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Fallout from the HBO Chernobyl miniseries

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green - Nuclear Monitor editor

HBO's five-part miniseries Chernobyl has been watched by millions and it tops IMDB's list of the greatest TV shows of all time.1,2 Visits to the Wikipedia 'Chernobyl disaster' page increased exponentially once the miniseries began screening, peaking at over half a million visits per day.3

Adi Roche, founder of Chernobyl Children International, said the miniseries "is helping us all to see Chernobyl with fresh eyes, ears, hearts, understanding, and with fresh compassion and solidarity, retelling the story as you do to a new and wider audience like never before. It truly, truly honors and gives justice to the many, many victims and the heroes of Chernobyl."4

Film critic Craig Mathieson had this to say in the Sydney Morning Herald:5

"With its sallow green hallways, brutalist concrete edifices, and rampant moustaches Chernobyl looks like another time, but it doesn't sound that different. "So I should leave now because of something I can't see at all," an 82-year-old farmer rhetorically asks the young soldier come to evacuate her after an explosion sends vast amounts of radiation spewing into the sky. "No," she concludes, and it's difficult not to see climate change as the allegory behind these repeated moments of intransigence.

""I prefer my opinion to yours," a local party boss dismissively tells Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist who tries to raise the alarm about how serious the accident is. Chernobyl is an indictment on the official fictions of Russia's one party communist state, a system of crippling shortcuts and absurd obeisance to power, but the blank and bureaucratic system has a familiar feel. One dissenter is threatened not with the bullet but professional obliteration, so that there's no trace of their life's work. That's only more relevant now.

"Like all historic recreations it changes details and amalgamates characters into fictionalised representations such as Watson's Khomyuk, but it succeeds through a dry tone that has the bitterest of aftertaste. … The show is exceptional in revealing – in steady, shocking increments – how a large-scale disaster distorts everything it encounters. At first it is the truth, but the human casualties soon follow. Firefighters who pick up pieces of the reactor casing are so contaminated that their very cells tear themselves apart. "He's my husband," one desperate wife tells a nurse trying to evict her from the hospital. "He's something else now," the nurse replies, and horrific transformations are a recurring motif."

Film critic Dani Di Placido wrote in Forbes:6

"As Chernobyl's reactor explodes, condemning the surrounding area and its citizens to radiation poisoning, the first instinct of the men running the nuclear plant is to downplay the severity of the crisis. As the death toll rises, the effort to conceal the truth becomes ever more desperate.

"Much like the climate crisis we face today, Chernobyl's conflict wasn't really about facts; the terrible nuclear accident was right there for the world to see. But the scale of the problem was deliberately concealed, the wellbeing of not only the citizens of the Soviet Union, but of Europe and beyond, completely disregarded in favor of maintaining the illusion of control. …

"Chernobyl shows that despite the terrible, inescapable tragedy that was unfolding, the countless lives lost, the only action that the institution was motivated to act upon was self-preservation and denial. Sound familiar?"

The miniseries also received a positive review from UK-based radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie, author of the comprehensive 'TORCH' reports7 on the adverse health impacts of the Chernobyl disaster. Fairlie writes:8

"I have yet to see the final episode, but the first four are pretty accurate in their portrayal of the accident and the suffering which followed. Some dramatic licences have been taken in collapsing large events into easy-to-digest sequences or single characters, but overall, it is remarkably truthful and reliable in its depictions.

"Perhaps the most important aspect of the programmes is that they inform a new generation about the potential dangers of nuclear reactors. The UK still has 15 of them operating, with 2 more under construction and the Government thinking about more.

"Another aspect is that they educate people about the dangers of radiation, a subject on which most people are very poorly informed, and which the Government and its agencies avoid discussing honestly."

In a perceptive and well-worth-reading critique, which we won't attempt to summarize here, Masha Gessen, author of the book 'The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia', argues that the miniseries falls back on disaster-movie clichés and thus fails to explore and explain the systemic causes of the Chernobyl disaster.9

Reactionary reactions in Russia

The miniseries has generated a great deal of interest and discussion in former Soviet states. The Belarussian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich ‒ whose book 'Voices from Chernobyl' was used by the filmmakers for information and inspiration ‒ said the miniseries is having a positive effect:10

"We are now witnessing a new phenomenon that Belarusians, who suffered greatly and thought they knew a lot about the tragedy, have completely changed their perception about Chernobyl and are interpreting this tragedy in a whole new way. The authors accomplished this, even though they are from a completely different world ‒ not from Belarus, not from our region. It's no accident that a lot of young people have watched this film. They say that they watch it together in clubs and discuss it."

