12 ways HBO changed the Chernobyl story

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: HBO’s new miniseries, “Chernobyl,”
recounts the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine. It’s a
dramatization, so while many events depicted in the show are based
in reality, it had a few discrepancies with historical

Here are 12 of them.

See that thick pillar of black smoke that’s coming out of the
power plant? It makes for an ominous shot, but in reality, it was
more likely thin trails of white vapor that were escaping from the

In episode one, “Game of Thrones” fans might have recognized
Donald Sumpter, the actor who played Maester Luwin. It turns out
that his character in “Chernobyl,” an elderly Bolshevik by the name
of Zharkov, is fictional. His speech urging officials not to raise
alarm about the accident, that’s also a fabrication.

Zharkov: No one leaves. And cut the phone
lines. Contain the spread of misinformation.

Narrator: That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some
effort to contain the spread of information in the immediate
aftermath of the meltdown. But we don’t know if what Zharkov says
here accurately reflects the government’s rationale at this point
in time.

Chernobyl is the biggest nuclear accident to date, but according
to Jan Haverkamp, a senior nuclear-energy expert at Greenpeace,
Legasov’s comparison of Chernobyl to Hiroshima doesn’t quite make

Legasov: The fire we’re watching with our own eyes is giving off
nearly twice the radiation released by the bomb in Hiroshima.

Narrator: The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was so
devastating because of the number of people that suffered direct
exposure to radiation. At Chernobyl, on the other hand, radioactive
material enters the atmosphere and disperses, so its health effects
were more indirect and long-term.

In episode two, a helicopter crashes as it flies over the open
reactor. There was a helicopter crash in the wake of Chernobyl, but
the show moved this event up chronologically. The crash actually
took place in October of that year, months after they were done
fighting the fire.

Of the fictional characters in the show, the most central is
Ulana Khomyuk, the scientist from the Belarusian Institute for
Nuclear Energy. Khomyuk travels to Chernobyl uninvited,
interrogates the plant supervisors in their hospital rooms, and
soon enough even finds herself in the presence of General Secretary
Gorbachev. If that storyline seems unrealistic for one person, it’s
because Khomyuk was imagined as a composite character to represent
the many scientists who led the cleanup effort. Her gender is
definitely realistic as the USSR had an impressive record of
training women for STEM roles.

In episode two, Khomyuk warns the council that a second
explosion could occur, ejecting even more radioactive material from
the core at a force of up to 4 megatons. According to Haverkamp,
that estimate is probably an exaggeration. The rest of her
description doesn’t quite hold up either.

Khomyuk: And likely be fatal to the entire
population of Kiev, as well as a portion of Minsk. And will impact
all of Soviet Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarusia, as well as
Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and most of east

Narrator: The assertion that all of Europe
would be affected involves a lot of hypotheticals. As Haverkamp
says, that situation might play out if all of the melting corium
hit groundwater. But when corium starts melting, it does so in a
very uneven way. So if the second explosion had actually occurred,
it’d be pretty difficult to predict the fallout.

As part of the effort to prevent the steam explosion that
Khomyuk warned about, three patriotic volunteers dive into
radioactive water to open the tank valves. The show takes a few
liberties here. According to one of the divers, Alexei Ananenko,
they didn’t all volunteer for the job. Ananenko was an engineer at
the plant who simply happened to be on duty that day when his
supervisor assigned him to the mission. He was told he could refuse
the assignment, but he was the only person on the shift who knew
the location of the valves, leaving him with effectively no choice
but to join the team of divers.

In one of the series’ more comical moments, the miners digging
the tunnel underneath Unit 3 strip naked to cope with the heat.
It’s possible that a few of the miners actually did this, but even
the show’s writer and creator, Craig Mazin, said that there were
some varying accounts of how much clothing got taken off.

One of the sources that Mazin consulted was “Midnight in
Chernobyl,” a book based on real accounts of the accident compiled
by journalist Adam Higginbotham. In an interview with Inverse,
Higginbotham said the show exaggerated the denial and delayed
response of the Soviet government.

His book describes how the investigation into Chernobyl began
almost immediately on several fronts. Within 36 hours of the
explosion, reactor specialists traveled to Chernobyl from Moscow
and were able to promptly identify the most likely cause of the
accident. Therefore, as Higginbotham said, there was no need for a
crusading whistleblower to uncover the causes. But raising
awareness about the problems that led to Chernobyl did take Soviet
scientists several years of hard work and research.

Sadly, the friendship we see develop between Boris Shcherbina,
chairman of the Chernobyl commission, and Valery Legasov, the chief
scientific investigator, was largely an imagined one. The duo’s
scenes together show their growing bond, but there’s no evidence
that any of these scenes actually happened.

Legasov was also not quite the martyr figure that Jared Harris
depicts, raising his voice to Gorbachev and openly challenging the
head of the KGB. We have no reason to think that the trial of
Dyatlov and the other two plant managers involved any of the
theatrics seen in the finale, when Legasov denounces his government
in front of a room of officials.

Legasov did die by suicide two years after the explosion, and he
did dictate a final letter reflecting on the liquidation effort he
spearheaded. But in this message, he didn’t ask, “What is the cost
of lies,” the show’s tagline, nor did he contemplate any abstract
questions about the meaning of truth.

Legasov: The real danger is that if we hear
enough lies then we no longer recognize the truth at all.

Narrator: Legasov did have concrete grievances
about the handling of Chernobyl, which he outlined in great detail
in his message.

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Source: FS – All – Entertainment – News
12 ways HBO changed the Chernobyl story