A mini-series produced by HBO in association with Sky UK depicts the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986 and the unprecedented cleanup efforts that followed but is it accurate?
Dr Kelvin Kemm unpacks the accuracy of the mini-series
Late in 1972, Uruguayan Air Force flight 571 was taking a college rugby team and family members from Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile. It carried five crew members and 40 passengers.
As the aircraft crossed the frozen Andes, the pilot made a tragic navigation error and descended towards what he thought was Pudahuel Airport. The aircraft struck a rocky mountain ridge. Both wings were sheared off, and the aircraft fuselage raced like a toboggan down the steep snow-covered slope, coming to rest on a glacier.
Only 33 survived the crash, and five more died during the freezing night that followed. Seventeen days after the crash, an avalanche struck the wrecked remains and killed eight more. The remaining starving and half-frozen survivors were devout Catholics – highly moral and responsible, but facing certain death, while the dead lay frozen outside in the snow.
After personal agonising and prayer, they made the dramatic decision to eat their deceased fellow passengers. One team member was a medical student, who explained that brains and certain other organs contained valuable nutrients. So they ate those as well as the human flesh. Two of the strongest survivors set off on an incredible 38-mile (60-kilometre) trek to find rescuers.
After a staggering 72 days on the glacier, the remaining survivors were rescued, two days before Christmas. Despite initially reacting in horror, people worldwide ultimately sympathised deeply with the plight and decisions of those survivors, who prayed over their dead comrades and cut pieces from the bodies only with great sorrow, reverence and respect.
A television programme portrayed their agonising saga honestly, accurately and sympathetically.
However, imagine if decades later another producer decided to make a new “dramatised” version. It begins with the aircraft crash, fractured fuselage ride down the mountain and snowy desolation. But then it descends into “artistic license,” to ensure more horror, more viewers (more profits).
Imagine the new “inspired by true events” version showing callous survivors slashing bodies with axes and using machetes to tear out livers and hammers to smash skulls for the brains. After dinner, they play a wild drumming rhapsody on the fuselage, using human bones as drumsticks as they sing.
How do you think TV audiences would respond? With sympathy and understanding for the survivors – or revulsion and disgust? Would they call for forgiveness – or demand prosecution?
If this sounds absurd, it has a very real recent counterpart that took similar liberties with the facts in order to make a more “dramatic” programme and attract more viewers. A few years ago, I watched the Chilean rugby team television programme, and now the recently HBO-produced TV series “Chernobyl”.
The Chernobyl tragedy is also an undeniable part of history. People died, though fewer than 60. Things went terribly wrong, for many reasons. But today tourists visit the Chernobyl area and wildlife thrives.
So what actually happened? Did reality come anywhere close to what HBO presented in its television programme?
The HBO production apparently recorded record viewership figures. That was undoubtedly good for the network’s bottom line. But was it honest income, to be proud of?
As a nuclear scientist, I can tell you the fundamental story of the sequence of events of the 1986 Chernobyl accident as portrayed by HBO was correct. Issues around governance and procedure as portrayed by HBO were essentially correct. But other important aspects were false or falsified.
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The blood and skin peeling scenes, for example. Sadly, the producers lied – intentionally or incompetently, it seems, to gain box office income. They succeeded in that goal. They insulted nuclear scientists and insulted the intelligence of viewers who knew a bit more science than most of HBO’s audience.
The HBO producers also led many viewers down a twisted path to further ignorance and confusion, which certainly should not be the objective of any honest history documentary.
The series tended to show the Soviet authorities of the day as uncaring and unskilled. That was not true. Yes, Chernobyl happened during the formality and rigidity of the Soviet communist system of the era. And yes, the military-type hierarchy of the time did play a role.
However, Russian nuclear scientists had actually, and for some time, worried greatly about that particular Chernobyl reactor’s design and had voiced their concerns to senior authorities. Albeit slowly, those authorities were responding. Tests of failure systems were being conducted.
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Chernobyl had been ordered to carry out one such test, to assess the speed of response to a failure. A test had been set up. Chernobyl staffers were instructed to create a deliberate failure mode situation, to see how the reactor responded. This was arranged and was supposed to have been done in the daytime, when the main skilled team was on duty.
However, high demands for electricity in the district caused them to delay the test until around midnight, when the lower calibre night shift team was on duty. In addition, the more senior decision makers in the line-of-command had gone home.
To clip all the technicalities very short: when the intentional test procedure started to go wrong, worried and inexperienced Chernobyl technicians made some wrong moves and rapidly compounded the unfolding drama. As the reactor spun out of control, the rapid communications line via local headquarters to Moscow did not function properly; the senior officials had gone home and could not help.
Moreover, that reactor type had been built to an out-of-date design that contained a large amount of highly combustible graphite. It caught fire. Someone correctly called the fire brigade – which responded quickly, but mistakenly attacked the fire as if it were a burning woodworking factory.
The firemen bravely attacked the flames without fully realising that the smoke carried radioactive dust and other harmful material. Lumps of burning graphite that lay scattered around contained radioactive debris from the initial gas blast that blew the reactor to pieces.
Other first responders were also brought in: police, military, helicopter pilots. All did their duty, as they would have in any other major fire. But radioactive dust and smoke were swirling around.
Human bodies do not become radioactive in a situation like that. What can happen is that someone, like a fireman, leaves the scene with radioactive dust on his clothes and maybe in his hair. Any radiation protection officer present would then make him take all his clothes off and take a good shower, before going home.
Firemen were not radioactively contagious, as HBO portrayed. A fireman could not have irradiated his pregnant wife at home, as HBO claimed. Her baby could not have died of heart and liver disease as a result; that too is pure HBO bunk. Something like playing music on the aircraft fuselage in the Andes, using human bones as drumsticks. Very good for viewer horror, but very far from the truth.
A very large dose of nuclear radiation will undoubtedly kill a person. But skin will not peel off one’s face. In fact, a human can pick up a fatal dose of radiation in under an hour and not even know it. The person would go home in apparently perfect condition, but then start to feel as if he had eaten rotten fish for lunch. Vomiting would result and flu-like symptoms would set in. Over a couple of hours, this would lead to shaky hands and wobbly legs, bad vision and a general breakdown of body functions. Death would come quite quickly, within days. But in reality no viewer-riveting skin peeling off the face, or blood dripping from anywhere would occur.
After the real Chernobyl incident, 29 fire fighters died – from what medics call “synchronous injuries”. In other words “a combination of factors”. Undoubtedly, radiation exposure played a major role. Those brave men also attacked high-temperature flames, breathed in dense toxic smoke and physically exerted themselves under terrible conditions. There were numerous other errors, as well.
It seems HBO producers did not consult any nuclear physics specialists, or medical people knowledgeable in the field. They relied on more dramatic emotional advice.
HBO must have made a lot of money with the series. Their shareholders are no doubt very pleased. But HBO has not done any service to the truth or to the education and enlightenment of viewers.
The series was “fiction inspired by real events” – not a “documentary”. HBO should issue apologies.
Read more from Dr Kelvin Kemm:
Anticipating new design for nuclear power
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and CEO of Nuclear Africa Ltd, a project management company based in Pretoria, South Africa. He does international consultancy work in strategic development.