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.
Four hundred kilometers away from Chernobyl in Minsk, dosimeters in the Nuclear Commission measure 8 milliroentgen. Ulana Khomyuk tests a sample of radioactive film from the window and it comes out Iodine 131, uranium decay from U-235, nuclear reactor fuel. She calls Ignalina which is 240 kilometers away and they’re reading 4 milloroentgen radiation exposure. It’s not them. She calls Chernobyl 400 kilometers away and no one is answering the phone.
Comrade Gorbatchev appoints a committee to investigate the Chernobyl explosion. Dr. Valery Legasov is called by Deputy Chairman Boris Shcherbina and told that he is on that committee and to report to him immediately. When Legasov reports to the Kremlin he is given a report of the incident which talks about the fireman who picked up the graphite and watched his hand melt a few minutes later. Along with the vomiting, red skin, and other description of the plant workers it is obvious the nuclear reactor core has exploded and there is radioactive graphite from the core on the ground outside. The meeting begins and Shcherbina reports that the roof is on fire and under control, there are no casualties, and the radiation exposure is only 3.6 roentgens per hour equivalent to a chest x-ray. Legasov stands and tells the committee that’s a lie. There is graphite on the ground which means the nuclear reactor core is exposed. He explains that 3.6 roentgen is the maximum reading of low level dosimeters and the actual exposure is probably much much higher, that 3.6 roentgen is equivalent to 400 chest x-rays not one, and then describes the atoms in a nuclear reactor core. An RBMK nuclear reactor uses uranium 235 as fuel. Every atom of U-235 is like a bullet traveling at nearly the speed of light penetrating everything in its path–woods, metal, concrete, flesh. Every gram of U-235 holds over a billion trillion of these bullets. Chernobyl holds over 3 million grams. Winds will carry radioactive particles across the entire continent. Rain will bring them down on us. That’s 3 million billion trillion bullets in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Most of these bullets will not stop firing for 100 years. Some of them not for 50,000 years.
After this sobering explanation Gorbatchev orders Shcherbina and Legasov to go to Chernobyl and make an assessment then return with a report. They fly by helicopter and in the air Legasov can see the huge glowing chunks of graphite on the ground and the exposed core. Shcherbina orders the pilot to fly directly over the building and Legasov countermands that order telling the pilot they’ll all die if he does that. The pilot listens to Legasov. As soon as they land, Shcherbina puts armed guards on Legasov and goes to speak with Bryukhanov and Fomin. They insult Legasov for spreading malicious rumors. Shcherbina asks them if they believe Legasov is wrong how do they prove it? General Pikalov, who is an expert at fighting chemical fires, says they have a high-level dosimeter now and they can attach the high-level dosimeter to a truck and take it over to the plant and measure the radiation. Legasov warns him that it’s very dangerous. Pikalov says then he’ll do it himself. He comes back with a reading of 15,000 roentgen which is the equivalent of two times the radiation of the Hiroshima bomb every single hour, 48 bombs worth each day.
At Legasov’s suggestion Shcherbina orders 5,000 tons of sand and boron dropped on the fire, which is not actually a fire, but nuclear fissioning. Even at the rate they are dropping boron and sand the fire will still burn for two weeks.
The firemen and power plant workers are flown by helicopter to a Moscow hospital. One of the firemen, Vasily Ignatenko, has a pregnant wife who comes to visit him. She’s not supposed to touch him because he is now radioactive and emitting radiation himself. She ignores the warnings and holds him for hours before he dies, exposing both herself and her unborn child to massive amounts of radiation.
Khomyuk tries warning the guys in charge of Minsk that the bubble pools are full and the other nuclear reactors at Chernobyl are in danger of exploding, but he ignores her, so she goes to Chernobyl, gets arrested, and tells the soldiers to take her to the highest authority. They take her to Shcherbina and Legasov. She explains to Legasov that the uranium will melt the sand and create a lava that will melt through the ground. He says yes he’s aware of that, but the pools are empty. She tells him they are not. When the reactor exploded they immediately began pumping water into the core which was essentially an empty building and that water makes its way down to the bubbler pools along with all the water from the fire pumps. General Pikalov confirms that yes the water is still pumping. In two days the lava will hit the bubbler pools and explode 7,000 cubic meters of water causing a 2 to 4 megaton thermal explosion. Everything within a 30 kilometer radius will be destroyed including the three remaining nuclear reactors at Chernobyl. Radioactive materials from the three cores will be ejected at force and dispersed by a massive shock wave which will extend 200 kilometers and be fatal to all of Kiev and a portion of Minsk. Radiation will affect Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and East Germany. Ukraine and Belarus will be uninhabitable for a minimum of 100 years and the 60 million people who live there will be dead. This will happen in 48 to 72 hours when the melted sand lava hits the bubbler pools.
Shcherbina and Legasov go back to the committee and request permission to kill three plant workers. They need to send them inside the basement of the plant to manually open the sluice gates so they can pump out the tanks. These volunteers will be dead in a week. Three men volunteer knowing they will die: (1) Ananenko, (2) Bezpalov, and (3) Baranov.
In one of the most poignant moments of this episode Legasov begs Shcherbina to evacuate the town of Pripyat and he refuses. Legasov tells him they’ll die of radiation exposure. Shcherbina says we’re here they can be here. Legasov tells him yes we’re here and we’ll be dead in five years. This it the first time Shcherbina seems to realize the gravity of the situation. All of the men there working to stop the spread of radiation are going to die in less than five years, including him.
There are also several moments when Khomyuk takes and gives others iodine tablets, explaining that iodine tablets will help prevent the absorption of Iodine 131, the radioactive version from U-235 decay. Khomyuk was not a real person, however it becomes obvious that no one at the plant and none of the firemen were given iodine. It doesn’t appear that any of the people sent there were either.
- 3.6 roentgen is equivalent to 400 chest x-rays.
- An RBMK nuclear reactor uses Uranium 235 as fuel.
- Every atom of U-235 is like a bullet traveling at nearly the speed of light penetrating everything in its path–woods, metal, concrete, flesh.
- Every gram of U-235 holds over a billion million of these bullets.
- Chernobyl holds over 3 million grams of U-235.
- These bullets will not stop firing for 100 years; some of them not for 50,000 years.
- 15,000 roentgen is the equivalent of two times the radiation from the Hiroshima bomb.
- Those roentgen measurements are every hour; multiplied by 24 hours, Chernobyl is emitting the equivalent of 48 times the radiation of Hiroshima bomb every day.
- The “fire” at Chernobyl is not a fire, but a nuclear fissioning.
- Iodine tablets will help stop your body from absorbing Iodine 131, the byproduct of Uranium 235 decay.
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.