternoon, Soviet soldiers were sent by the government to help fight the fires around the area. The fires were too strong to be killed by a simple water hose, so many fires were fought with other measures, including sand, lead, and nitrogen.

A huge threat was keeping the reactors cool. When heated, the radioactive materials could begin to react again, so the reactors were regularly cleared of debris, as well as sprayed with water to control temperature. Within seconds of arriving, workers, soldiers, and first responders were all exposed to radiation that would affect their lives and their families forever.

Clearing and Evacuating Pripyat

Image Credit: HBO

For nearly a day, everyone living in the town constructed near Chernobyl, Pripyat, lived a normal day. It became evident, however, that it was no longer safe to stay. Despite seeming normal, the streets of Pripyat were cleaned with foam, and very few residents even noticed anything more than a simple fire had occurred. The day after the accident, however, the government ordered evacuations from Pripyat. Around 50,000 people lived in the constructed town. The soldiers carrying out the evacuation were telling residents that the evacuation would likely only take a day or two. Unfortunately, due to the fallout, this was not true. Because of the initial promise of a quick return, residents did not bring many close belongings or things to start a new life elsewhere. They would not return to Pripyat ever again, unless truly trying to sneak into the quarantined area.

The clearing of Chernobyl is no easy task. Despite being dangerous and altogether terrifying, many volunteer. This Vice video goes into what it took to clean out the area.

Inside the Clean-Up of Chernobyl, the World's Worst Nuclear Disaster

Chernobyl is still considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster.And the job of containing the fallout has required an international cast of players.

Posted by VICE News on Monday, June 3, 2019

 

Soviet Response to Chernobyl

Soviet leaders and government officials were desperate to ensure nobody found out about the Chernobyl disaster. This, of course, would prove to be quite impossible. The Soviet Union would make no official statement on the accident, but soon, the world noticed a global change in radiation levels. Primarily, Sweden began to see higher than normal radiation levels in their power plants. This was from the radiation in the air from the Chernobyl incident.

Swedish leaders then demanded reasoning behind the excess radiation in the air. Stockholm led the charge, but other countries soon started requesting information. The Soviets finally announced the accident at Chernobyl. Officials say that the incident is in good hands. They even followed up the press conference with a state broadcast covering other nuclear accidents in other countries. Soviets continued to operate as nothing had happened, but in reality, hazardous amounts of radiation continued to pump into the air.

For a bit of insight into the incident from the Soviet perspective, check out this video from RT, a Russian-backed news organization on YouTube.

Radiation from Chernobyl

The plant continues to release large amounts of radiation released into the atmosphere. For 10 days following the incident at Chernobyl, it continues to release. A cloud of radioactive materials formed near the incident, and wind blew the remnants into Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Scandinavia, and even as far as Europe. Soviet president Gorbachev looked into the possible effects of radiation, but instead of moving people away ordered hundreds of thousands of people into the area to clean up. This included firefighters, military servicemen, and even miners. They all go to work on clean up without any gear to protect them from the radiation. This would continue to negatively affect Soviet citizens. Clean up took until 1989, and this would lead to a number of complications for the Soviet Union and its people.

Containing Chernobyl

Image Credit: HBO

A lot happens as the cover ups and lies spread. All of which looked to keep the Chernobyl disaster in the past. A rushed project to bury the reactors began, lasting only 206 days. The steel and cement encasement aims to close off the damaged reactor. This would, hopefully, keep more radiation from releasing. Men who worked on the projects took shifts of 7 minutes of work at a time because it was feared that the radiation would truly hurt them.

They were right; men who worked to entomb the reactors would go on to face a number of health issues. They’d throw their clothes away after each shift, but it was not enough. Decades later, in 2010, an international organization build a larger entombment for the reactors. The project was called the New Safe Confinement and weighted 35,000 tons. It was built on tracks and then slid over to completely cover the site. Radiation has since dropped significantly, and is intended to last and stay safe for 100 years.

Deaths in Chernobyl

The total of deaths in Chernobyl has fluctuated since the accident. For example, the Ukrainian government declared back in 1995 that only 125,000 people had died from radiation related to the incident. A 2005 study from the United Nations claims that 50 or so more would have died in the following months, and 9,000 were still at risk from cancer deaths due to radiation exposure. Death was not a slow process in some parts of Chernobyl.

The dreaded Elephant’s Foot, a large collection of concrete that was melted in the explosion, was covered in nuclear fuel and fluids. Because of its appearance, it was named as is, and is estimated to be one of the worst areas of the nuclear factory. Roughly 10,000 roentgens of radiation would come from the Foot, and kill people within three feet of it within minutes. The radiation from that spot has gone down over time, but is still deadly.

Health Effects of Chernobyl

Thyroid cancer was an unseen effect of the Chernobyl disaster. Likewise, some who barely spent more than an hour on site in the days after the accident were to die from the exposure later down the road. Fallout boosted cancer in the population near the site. The 770 mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is still seen as unsafe for humans to this day. Everything from businesses to agriculture have been banned in the area. In 2017, a company focused in solar energy had begun building a power plant. It will never match the output of Chernobyl, but should be able to bring some renewable energy to the area. It’s estimated that it will take over 24,000 years before the area will be liveable again for humans. Surprisingly, wildlife have been able to live near the site. Depressingly, scientists believe the radiation is less dangerous than living with humans in close quarters.

What is HBO’s Chernobyl Mini Series?

Obviously, HBO’s Chernobyl mini series is going to be a tale about the nuclear incident. But what is it going to cover, and who will be central to the story? We’ll go over the show’s episodes, but here is some background on the crew first.

