What HBO Got Wrong About Chernobyl

What HBO Got Wrong About Chernobyl June 7, 2019 · 15 min. readThis article may contain affiliate links.

Those who attended my Chernobyl lecture at the Queen City Collective earlier in May would have heard me singing praises about HBO's new miniseries Chernobyl, and for good reason. HBO did a fantastic job on the miniseries by immersing the audience into mid-1980s Soviet Ukraine and by peeling back the layers of the disaster.

With that said, there were some liberties HBO took while making the show. As somebody who spent two days in the Exclusion Zone in 2016, I know a thing or two about how the events unfolded, and a few parts of the miniseries weren't accurate.

Spoilers ahead

Chernobyl began by tackling a nearly impossible task. The miniseries had to break down one of the largest cover-ups in human history. They had to show the devastation of the world's deadliest nuclear disaster and also highlight the many countless heroes who stepped up to make a difference. It's natural to expect HBO to simplify this – and they only had five episodes to do it. I don't blame them for some of these mistakes, but I felt they should be pointed out.

The Helicopter Crash

The miniseries begins moments after the reactor exploded. From there, Episode 1 "1:23:45" shows how many different people come to terms with what has unfolded, either via shock, dismay or plain ignorance.

Episode 2 "Please Remain Calm" delves deeper into solving the problem and focuses on putting out the smoking, burning pile of nuclear material in the reactor's heart.

As per historical accounts, this was attempted via helicopters pouring a mixture of sand and boron into the reactor. In HBO's Chernobyl, one of these helicopters attempted to do this, but got too close and was consumed by a radioactive plume of smoke. A moment later, the helicopter reappeared and instantly disintegrated.

This was a powerful moment, and it showed the disbeliever Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård) just how serious the situation was. Until that moment, he treated Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) as an alarmist and believed none of his concerns. This moment is the catalyst in Shcherbina's character arc.

Helicopter crash

Unfortunately, this event never happened. A helicopter accident did occur near the plant in 1986, but it happened in October, not May, and was caused by the propellers hitting a cable. This accident is well documented and is on record for having taken the lives of three people.

I understand why the helicopter crash needed to be done, and I understand the show couldn't wait until October to do it, but I didn't like this change of historical events.

The Miner's Tunnel

Episode 3 "Open Wide, O Earth" introduced us to the comic-relief of the miniseries: a group of gritty, dirty, rough but loveable miners. The miners were brought in to dig a tunnel under the reactor so that engineers could pump "all the liquid nitrogen in the Soviet Union" into the ground. By freezing the ground solid, this would prevent the melting radioactive core from reaching the Pripyat River and exploding again.

The miners were brought in to work in hot, miserable conditions, and after their requests for workplace safety regulations were ignored, they mined in the nude. This was an unexpected, but an actual account of what occurred. It was also the last we saw of the miners or their tunnel for the rest of the miniseries.

The reason for this sudden dismissal is because their tunnel was never completed. It was decided that freezing the ground with liquid nitrogen for the foreseeable future would be too expensive and it would be much cheaper to just fill the space with concrete. This decision was never mentioned in HBO's version of events and the audience was left to wonder what happened.

Rooftops of Chernobyl

The Babushka Women

Episode 4 of the series, "The Happiness of All Mankind", introduces us to an old, nameless woman milking a cow. This episode is the saddest of the entire series, with just about every scene filled with death. It was this episode where the "Liquidators" were forced to execute animals and relocate all civilians. Their actions come to an early zenith when a liquidator encounters an old woman who refuses to leave her farm.

Abandoned house in Exclusion Zone

The woman's reasoning is simple. She lived on the farm when the Soviets arrived and starved the Ukrainians, and when the Nazis arrived and executed the Ukrainians. Now another enemy threatens them, and she will not leave for them either. The woman embodies the past century of Ukraine oppression, where they were executed and starved by the millions. In the mind of this woman, she has already gone through hell, so nothing worse can ever happen to her.

After growing increasingly frustrated with the woman, the liquidator opts to just shoot the cow, but the woman's fate is left undetermined.

We don't know if this woman was relocated or not, but we know that a group of women known as "The Babushka Women" did return and live in the Exclusion Zone. The show states that nobody ever returned to the area, but this isn't true. While the population is sparse, there are still people living in the remains of the communities, who grow and eat their own food. These people know the risks they are facing but continue to live there in peace for the first time in a generation.

Abandoned house in Exclusion Zone

The Sarcophagus

A containment vessel around Reactor 4 was proposed several times throughout the miniseries and was the driving force for the "bio-robots" in Episode 4. The Soviets needed these men to go onto the roof of Reactor 4 and shovel the graphite into the reactor all so the containment vessel could be built.

One would then expect them to start construction on the containment vessel, but it was never mentioned again. At the point when construction would have begun, the show did a time-jump and took us into October, and then quickly into December. The containment vessel, known colloquially as The Sarcophagus, was completed in November.

