- The HBO series, "Chernobyl," gets plenty of things right about the nuclear power plant disaster that likely exposed hundreds of thousands of people to radiation.
- To adapt the story for television, "Chernobyl" director Craig Mazin had to invent a character and adjust the chronology of a few events.
- While some circumstances are still shrouded in mystery, we now know that the incident was far more catastrophic than Soviet officials initially let on.
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Retelling the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is an exercise in un-burying the truth.
In the wake of the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident, which forced the entire city of Pripyat in the former USSR to evacuate after being exposed to toxic levels of radiation, Soviet officials publicly downplayed the incident. To this day, scientists are still working to understand the effects of the fatal explosion.
What we do know is that the core of a nuclear reactor opened, sending plumes of radioactive material into the air. The toxic fumes not only contaminated the local vegetation and water supply, but also poisoned nearby residents, some of whom went on to develop cancer.
Within three months of the disaster, more than 30 people had died of acute radiation sickness.
"We can only estimate the real effects on people’s lives," said Jan Haverkamp, a senior nuclear energy expert at Greenpeace, who said the catastrophe likely had a severe impact on hundreds of thousands of people.
While developing his HBO series, "Chernobyl," writer and producer Craig Mazin approached conflicting accounts of the event with a degree of caution.
"I always defaulted to the less dramatic because the things that we know for sure happened are so inherently dramatic," he told Variety’s "TV Take" podcast.
For the most part, the documentary is hauntingly accurate — with the exception of a few artistic liberties. We fact-checked some of the major plot points from the series to determine what’s true and what verges on myth.
Note: This article contains spoilers of episodes 1-4.
MYTH: The Chernobyl fire gave off nearly twice the radiation of Hiroshima every hour.
Both Chernobyl and the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II were catastrophic nuclear disasters. But Haverkamp said it’s difficult to compare the radiation exposure of the two events.
With Hiroshima, he said, the major health impact was caused by direct exposure to radiation. When a nuclear bomb explodes, he said, a person’s radiation dose is determined by their distance from the point of exposure.
"What happened [in Chernobyl] was that a lot of radioactive material was brought into the atmosphere," he said. The material was then "spread over a very large area" and ingested by people over a long period of time.
FACT: The Soviets tried to use robots to clean the contamination site, but eventually resorted to human labor.
In a horrifying scene in episode 4, men throw blocks of radioactive graphite off the roof of the power plant — what the series calls "the most dangerous place on Earth." In real life, the men were asked to clear 100 tons of radioactive debris from the area.
At a conference in 1990, the official who oversaw the cleanup efforts, Yuri Semiolenko, said the Soviets had initially tried to clear the site with remote-controlled robots. When the machines started breaking down in the toxic atmosphere, officials resorted to human labor.
Though advanced US robots could have aided the decontamination, tensions between the two countries dissuaded Ukraine from asking for help.
MYTH: A Soviet nuclear physicist named Ulana Khomyuk helped orchestrate the cleanup.
One of the series’ main characters, Soviet nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, is an amalgamation of many nuclear scientists involved in the Chernobyl cleanup.
For Mazin, placing a female character at the heart of the investigation made historical sense.
"One area where the Soviets were actually more progressive than we were was in the area of science and medicine," Mazin told Variety. "The Soviet Union had quite a large percentage of female doctors."
Chernobyl’s chief scientific investigator, Valery Legasov, on the other hand, was a real person. As the opening episode reveals, Legasov recorded his personal account of the disaster before hanging himself in 1988.
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SEE ALSO: A photographer visited the abandoned towns around Chernobyl more than 20 times over the past 25 years, and the captivating photos show just how suddenly time stopped in its tracks after the disaster