Vladimir Putin has reportedly dismissed the HBO miniseries as American misinformation.11 Dmitry Yevseyev, leader of a local branch of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, said the miniseries "is packed with petty anti-Soviet filth, which poisons viewers' brains, thus becoming a deliberate, well-thought-out distortion of Soviet reality."12

Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Moscow Times: "The pro-Kremlin daily Komsomolskaya Pravda published a column suggesting that the series is an attempt to undermine Russia's leadership in nuclear reactor exports, one of the few areas in which Russia is ahead of the U.S. and actively competing for European and Asian markets. The idea, Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist Dmitry Steshin wrote, is to incite the European public against Russian nuclear projects. I've read plenty of similar comments on social media; the series has been accused of that ultimate sin, "Russophobia.""13

Bershidsky added: "The question that keeps popping up in my mind is why none of the three ex-Soviet countries most affected by Chernobyl has produced such a powerful re-creation of the 1986 events for the world's edification. It would have made sense for Russia, with its current nuclear leadership, to show that it has learned the lessons … It would have made sense for Ukraine, too; when I visited the Chernobyl zone in 2012, an illicit trade in potentially contaminated scrap metal was flourishing there amid the ruins and overgrown, abandoned villages. Belarus, heavily victimized by the Chernobyl fallout, would have been a fitting messenger, too."13

In fact, a miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster is being made by the Russian pro-government TV channel NTV, with the assistance of a grant of 30 million rubles (US$475,000) from the Ministry of Culture.12,14,15 The plot revolves around a CIA agent dispatched to Pripyat to gather intelligence on the Chernobyl plant, and the Russian counterintelligence agents sent to track him down! NTV director Alexey Muradov said the show "will tell viewers about what really happened back then", adding: "There is a theory that the Americans had infiltrated the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and many historians do not deny that on the day of the explosion an agent of the enemy's intelligence services was present at the station."15

Pro-nuclear responses to the miniseries

Pro-nuclear propagandists ‒ inside and outside the industry ‒ have used the interest generated by the HBO miniseries to repeat their tired old lies about Chernobyl (dissected in some detail in Nuclear Monitor #82116).

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) states that the HBO miniseries has resulted a large increase in traffic to its online 'information paper' about the Chernobyl disaster where "viewers are taking the opportunity to learn more about modern nuclear safety practices and just how important nuclear energy is for addressing climate change and meeting sustainable development objectives."17

A separate article published by the WNA blathers on about 'modern nuclear safety practices' and states that "an effective nuclear safety culture requires well-informed and empowered operators and transparency as well as competent, independent oversight."18 But it is silent about inadequate nuclear safety cultures and regulation in Russia19, the US20, China21, India22 and elsewhere. It is silent about South Korea's corrupt 'nuclear mafia'23 and the post-Fukushima resurrection of Japan's corrupt 'nuclear village'.24 The article18 claims that "Ukraine has made huge progress in its approach to nuclear safety" … which is dangerous nonsense.25,26

Matt Wald from the US Nuclear Energy Institute, in a response to the Chernobyl miniseries, blames the nuclear disaster on "self-deception and cutting corners" in the Soviet nuclear industry and also takes aim at the "poor industrial safety record … shared by the other nominally communist player in international nuclear markets, China."27 Happily, the US "doesn't work that way" and a nuclear disaster "can't happen here".

Wald demonstrates the hubris that partly explains the Chernobyl disaster, partly explains the Fukushima disaster, and presumably explains some of the 50+ nuclear accidents in the US that have resulted in more than US$50,000 of property damage.28

Notorious pro-nuclear liar Michael Shellenberger29 says "it's obvious that the mini-series terrified millions of people" about nuclear power and that it "runs across the line into sensational in the first episode and never looks back."30

Shellenberger claims that "under 200" people have died and will die from the Chernobyl disaster.31 Likewise, in its commentary on the HBO miniseries the World Nuclear Association states that "fewer than 100 people are believed to have died from radiation as a result of the Chernobyl accident to date".17

In fact, as noted at the end of the HBO miniseries, the very lowest of the estimates of the Chernobyl death toll is 4,000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed populations, and credible estimates of the death toll across Europe range up to 93,000.16,32

Shellenberger dismisses estimates of thousands of deaths on the basis of the views of one contrarian scientist.33 By that logic, we could ignore climate change, and speculation that planet Earth may be spherical, on the basis of one contrarian opinion.