But, the construction of it was never brought up. The only time it was mentioned was in the final credits of Episode 5 "Vichnaya Pamyat" with the mention of the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement which was completed in 2016. For people unaware of the first structure, the show made it sound like it took them 30 years to finally cover the reactor.

Reactor 3 Reactor 4

Chernobyl City

This is something that many people struggle with, and I wish HBO had made it clearer. Chernobyl City is not the same thing as Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Chernobyl City was founded in 1193 CE, while the plant was constructed in 1977 CE (or, 783 years later). The power plant was constructed about 30 minutes north-west of the city, and the city of Pripyat was constructed in 1970 right next to the plant for the workers.

Chernobly City Sign Prypiat City Sign

When the plant exploded, Pripyat was heavily soaked in radiation, but Chernobyl City was not. How this occurred is unexplained. Some believe it was an act of the divine, with the president of the Ukrainian Chernobyl Union, Yury Andreyev, calling it "miraculous". The official claim is that a tree on the property of St. Elijah's Church (the only church still in operation in the Exclusion Zone) separated the steam cloud from approaching Chernobyl City and saved it.

St. Elijah's Church

But Chernobyl City was still evacuated, as was the rest of the Exclusion Zone. Today it is occupied by military personal, who live and work in the city, as well as tourists (like me) who wish to spend the night there.

The difference between Pripyat, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and Chernobyl City is something that HBO could have explained better. I know geographic accuracy isn't the major focus of the show, but in Episode 5 they refer to the ground as being "poisoned", with this being untrue since they were standing in Chernobyl City, not Prypiat.

That Chernobyl Isn't "Safe" to Visit

The miniseries ends with a memoriam about the people who died or suffered during the disaster, but it doesn't talk much about the fate of the plant afterwards. Although Reactor 4 exploded in 1986, Reactor 1, 2 and 3 continued in operation until 1996, 1991 and 2000 respectively.

Eight years later, the area was opened to tourists, and tours have been operating ever since. Tours can be organised through a variety of groups, with Chernobylwel.come being one of the most popular. They offer one, two or even five-day tours of the area. While the exposure isn't very much for tourists, the guides spend weeks there at a time.

Pockets of radiation in Chernobyl

While there are still extreme pockets of radiation throughout the area, the average person would be safe to visit. Most of the radiation has sunk into the ground over the past few decades, and if you aren't digging in the dirt, you will be fine. HBO's Chernobyl didn't touch on this and instead left the status of the area unspecified.

It's important to note that permanent settlement of the area will not be possible for over 20,000 years. Chernobyl is a curse upon the earth which will never go away, but it is still safe to visit.

Where's the Ferris Wheel?

This was a personal thing that HBO did that bugged me, but that's only because I have been to Prypiat and I know the area. Several times in the miniseries they showed rooftop footage of the city, or showed people walking around the city streets. They showed clips of people before, during and after the disaster, all in the same proximity of the city. But, among all these scenes, never showed the famous Ferris wheel.

Chernobyl Ferris wheel

Chernobyl's Ferris wheel is as iconic as Paris' Eiffel Tower, or New York's Statue of Liberty. The wheel was to be opened on May 1st in honour of Mayday, but the explosion and subsequent evacuation days earlier led it to never being used. The abandoned Ferris wheel perfectly illustrates how the innocence of the community was lost due to the disaster. Instead of being full of joy and laughter, Mayday was full of silence and death.

HBO had several ample opportunities to show the Ferris wheel, with dozens of scenes in the nearby plaza or hotel. Even the scene in Episode 4 where Khomyuk, Shcherbina and Legasov meet to discuss the upcoming trial would have been an ample opportunity to show it. This scene takes place in an athletic centre that sits only yards away from the Ferris wheel. I've seen the Ferris wheel from the windows of this building, and I know they were within throwing distance of it. The constant tease and disappointment of never showing it is why it made this list. Was this because the show didn't have the budget for a life-scale Ferris wheel, or did they just deem it not important enough? We may never know.

Plaza in Chernobyl Althetic Centre in Prypiat

All in all, HBO's Chernobyl is a fantastic miniseries and one that I encourage people to watch. It's a piece of modern history that unfortunately few people know about, and even less fully understand. I really enjoyed the miniseries and I hope it inspires more people to travel to Ukraine to experience the Exclusion Zone for themselves.

Have you seen Chernobyl? What did you think of it? Tell me about it in the comments below!

If you want to read more about my time in Chernobyl, please read Into the Exclusion Zone - Part 1, Into the Exclusion Zone - Part 2 or 13 Churches to Visit Before You Die, where I talk more about St. Elijah's Church.

Don't forget to pin it!

What HBO Got Wrong About Chernobyl What HBO Got Wrong About Chernobyl

And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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