HBO’s Chernobyl Cast

The head writer for Chernobyl is Craig Mazin, famous for writing Identity Thief, The Hangover Part II, The Hangover Part III, and The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Relatively green director Johan Renck directs the series. The show stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, and Paul Ritter. After each episode, a podcast follows up on the story, which can be heard on any popular podcast app.

Episode One

The show begins with an intro to Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), who was an Assistant Chief Engineer at the Chernobyl plant. He is being spoken very poorly about by Valery Legasov (Jared Harris). After a brief interview, Legaslov returns to his apartment and hangs himself. Quite the start right? This is all taking place in 1988, in Moscow. A flashback takes place, heading back two years to the night of the incident. Not far from the Chernobyl plant, Lyudmilla (Jessie Buckley) and fireman Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) see and experience the blast from their home.

It’s terrifying, and right from the outset, Dyatlov says that there is no way that the reactors could have failed, blaming Toptunov (Robert Emms) instead. This is a great first look at the fact that those close the incident do not want to admit fault. A number of terrifying visuals take place at the plant, and as the episode continues, more and more cover ups begin to start as the air fills with radiation, even as kids play outside.

Episode Two

Image Credit: HBO

At the Belarusian Institute for Nuclear energy in Minsk, Dmitri (Matthew Needham) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) begin to take samples to figure out what exactly is floating in the air. This is a great visual and representation of the scientists who studied Chernobyl and wanted to get to the truth and facts of the matter. The mission then turns to how the two can actually prove that Chernobyl’s core exploded. While doing so, they can already see that a cover up is starting to form in the Soviet government. There are some crazy scenes at local hospitals, which are kind of hard to watch.

Despite all the patients coming in with radiation poisoning, the doctors and hospital staff are not protected, furthering the contamination. We finally meet President Gorbachev, who asks Shcherbina and Legasov to look into what really happened. In the next few scenes it becomes clear that the core reactor is what failed, leading the engineers to become worried. With a cover up nearly impossible, the cleaning begins, and the episode ends with men, who are sure to die, starting to do the dirty work.

Episode Three

Episode three of HBO’s Chernobyl is by far the saddest, as we see a number of relationships and those close to the disaster feel its full effects. A firefighter’s wife comes to visit him, while pregnant, and it is evident that she and he will both die, despite him not knowing that he’s infecting her. Legasov spends the episode asking miners, firefighters, and others to give their lives in the clean up for the greater good, which is an incredibly human set of scenes.

It’s tough to watch people knowingly march to their death to save others. The full effects of the disaster are still yet to be seen. The firefighter’s wife and the fighter himself, named Lyudmilla and Vasily, are seen holding each others hands despite being warned not to in the episode. When they feel relief together and think everything will be okay, a scene of Vasily being lowered into the ground tears into the screen. It’s heartbreaking, and just one of the many tragic stories of the disaster.

Episode Four

Ironically, episode four begins four months after the incident. The core is still out in the open, and radiation is still pouring into the air. Clean up is well underway, but we see the damage hit some very gruesome scenes, including the death of pets affected by the blast. Legasov still tries to figure out what to do about the core. Ulena feels total desperation for an answer to what happened. From following Pavel, a teenager tasked with shooting irradiated pets, only to feel too guilty and leave it for someone else to do.

A jump forward to September shows Legasov still wondering what to do about the core, leading to fighting and a possible solution of clearing debris. Men take shifts as explained above in the history section. It’s tough work, but they know is has to be done. December comes next, and Ignatenko is feeling the radiation kick in. As the child dies, At the end of the episode, Legasov and company go to Vienna to finally tell the truth about what has happened. It’s a more diplomatic episode, but the animal scenes are some of the worst the show has to offer.

Episode Five

A crazy thing about the finale of the HBO mini series is how normal everyone has grown to become. There are a lot of scenes of children of the survivors becoming sick, or at the very least being faced to live in the wake of Chernobyl. We also see Legasov and Shcherbina start to show signs of radiation and health damage. Despite being a central part of the entire disaster, Legasov gives his testimony in Vienna and is seen as a hero.

Yet, he does not share everything, hoping to save the Soviets from being humiliated in front of the world. When asked to give up names to who is responsible, he gives names not central to the actual fault. As the episode carries on, Shcherbina blames others as well, and lies continue to surround the hearings. In the end, Legasov risks his life to tell the truth, much like he asked others to do in the clean up.

A resounding quote from the show that comes back in season five is, “the real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all.” By the end of the show, the truth is nowhere to be seen. Even as Legasov admits the deception, it is too late. The lies shade the truth from every reaching the light of the day. To this day, it is very muddy to talk about Chernobyl. There were lies, yes. The question is where do they start and end? With Russians and Americans debating this issues to the day, we may never know all the truth.

Conclusion

Chernobyl is a black mark on Russian and world history. For many, it brings thoughts of disaster and destruction. HBO’s miniseries makes the disaster very human. The show is hard to watch, but also necessary to understand the impact of the incident. HBO shows are always a hit, and this is now one too. IMDB rates the show as the best TV program ever, from user reviews. The show is a great way to follow the hype of Game of Thrones. There are many things to look for in the series. Hopefully some background knowledge is helpful as you watch the show.

A Russian TV company is planning on making its own Chernobyl series. It is meant to refute the HBO show. The Russian program will also say Americans were at the heart of the accident. It goes without saying that this sounds incredibly defensive. The new show is not yet in production.

A good takeaway from the program is the human element of disaster. Considering when this takes place, this is not ancient history. Many who suffered effects of Chernobyl still live today. Those victims continue to struggle and face health concerns. For that reason, knowing the truth is very important. Even if it is a TV show, it is still vital knowledge. Nuclear power is used in every major country today. Its dangers are not unknown. In fact, nuclear power is quite safe. The show teaches, however, the dangers of cover ups and the importance of keeping governments in check. Only then can the people truly be safe.

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