New TV drama Chernobyl explodes onto our TV screens next week. Find out more about the real story behind the drama series and read an interview with screenwriter Craig Mazin, thanks to HBO & Sky Atlantic...
On April 26th, 1986, scientists at the Byelorussian Institute of Nuclear Energy detected a significant amount of radiation on the grounds and presumed there was a leak in one of their own labs.
However, no leak could be found.
They contacted the closest nuclear plant in Ignalina; they too had detected elevated radiation levels but had found no source of a leak. The next phone call was to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a full 250 miles away in Pripyat, Ukraine.
No one answered the phone.
The explosion of Reactor #4 at Chernobyl was the result of the lies, mistakes, cover-ups, ignorance and arrogance that were the hallmarks of the Soviet system.
A group of scientists resolved to discover the truth, even as the Soviet system worked to conceal its complicity in the disaster.
Together they uncovered the truth of what happened that night.
UNIT 4 CONTROL ROOM ENGINEERS
At 1.23 a.m. on April 26th, 1986, Reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, sending a plume of radioactive material into the air, and illuminating the night sky over Pripyat, Ukraine, with an eerie blue glow.
The accident resulted from, of all things, a safety test.
At Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov’s instruction, the inexperienced and inadequately prepared night shift carried out the test. Senior Engineer Leonid Toptunov, who had only been on the job for three months, was given the critical task of managing the control rods inside the reactor core.
As Dyatlov made a series of increasingly reckless decisions, the reactor was pushed to extremes, and when the operators attempted to shut it down, they unintentionally triggered the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Within four minutes of the explosion, firefighters arrived on the scene. In total, 50 fire trucks came to battle the blaze. They were told it was a simple roof fire, and they wore no protection from radiation.
Several firefighters, including Vasily lgnatenko,rushed to fight the fires raging throughout the devastated reactor building, receiving massive doses of radiation.
After suffering immediate symptoms of severe acute radiation syndrome, the stricken firefighters were taken to a hospital in Pripyat. Their boots, gloves and masks remain to this day in the basement of the hospital, just as they were left on the night of the accident.
The clothing they wore is still dangerously radioactive.
There was a high risk that the melting uranium would eventually burn through the concrete floor of the core and instantly vaporize 7,000 cubic metres of water stored in large safety tanks below. This would have created a thermal explosion large enough to destroy the remaining three reactors at Chernobyl, and render much of Eastern Europe completely uninhabitable for at least 100 years.
The tanks needed to be drained immediately, but they were sealed off by a sluice gate that could only be opened manually from within the duct system itself.
Three volunteers in full diving gear navigated the dark, irradiated, flooded basement- engineers Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and shift supervisor Boris Baranov. They successfully opened the sluice gate, and the tanks were drained with just hours to spare.
Though it has been widely reported that the three men died as a result of their heroic actions, in fact, all three survived after hospitalisation. Two are still alive today.
Hundreds of coal miners were tasked with digging a tunnel underneath the reactor, even as it was melting down. Their mission was to create a large space under the reactor for a heat exchanger, which would prevent the nuclear fuel from penetrating the ground water and spreading fatal contamination throughout Eastern Europe.
They worked around the clock for a month, toiling without ventilation or effective protection against radioactivity, often in temperatures exceeding 50° C. It is estimated that one out of every four of the miners died before the age of 40. Although they completed their work ahead of schedule, the fuel ultimately cooled on its own, and the heat exchanger was never installed.
The miners had dug the tunnel for nothing.
Although the immediate dangers posed by the reactor fire had been addressed, a long, deadly war was about to begin. An enormous amount of radioactive debris and contamination had spread across approximately 2,600 square kilometres.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians needed to be evacuated, and a massive clean-up was required. Over 300,000 men, known as “liquidators,” were conscripted and sent to what became known as “the Zone.”
The most contaminated area remained the roof of the Chernobyl power plant itself. Remote-controlled robots were brought in to remove the debris, but in some areas, the radiation was so intense, it destroyed any electric circuitry, rendering the robots immobile.
In those areas, the job fell to ‘biorobots’ - men - who were sent to the roof one by one, day after day, to remove the debris. 3,828 men were sent to the roof. Each were allowed to work for only 90 seconds, during which many received a lifetime dose of radiation.
The liquidators served at great personal risk to limit both the immediate and long-term damage from the disaster. Despite widespread accounts of sickness and death as a result of radiation, the Soviet government kept no official records of their fate.
THE UNTOLD COST
In the hours after the explosion, some of the residents of Pripyat gathered on a railway bridge just outside of the city, in order to get a better view of the colourful fire. Of the people who watched from the bridge, it has been reported that none survived.
It is now known as The Bridge of Death.
Approximately 300,000 people were displaced from their homes. They were told this was temporary. It is still forbidden to return.
Following the explosion, there was a dramatic spike in cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus. The highest increase was among children.
We will never know the actual human cost of Chernobyl. Most estimates range from 4,000 to 93,000 deaths. Some organisations believe the true number is in the hundreds of thousands.
The official Soviet death toll, unchanged since 1987 ...
