Three weeks ago, HBO started showing a series called Chernobyl about the infamous 1986 nuclear reactor explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, Russia.
10 out of 10 stars. This has turned into one of the best series HBO has ever produced.
The three power plant workers who volunteered to go into the building basement and manually open the sluice gates succeed but it’s frightening wading through radioactive water up and down stairs and in the dark looking for the manual controls. They can now empty the bubbler pools of water to prevent a thermonuclear explosion.
Helicopters continue flying overhead to measure the level of radiation and the radioactive byproducts given off by the meltdown of the nuclear reactor core. The evacuation zone is set at 30 kilometers however there is Cesium-237 in Gomel which is 200 kilometers away. There is also Zirconium-95 in the air, a spike from the fuel rods which means the core has begun its meltdown.
Meanwhile Ludmilla Ignatenko follows her husband Vasily, one of the firemen, to Moscow Hospital 6 where all of the plant workers and firemen were taken. She lies and bribes her way in and ignores all of the warnings from the staff. She’s not supposed to stay for more than 30 minutes and she’s not supposed to go near him. But she stays for several days and she hugs her husband who is now radioactive. Ludmilla is pregnant but she lies and tells the nurse she is not, not realizing that because babies are fed nutrients from their mothers first the baby is absorbing ALL of the radiation Ludmilla is exposed to. (I had nightmares about that.)
Shcherbina calls Gorbatchev with an update:
- The fire is nearly out.
- The bubbler pools are being drained.
- The meltdown is proceeding faster than they expected.
- The concrete pad underneath the nuclear reactor will last about six to eight weeks.
- After that there’s a 50% chance that the fuel will melt down to the groundwater underneath the concrete pad and that feeds into the Pripyat River and then the Dnieper River. Both of these rivers supply 50 million people with water for themselves, their crops, their pets, their farms.
- He wants to install a heat exchanger under the concrete pad to lower the core temperature and halt the meltdown.
- To do this they require ALL of the liquid nitrogen in the Soviet Union.
At the end of this conversation Legasov asks Gorbatchev to extend the 30 kilometer exclusion zone. Gorbatchev refuses. When Gorbatchev asks him how long before Chernobyl will be safe Legasov answers the half life of Plutonium-239 is 24,000 years so not in our lifetimes.
After that conversation with Gorbatchev Shcherbina decides to give Legasov a dose of reality. They go for a walk and see all the KGB agents following them. Even Gorbatchev has KGB agents following him. It’s a circle of accountability. On this walk Shcherbina also asks Legasov exactly how the radiation affects the body and how the firemen and plant workers will die. This is what Legasov says:
- Ionizing radiation tears the cellular structure apart.
- The skin blisters, turns red then black.
- This is followed by a latency period of one to two days in which the immediate effects subside and the patient appears to be recovering.
- Then the cellular damage begins to manifest.
- Bone marrow dies.
- The immune system fails.
- Organs and soft tissue begin to decompose.
- Arteries and veins spill open like sieves to the point where nurses can’t administer morphine for the pain which is unimaginable.
- In 3 days to 3 weeks the patient is dead.
Shcherbina asks Legasov what about them. Legasov says for people like them who are exposed to consistent radiation at lower doses, their DNA is permanently damaged so in time they’ll get cancer or aplastic anemia. Either way it’s fatal. They’ll die in 2 to 5 years.
Legasov sends Khomyuk (a fictional character comprised of several real scientists) to Moscow to interview the plant workers in Moscow Hospital 6. When she gets there she can’t get Dyatlov to speak to her but Toptunov and Akimov do. They conducted the test and pushed the AZ-5 button to shut down the reactor. That’s when it exploded. And that’s not supposed to happen. She also discovers Toptunov was only 25 years old and yet held the job of Senior Reactor Control Chief Engineer, obviously obtained through nepotism.
May 3, 1986 Tula Mine
Mines in the Soviet Union have a lot of power because the entire country runs on either coal or nuclear power. When the miners of the Tula Mine are asked to go to Chernobyl to prevent the groundwater from being permanently poisoned, they go without question, even realizing they’re going to die because of it. Their crew chief, Andrei Glukhov, is asked to build a 150 meter long tunnel 12 meters deep and at the end of the tunnel excavate a space 30×30 meters for the heat exchanger. It all must done by hand because they can’t disturb the ground above. They have six weeks to do this and the temperature in the tunnels is 50 degrees Celsius or 122 degrees Fahrenheit, so hot they can barely breathe, especially since they are digging right under the reactor core. They can’t have fans because it would blow radioactive dust into their lungs, so they work naked (which is the most charming scene so far).
At the next committee meeting with Gorbatchev, Shcherbina gives the good news while Legasov is left giving the bad:
- There is 2600 square kilometers of radioactive debris surrounding Chernobyl.
- The entire region must be completely evacuated.
- All animals, domesticated or wild, must be destroyed because they are radioactive.
- Every rock, tree, and all the ground around Chernobyl is radioactive.
- Therefore they must raze the forests.
- They must rip up the top layer of earth and bury it beneath itself for 100 square kilometers around Chernobyl.
- They need to construct a containment structure around the power plant to contain the radioactivity.
- This will take 3 years and 750,000 men.
To achieve this effort, the Soviet Union conscripts thousands of 18 year old boys into the army and they send them to Chernobyl.
Ludmilla stays with Vasily as he slowly dies over a period of two weeks. He dies in exactly the way Legasov described: his skin turns red then black as blood oozes from his orifices. He is in immense pain, can’t see, and is sensitive to sound and light. He and the other firemen are buried in lead coffins and the ground is sealed with concrete.
Kudos to HBO for including such a large amount of information in such a small amount of time. The writing is spectacular, the cast is incredible, and the authenticity of the set is remarkable. You feel like you are there.
Chernobyl airs every Monday evening at 6pm on HBO.
10 out of 10 stars for a series everyone should watch.