Shellenberger states: "In the end, HBO's "Chernobyl" gets nuclear wrong for the same reason humankind as a whole has been getting it wrong for over 60 years, which is that we've displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants."30 But Shellenberger has himself written at length about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation.35 He notes that "at least 20 nations sought nuclear power at least in part to give themselves the option of creating a nuclear weapon"36 and that "having a weapons option is often the most important factor in a state pursuing peaceful nuclear energy".37

More information

The HBO website has the miniseries trailer, scripts and other information (and the miniseries can be streamed online for those with an HBO subscription):

A companion podcast for the miniseries hosted by Craig Mazin (writer and executive producer of the miniseries) and Peter Sagal:

The Nuclear Information & Resource Service has a resources webpage on the Chernobyl disaster:

Following the success of miniseries, Sky (which collaborated with HBO in its production) released a 49-minute documentary featuring people involved in responding to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. It is freely available online:




3. The Economist, 4 June 2019, '"Chernobyl" is the highest-rated TV series ever',

4. Rebecca Shafer, 'Remembering the Impact of Chernobyl, 33 Years Later',

5. Craig Mathieson, 11 June 2019, 'Apocalyptic mini-series Chernobyl is the year's unlikely TV hit',

6. Dani Di Placido, 17 June 2019, ''Chernobyl' Provided The Climate Change Metaphor That 'Game Of Thrones' Failed To Deliver',

7. Ian Fairlie, March 2016, 'TORCH-2016: An independent scientific evaluation of the health-related effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster',

8. Ian Fairlie, 4 June 2019, 'Chernobyl TV series',

9. Masha Gessen, 4 June 2019, 'What HBO’s "Chernobyl" Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong',

10. Anna Sous, 13 June 2019, 'Belarusian Nobel Laureate Says HBO Series Has 'Completely Changed Perception' Of Chernobyl',

11. Kim Willsher, 16 Jun 2019, 'The truth about Chernobyl? I saw it with my own eyes …',

12. Fatima Tlis, 17 June 2019, 'Russian Politician Calls HBO Chernobyl 'Anti-Soviet Filth', Falsely Accuses Producers of Distortion',

13. Leonid Bershidsky, 31 May 2019, 'Russia Should Have Made HBO's 'Chernobyl'',


15. Andrew Roth, 7 June 2019, 'Russian TV to air its own patriotic retelling of Chernobyl story',

16. Nuclear Monitor #821, 6 April 2016, ''Pro-nuclear environmentalists and the Chernobyl death toll'',

17. World Nuclear Association, 5 June 2019, 'The drama and the facts about Chernobyl',

18. World Nuclear Association, 10 June 2019, 'Viewpoint: Chernobyl and a very modern safety culture',

19. Vladimir Slivyak, 2014, 'Russian Nuclear Industry Overview',

20. Gregory Jaczko, 17 May 2019, 'I Oversaw the US Nuclear Power Industry. Now I Think It Should Be Banned',

21. Emma Graham-Harrison, 25 May 2015, 'China warned over 'insane' plans for new nuclear power plants',

22. A. Gopalakrishnan, 13 Nov 2017, 'India Should Halt Further Expansion of its Nuclear Power Program', The Citizen,

23. Nuclear Monitor #844, 25 May 2017, 'South Korea's 'nuclear mafia'',

24. Nuclear Monitor #800, 19 March 2015, 'Japan's 'nuclear village' reasserting control',

25. L. Todd Wood, 30 March 2017, 'Ukrainian corruption casts nuclear pall over Europe',

26. Nuclear Monitor #832, 19 Oct 2016, 'Ukraine's nuclear power program going from bad to worse',

27. Matt Wald, 1 May 2019, 'A Viewer's Guide to HBO's Chernobyl Miniseries',

28. Benjamin Sovacool, Aug 2010, 'A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia', Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 40 No.3, pp.369−400,

See also: Spencer Wheatley, Benjamin Sovacool and Didier Sornette, April 2015, 'Of Disasters and Dragon Kings: A Statistical Analysis of Nuclear Power Incidents & Accidents', Physics and Society,

29. Nuclear Monitor #852, 30 Oct 2017, 'Exposing the misinformation of Michael Shellenberger and 'Environmental Progress'',

30. Michael Shellenberger, 6 June 2019, 'Why HBO's "Chernobyl" Gets Nuclear So Wrong',

31. Michael Shellenberger, 16 Oct 2017, 'Enemies of the Earth: Unmasking the Dirty War Against Clean Energy in South Korea by Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Greenpeace',

32. Nuclear Monitor #785, 24 April 2014, 'The Chernobyl death toll',

33. Michael Shellenberger, 11 March 2019, 'It Sounds Crazy, But Fukushima, Chernobyl, And Three Mile Island Show Why Nuclear Is Inherently Safe',

34. Michael Shellenberger, 6 June 2019, 'Why HBO's "Chernobyl" Gets Nuclear So Wrong',

35. Nuclear Monitor #865, 6 Sept 2018, 'Nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger learns to love the bomb, goes down a rabbit hole',

36. Michael Shellenberger, 29 Aug 2018, 'For Nations Seeking Nuclear Energy, The Option To Build A Weapon Remains A Feature Not A Bug',

37. Michael Shellenberger, 28 Aug 2018, 'How Nations Go Nuclear: An Interview With M.I.T.'s Vipin Narang',