HBO Chernobyl mini-series

Thorsten Hackl, Radiation Protection Expert and Chemical Advisor at Safety – Region Central-West Brabant, The Netherlands

As a radiation protection expert I have always wondered why there has not been any major screen depiction of the Chernobyl tragedy. In the dozens of books I have read on the tragedy I have found enough heroic people, scary moments and personal tragedy to make for more than one movie.

After becoming a part-time Chernobyl tour guide in 2017 I continued to collect testimonials, because it is the stories that make the tragedy human. And that is what I think the Chernobyl incident is most of all – a human tragedy. That is why I was not surprised when HBO announced the Chernobyl mini-series. It even made sense to make the story into a series, as one simply cannot describe the story in one or two hours. But after having seen the trailer I got slightly worried, asking myself what kind of story it would offer.

I have guided more than 100 people through the exclusion zone in Chernobyl and I have shared stories that I heard from people who were involved in the aftermath of the explosion. I began to ask myself – what if this HBO Chernobyl series tells a different story and not the story I shared? The story I share with people who are interested in the Chernobyl tragedy has developed over the years. There are good books and websites, and there are bad books and websites.

Every year I visited the exclusion zone, I have talked to guides, people who worked on the sarcophagus, who lived or worked in the Chernobyl village. All those people combined, created one big inclusive story that I would tell my students about. So you can imagine I was curious about what HBO made of all this. I was curious about the focus in the series, what they left out and what perspective they chose to show. With a greater than normal anticipation, I watched the first episode. The first scene shows Legasov who is committing suicide. I felt relieved about the fact that this part of the tragedy is portrayed in the miniseries. And I believe he received the “hero” like role he deserved. It was him who fathomed the (global) impact of the disaster as one of the first people, and it is him who saved a lot of lives by advising the party members to take prompt action.

What I liked even more is that there was room for more than one perspective. The firefighter, the wife of a liquidator, a scientist; all players received a role and I think they did a great job in portraying the difficulties each and every one faced during these hard times. I am not sure how it was in those days in Russia and specifically in Pripyat, but it seemed legitimate.

They even got the technical part right. I was wondering how deep HBO would dare to go into the nuclear physics, and they went further than I expected. The problem with going too deep is that people won’t be able to understand it anymore, but they did an outstanding job. They explained the positive void coefficient, the Doppler effect, the iodine pit, and explained it in a simple way. The way Legasov explains the reasons behind the explosion of the RBMK reactor in court is simply genius and I wish I came up with the red and blue signs for my classes.

One thing that bothers me about the miniseries, is the way communism and the one-party system is portrayed. I haven’t lived in a communist country, and I believe the filmmakers speculated quite a lot about how the dialogue and discussions went. I am not saying that the way HBO portrayed the several persons is incorrect, but I just have doubts about the real characters and their motives. It is hard for me to believe that there was one villain in the control room who overpowered the others and risked it all for his own career. Nobody can tell with absolute certainty what was said in those tragic hours; one has to assume that the series made some choices to favor storytelling. For me this aspect is the only aspect that could have done better, but then again, this makes it a good story though.

Overall, I like the discussion and attention the Chernobyl accident receives, especially for the victims who have remained silent and invisible too long. However, a negative side effect is that the Chernobyl tourism is increasing, and I am not sure if this is a good thing. The first inappropriate selfies are already shared on the internet, lacking compassion for the human loss and suffering. On the other hand, if the attention is bringing in money, then who could blame them? I just hope we will treat the exclusion zone differently than the way climbers treat the Mount Everest for instance, because the climbers have turned the mountain into a tourist attraction and a garbage belt. 

And if there is one thing the Chernobyl accident has shown us, it’s that the people are one of the worst enemies of nature, because the nature in the exclusion zone has been blossoming for the past few decades without us being present.

Mr. Hackl has specialized in HazMat incident management since 1999 and he was the team leader of the first Emergency Preparedness and Response Mission in Fukushima, Japan. During the course of his career he has trained over 1000 first responders in HazMat and nuclear protection. As an expert on radiation protection and nuclear safety Mr. Hackl writes a personal piece discussing the newest on-screen depiction of the events of the Chernobyl incident.