Is Chernobyl inaccurate?

The HBO drama has been a hit with audiences and critics

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Chernobyl: does the HBO series portray the nuclear disaster accurately?

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

HBO's Chernobyl mini-series has been a hit with audiences and critics, and it could become the highest-rated TV show ever.

But did it take artistic licence in its portrayal of the 1986 nuclear disaster?

One critic accuses the series of being "sensational" from the start, and never looking back.

However, others say that it "faithfully recreates" the world's worst nuclear disaster.

The Claim

Forbes' Michael Shellenberger argues that Chernobyl gets nuclear and other aspects about the disaster "so wrong".

He argues: "In truth, Chernobyl runs across the line into sensational in the first episode and never looks back."

Shellenberger notes that the mini-series either adds events that didn't happen, or moved events around. For instance, a scene suggests that radiation caused a helicopter crash. The crash did happen, but six months later and had nothing to do with radiation.

He adds that the "most egregious of Chernobyl sensationalism" is the depiction of radiation as contagious, like a virus. He explains that radiation is not contagious, saying that there is no scientific evidence for many of the scenes depicted in the portrayal.

Shellenberger argues: "Chernobyl is supposedly about the lies, arrogance, and suppression of criticism under Communism, but the mini-series portrays life in the Soviet Union in the 1980s as inaccurately, and melodramatically, as it portrays the effects of radiation."

He says that Chernobyl gets nuclear wrong, in the same people have been getting it wrong for decades: "We’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants."

The Counterclaim

However, Interesting Engineering's Marcia Wendorf says that Chernobyl "faithfully recreates the world's worst nuclear disaster".

She writes: "For those who don't know much about the disaster, the series is an eye-opener.

"For those who do know what happened, the series is a near-perfect recreation of the events that took place in Soviet Ukraine on the morning of April 27, 1986."

She says that the show's creative forces - screenwriter Craig Mazin and director John Renck - consulted many different kinds of sources: government reports, first person accounts, scientific journals, historical works, and photo essays.

Mazin said: "So much of what happens in the show is just shocking. It’s shocking to believe that that’s what happened."

The Facts

Chernobyl is based on the nuclear disaster of 1986, when reactor four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded during a safety test. It took eight days to contain the fire.

It is not known how many people died. According to the official Soviet account, the explosion killed two plant workers. A further 28 engineers and firefighters died of acute radiation syndrome in the weeks following the disaster.

A report from 2005 attributes 56 deaths to the explosion or radiation. However, the numbers vary - and the figure could be much higher. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) predicted that "a total of 4,000 deaths will eventually be attributable to the Chernobyl accident".

More than 100,000 people were evacuated from the area immediately after the explosion. The number reached over 300,000 as people were put on buses and evacuated away from the most contaminated areas.

They were not allowed back to their homes. There is a 1,600 square mile no-go zone around the nuclear plant, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. There is also a steel and concrete sarcophagus around the nuclear reactor.

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