The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident Was Devastating — & It Could've Been So Much Worse

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
On the surface, the expansive HBO mini-series Chernobyl, premiering May 6, does exactly what the title indicates: Unspool the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant over the course of five nail-biting episodes.
But creator Craig Mazin thinks Chernobyl also tells an urgent story about the idea of truth. After the Chernobyl plant went into meltdown, the Soviet government covered up the extent of the disaster and later, its cause.
“You can pretend that the truth is malleable. But the truth doesn't care. The truth will do what it does,” Mazin told Refinery29. “The nuclear reactor in Chernobyl didn’t care that the Soviets insisted it was flawless. It just did what it did. I want people to come to grips to that. We have to learn how to think critically and allow ourselves to change our minds to incorporate the truth.”
For Mazin, this concept applies as much to the Chernobyl incident as it does to today’s pressing issues, like politics and climate change.
So, what is the truth of what happened in Chernobyl? Most of us can probably recite the event in broad strokes: It was the worst nuclear disaster in history, and it affected much of Europe. Chernobyl the show illuminates just how devastating the event really was — and how much worse it could’ve been, were it not for the efforts of scientists and Soviet citizens who risked their lives in the clean-up.
Let’s go over the details.

What happened at Chernobyl?

Long story short: A bungled safety test performed during the early morning hours of April 26, 1986 caused reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant to overheat, blow off the reactor's 1,000-ton steel top, and generate an explosion the equivalent of 500 nuclear bombs.
What resulted was the worst nuclear disaster in history. Pripyat, Ukraine, where the plant was located, is now one of the most contaminated place on the planet, and will likely be unfit for human life for at least 3,000 years.
But it’s a longer story than that, and the Chernobyl unspools said story in granular detail.

How much nuclear engineering do you need to know to watch Chernobyl?

There is a lot of frantic talk about “graphite” and “hot fuel particles” and “power surfaces” in the show. The scientists in the show explain everything adequately. The takeaway, essentially, is that the accident poses both immediate and existential threats.

What actually caused the accident at Chernobyl?

Ah, the question that drives all of Valery Lagosov (Jared Harris), Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), and Ulana Khomyuk's (Emily Watson) efforts in Chernobyl. They know how the accident happened – but they don’t know why.
In reality, it would take years before the truth about the accident’s cause emerged. The disaster was made worse by a design flaw, of which officials in Moscow were long aware. So, the plant's operators that began the disastrous sequence weren’t entirely to blame. Still, six of Chernobyl's officials were sentenced to 10 years in labor camps.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
According to the World Nuclear Association, the accident was also the “direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.”

What was the human cost of the disaster?

The 1986 accident's effects were felt for years. But first-responders, like firefighters and workers at the plant, felt the effects of Chernobyl first. In the direct aftermath of the explosion, two people died at the scene, 29 workers and firefighters died of Acute Radiation Exposure (ARS), and four more people died in a helicopter disaster.
Many more people were exposed to radiation when Chernobyl's cloud of radioactive waste spread throughout Belarus, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation and well into Europe, stretching as far as Britain. Yet it took three days for the Soviet Union to even admit that any accident had occurred.
In the ensuing years, thousands of children in the region developed thyroid cancer (with highly effective treatment). After the explosion, about 600,000 citizens called "liquidators" were shipped in to help with the fire-fighting and clean-up operations, and were also exposed to high levels of radiation.
The disaster also uprooted lives: About 350,000 people were evacuated from the region, beginning 36 hours after the explosion. Now, they face health problems, unemployment, and insufficient housing. In total, six million people live in contaminated areas, which have a high rate of birth defects.

How many people died as a result of Chernobyl?

The total number of deaths attributed to Chernobyl is still debated to this day. It's especially hard to tell because people exposed to low levels of radiation die of the same causes as unexposed people. The UN predicted 4,000 deaths; some groups, like Greenpeace, put the death toll from fatal, radiation-caused cancers into 100,000. Other estimates are more conservative: “The only deaths that have been firmly established, either individually or statistically, are the 28 victims of acute radiation syndrome and 15 cases of fatal child thyroid cancer,” Wade Allison of the University of Oxford told New Scientist.

Could the disaster have been even worse?

You bet. The plant was headed toward a steam explosion, which would have destroyed the entire power station and the other three reactors. Such an explosion may have wiped out half of Europe.
In order to prevent an even worse explosion, three workers had to climb through the radioactive water in the plant's pitch-black basement. They drained the pools and were successful in their mission, but died within weeks.

Is the Chernobyl nuclear plant still operating?

Sort of. The reactors haven’t operated since 1999, but the plant still has 3,800 employees. They workers commute from the nearby city of Slavutych, built to replace Pripyat. To take precaution against radiation, workers alternate between two-week shifts and two-week decontamination periods and pass through radiation checkpoints.

Is it safe to go to Chernobyl now?

Officially, the 30 square kilometers miles of land around Chernobyl are uninhabitable. Animals have reclaimed the town; brown bears roam the streets. In defiance of the law, about 100 to 200 people still live in the area.
Ironically, this contaminated city is also teeming with life. The 30-kilometer region surrounding the plant, called the Exclusion Zone, has a second life as a tourist destination. An entire tourist infrastructure has emerged, with buses that bring people from Kiev to Pripyat and hotels within the exclusion zone. 72,000 people visited the zone in 2018.
Within the Exclusion Zone is a crumbling snapshot of a prized Soviet City. “Pripyat, the city next to Chernobyl, was considered a Shangri La of sorts. It was a privileged place to live,” Mazin said. “They called the cities that grew up to service and support a plant ‘atom grads.’ If you were lucky to live there, your stores were full, you had swimming pools and basketball courts. It was beautiful. People were happy. We wanted to show that.”
Pripyat's ferris wheel was set to open on May 1, 1986, just days after the accident. Tourists leave stuffed animals in its cars as memorials.
Chernobyl, premiering on HBO on Monday, May 6, is another kind of memorial — one to the unglamorous bravery that prevented an even worse disaster.

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