"Beyond anything you can imagine": The brutal truth of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster
The launch of HBO miniseries Chernobyl has once again brought attention to the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Discussions have emerged as to whether the five-part show provided a realistic depiction of the catastrophe.
While some details in the story have been contested, most experts and survivors agree that the portrayal of the radiation effects is true to life.
Oleksiy Breus was an engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the then-Soviet Union. Following the 1986 explosion at the fourth reactor, he took part in a dangerous operation to drain water from under the power station to prevent further explosion.
The 59-year-old told BBC that the physical impacts of acute radiation syndrome (ARS) were shown well in the series through the character of firefighter Vasily Ignatenko.
Breus said he met with shift leader Oleksandr Akimov and operator Leonid Toptunov – both of whom were featured prominently on the show – hours after the incident.
“They were not looking good, to put it mildly,” he said. “It was clear they felt sick. They were very pale. Toptunov had literally turned white.”
Akimov and Toptunov died two weeks later from ARS. Breus said his other colleagues who worked at the ill-fated night died in hospital after their skin turned to “a bright red colour”.
He said, “Radiation exposure, red skin, radiation burns and steam burns were what many people talked about but it was never shown like this. When I finished my shift, my skin was brown, as if I had a proper suntan all over my body. My body parts not covered by clothes – such as hands, face and neck – were red.”
This was in line with the testimony from Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of the fallen firefighter. In the book Voices from Chernobyl by Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, Lyudmilla said she witnessed her husband’s condition exacerbate as he began experiencing serious diarrhea, hair loss and skin cracking and discolouring.
She recalled, “I tell the nurse: ‘He’s dying’. And she says to me: ‘What did you expect? He got 1,600 roentgen. Four hundred is a lethal dose. You're sitting next to a nuclear reactor’.”
Archaeologist and Chernobyl expert Robert Maxwell also vouched for the show’s accuracy in showing how nuclear radiation affects the human body.
“The skin of the tongue sloughs off; the skin of the body turns black and peels way upon touch... eyes blister. The colon is covered in third degree burns,” Maxwell told Mamamia. “Their depiction of ARS and its treatment during the Soviet 1980s is highly accurate.”
The show’s creator Craig Mazin said he and his team took great care to show “total respect” to Vasily and his family in the series.
“We had to be really careful in episode three when we showed the final stage of Vasily Ignatenko's body,” Mazin told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was the most extreme thing that we showed, and our makeup and prosthetic designer Daniel Parker did a brilliant job — so brilliant, in fact, that there was a concern that we lingered on it a bit.
“We shortened that shot by quite a bit, because the last thing we wanted was to feel like we were trading on this man's sad fate for sensationalist points on a TV show. What we wanted was for people to see the truth of what happens…
“Those were the things we were dealing with all the time, because that man was a real person, and his wife is still alive, and the last thing we want to do is show anything other than total respect.”
134 people were diagnosed with ARS in the aftermath of the explosion. 28 of them died within months.
The number of people affected by the disaster remains disputed, with many suspecting that the radiation may be the reason behind other health problems such as cancer and birth defects.