The drama and the facts about Chernobyl

05 June 2019

Craig Mazin - creator of the mini-series Chernobyl for television network HBO about the 1986 accident in Ukraine - has warned against "reactionary garbage" about the show, stressing that he is a supporter of nuclear energy.

Jared Harris (right) as Valery Legasov in Chernobyl (Image: Sky/HBO)

In an interview with Slate published on 3 June, Mazin said there had been "really dumb" expectations the mini-series would show "three-headed babies, and spread lies, and tell people that nuclear power is horrendous, and no, it's not".

"For a million reasons, this was not an anti-nuclear polemic. It's anti­-Soviet government, and it is anti-lie, and it is pro-human being. But anyone who thinks the point of this is that nuclear power is bad, is just, they've just missed it."

A few months before the Chernobyl accident, the Challenger space shuttle had exploded and was another example of "a failure of a lot of people and institutions over a long period of time", Mazin said. "When these things happen, we cannot immediately ask this simple question, 'Well, who is to blame?' We should presume that there's a lot to blame, and the real question is 'What do we do so this doesn't happen again?' That's the question worth asking."


Henry Fountain, a science writer on the Climate desk of The New York Times, toured the Chernobyl plant and the exclusion zone around it in 2014. In an article for the newspaper on 2 June, he wrote that the first thing to understand about the show is "a lot of it is made up".

The producers of the mini-series "don't sanitise the disaster", Fountain wrote, but in some cases have gone too far, such as with the images of injuries caused by radiation exposure. Instead, they "simplify" it to meet the "demands of Hollywood and of production budgets".

"But if you didn't know much about Chernobyl you could be forgiven if, after watching, you thought the entire response and clean-up was run by two people, Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina, aided valiantly by a third, Ulana Khomyuk."

Legasov, a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, led the commission investigating the accident. Shcherbina, a vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers, supervised crisis management following the accident. Khomyuk is a fictitious character whose actions, Fountain wrote, were not realistic.

Among the factual inventions to aid dramatic effect, Fountain included the "blue light from the exposed reactor shining high into the night sky" in the first episode. "Yes, nuclear reactors can produce a blue hue, from something called Cherenkov radiation, but no, there's no way Unit 4 would have looked like [that]," he added.


World Nuclear Association notes that the show is a dramatisation of historical events and that there has been a large increase in web traffic to its Chernobyl information paper since the show began.

The London-based organisation said: "We hope that viewers are taking the opportunity to learn more about modern nuclear safety practices and just how important nuclear energy is for addressing climate change and meeting sustainable development objectives. Just last week, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, noted: 'Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder. Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security'."

World Nuclear Association added: "The Chernobyl accident was serious and has resulted in long-term psychological and socio-economic impacts for the people affected. However, serious nuclear accidents are very rare and, even accounting for these, nuclear energy has caused far fewer deaths than any other form of electricity generation.

"It is worth remembering that the accident was more than 30 years ago and a lot has changed since then. It is interesting to note that all of the countries most affected by the accident - Ukraine, Belarus, Russia - are committed to expanding the use of nuclear energy today."


In the 70-year history of nuclear power, there have been three major accidents - Three Mile Island in the USA (1979), Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986) and Fukushima in Japan (2011).

According to the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, fewer than 100 people are believed to have died from radiation as a result of the Chernobyl accident to date. "This is a small fraction of the deaths which are caused by other major energy sources every single year," World Nuclear Association said.

Research by James Hansen, an American adjunct professor directing the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, found that, of the seven million deaths every year from air pollution, four million are from burning fossil fuels and the other three million from burning wood and dung.

The USA's Nuclear Energy Institute wrote a blog, A Viewer's Guide to HBO's Chernobyl Miniseries, a few days before the show was first aired. In the blog, NEI explained the difference between the events at Chernobyl and an interpretation of them for a TV drama.

The mini-series correctly shows that there was an unprecedented steam explosion at Chernobyl that completely wrecked a reactor, NEI said.

“Firefighters and plant workers - sometimes through ignorance and sometimes because of altruistic self-sacrifice - exposed themselves to huge doses of radiation to try to limit the damage, NEI said. But other parts clearly are dramatised, it added. For example, one of the characters in the mini-series (Khomyuk) is there to "unravel the mystery" of what happened, but "in the real event there wasn’t much mystery”. The story is about “extreme management problems and a pattern of secrecy that wasn’t compatible with industrial safety”, it said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News