... is 31.
INTERVIEW WITH CRAIG MAZIN, WRITER AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF CHERNOBYL
What was it that made you think ‘this is what I want to write next?’
There was an article five years ago about the construction of the new containment unit over Chernobyl. It occurred to me that, like almost everyone, I knew that Chernobyl exploded but most people don’t know why - and neither did I. That seemed startling, so I started reading about Chernobyl. Two facts jumped out immediately. The first was that the night of the explosion they were running a safety test. I thought the irony of that was mind boggling - the safety test blew up a nuclear reactor. The second thing was that the man in charge of putting out the fire, cleaning up and figuring out how this happened committed suicide two years to the day after the explosion. The more I read the more stories I found. It was almost an impossible number of shocking, brutally revealing, inspiring, dispiriting stories piled up. I had to sort through an embarrassment of dramatic riches to tell the story of the best and worst humanity can offer.
Could you include all of those stories?
No. There were a number of times where what actually happened was hard to believe. If I were writing this as fiction people would immediately flag it as unrealistic because the level of denial that went on - particularly the night of the explosion itself by episode one - is profound and shocking. I had to actually make it less aggressively true in places.
Which stories do you tell?
A lot - stories of the doctors who were working in Pripyat that night, of individual workers in the power plant who thought the building was under attack, faceless men conscripted to go on a roof covered in radioactive graphite and receiving at least a lifetimes’ dose of radiation in ninety seconds. We tell the story of fire fighters and the story of one of the fire fighters’ wives - Lyudmila Ignatenko, who has spoken eloquently and beautifully about watching her husband die. We follow Valery Legasov, an academic, and the Soviet government official assigned to oversee the task. We also have Emily Watson’s character who essentially represents all of the many scientists who not only risked their personal safety being around the reactor, but also risked their safety challenging the State.
You put the explosion in episode one then deal with the impact. Was there ever a temptation to do a disaster movie type story building up to the explosion?
Everybody knows it exploded. I’m not going to make you wait for that. And the terrible beauty of Chernobyl is what came after. When a nuclear reactor explodes it is not the explosion that is the horror - it is the aftermath. It was the beauty of the human stories that I found so moving, so terrifying and so heart breaking, but also uplifting.
How much research did you do, and did you try to encompass everything?
I followed my own sense of interest. You need to understand the science and medical science. I went down to USC and a Professor of Nuclear Physics explained how nuclear reactors work. I did a lot of reading. It was essential to understand details like what, if a young man is sent to the zone, was he wearing. What does he know about the radiation? What kind of gun do they put in his hand…? That sort of thing.
Was it easy to get this script made?
The first person I spoke to was Carolyn Strauss - a mutual friend through the Game of Thrones guys. I went with her to HBO and they just let me write. It couldn’t have gone easier. If we had somebody in mind they agreed. I wrote the scripts with Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson in mind and they all said yes. We watched these remarkable mini-series by Johan Renck, and I thought he would be great - and he wanted to do it. The show is so awful and harrowing, but the process itself was a true joy.
Why is it important to tell this story now?
We live in a time where people seem to be re-embracing the corrosive notion that what we want to be true is more important than what is true. It’s as if truth has become a joke. One of the most important lessons of Chernobyl is that the truth does not care about us. The Soviet system was soaking in this cult of narrative and then one day the truth erupts. This is why this story is more relevant than ever. We can keep pretending. We can keep telling ourselves stories. The truth doesn’t care. It will do what it does. That is the dark lesson. I think the beautiful lesson of Chernobyl is that, even in times of disaster, people step up and behave in the most remarkable and noble ways.
The scale of the production is hugely ambitious. Tell us more about what was involved?
We’re telling a European story, and with Sky producing alongside HBO it made sense that our production HQ was based in the UK. To recreate 80’s era Soviet Union though, we needed to film in Lithuania, and on set the scale and ambition of our production was astounding, with detail and accuracy essential to our philosophy. Everything you see is true to the time and place, down to the tiniest of threads in the costumes for the hundreds of extras, as overseen by our Head of Costume Odile Dicks-Mireaux. Our production design team, led by Luke Hull, oversaw the demolition of abandoned structures to procure rubble, as part of the process to convert the exterior of a soundstage into the exterior of the Chernobyl Power Plant. It took hundreds of people across London, Lithuania and Kiev to bring this enormous vision to life, and I am so proud of and grateful for the work that they have done.
How has the scale of investment in the series impacted how you approached this project?
In the best of all worlds, the investment doesn’t drive the creative, rather, the creative demands a certain level of production, and hopefully someone agrees to fund it. In our case, that’s exactly what happened. I wrote Chernobyl without any particular concern for budget. My restraints were creative and dramatic and on my own terms. Happily, our production team, led by Jane Featherstone, Carolyn Strauss and Sanne Wohlenberg, were able to partner with Sky and HBO and get the resources we needed to do justice to this significant piece of history. Everyone understood the importance of getting it right.
Chernobyl starts on on HBO on 6th May at 10/9c and Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 7th May at 9pm
Images and all info courtesy of Sky Atlantic.