Chernobyl: 10 burning questions we still have after watching the HBO miniseries

Chernobyl HBO Miniseries

April 26, 1986 will forever be remembered as the day of one of the worst disasters of its generation, and the most catastrophic nuclear accident in history. On that day, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat, in the north of what was then the Ukrainian SSR, overheated and caused a massive explosion that released extremely high levels of radiation into the air.

HBO’s five-part historical miniseries, which stars Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men), Stellan Skarsgard (Return to Montauk), Emily Watson (Little Women), and Paul Ritter (Cold Feet) explored the events of the Chernobyl disaster, the clean-up afterwards, and the devastating effects that continue to linger. The epilogue at the end provided some answers about the aftermath, including the fact that the three men who drained the pool underneath the reactor known as the “Suicide Squad,” all survived, and the pregnant woman, Lyudmilla Ignatenko, not only survived, but went on to have a son.

Still, after watching this incredible series we had plenty more questions about Chernobyl. Here are answers to some that the show did not address.

Is it safe to visit Chernobyl today?

Broken down building in Chernobyl
Alexey Furman/Getty Images

There are trips you can take to Chernobyl, and even a website for eager tourists to book a (strictly regulated) tour, with the studio guaranteeing “absolute radiation safety” for tourists. The tour, which starts at about $99, includes essential radiation survival skills, thematic routes, and a bird’s eye view of the zone. It’s undoubtedly an eerie experience, but Chernobyl has become a popular tourist destination as of about a decade ago. The radioactive isotopes still in the atmosphere are reportedly tolerable for limited periods of time with no adverse effects, reports the International Atomic Energy Agence (IAEA).

Where is the “Suicide Squad” now?

After their act of heroism, the three volunteers were hospitalized and went on to live their lives. The shift supervisor died of a heart attack in 2005. Andrew Leatherbarrow, who researched the disaster for five years for his book 1:23:40: The Incredible True Story of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, found another member still working in the industry, though he understandably does not want his name released, preferring to live a private life. Leatherbarrow lost track of the third man, but he was still alive as of 2015.

What was the actual size of the affected area, and were other parts of Europe affected?

The affected area, which includes the regions of Ukraine and Belarus called the Exclusion Zone, covered approximately 2,600 square kilometers, or a 30-kilometer radius. The area impacted by radioactive fallout, however, stretched as far as 150,000 square kilometers and includes Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Some additional amounts could have been dispersed due to wind and storm patterns as well, but there hasn’t been any literature to suggest that there were increased instances of cancer anywhere else, or at least none that could be directly attributed to Chernobyl.

Do people still live in Chernobyl?

chernobyl hbo miniseries burning questions 20 years after nuclear meltdown
76 year old Mariya Shelan poses for a portrait inside her home in the village of Teremtsi on February 1, 2006 near Chernobyl, Ukraine. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

While Chernobyl is still considered a ghost town, an estimated 2,000 people currently live in homes in the surrounding areas. Said one man who refused to leave, “the secret to a long life is not to leave your birthplace, even when it is poisoned with radioactive fallout.” In total, there are 187 small communities in the Exclusion Zone, says IAEA, but children are not permitted. Of those who reside there, many live in newly constructed towns in areas that reportedly have “very little or no contamination.” While it’s illegal to live there, the Exclusion Zone itself is home to about 150 people.

What are some of the major health effects of those who were exposed?

Those immediately exposed, such as the firefighters in the series, contracted acute radiation syndrome due to extreme exposure which includes everything from nausea and vomiting to infections, bleeding, and cell deterioration of major organs.

The most common health issue that prevails is thyroid cancer, which is often found in children who were younger than 14 or so during the time that the accident occurred. Reportedly there have been 20,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children who were exposed at the time of the accident, as at 2015. The reason, according to the IAEA, is that the thyroid gland in young children is very susceptible to radioactive iodine, thus potentially triggering cancer. This is also why many in the show took iodine tablets to protect the thyroid gland from radioactive isotopes. Alongside medical issues, the effects were psychological as well, including suicide (as with Valery Legasov), alcoholism, high anxiety, and apathy. Some animals were born with physical deformities as well.

How many victims were there, really?

chernobyl hbo miniseries burning questions general imagery
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There’s no definitive way to determine how many people actually died from the event and its effects later in life, and the debate over accurate numbers continues heatedly to this day. The series notes that the Soviet government doesn’t have an official record, but its death toll is 31. Total death estimates that have been published by other sources, according to the series, range from 4,000 all the way up to 93,000.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), workers suffered immediate death following the explosion, along with 28 firemen and emergency clean-up workers who died within three months after. One could also consider the 200,000-300,000 people who were displaced from their homes to be victims as well, many of whom suffer from psychological issues and mental illness as is common in any major disaster.

Bottom line: As the series epilogue so dramatically notes, “we will never know the actual human cost of Chernobyl.”

What happened to Anatoly Dyatlov?

As the series noted, he was sentenced to 10 years hard labor and prison time for his role in the disaster, alongside Victor Bryukhanov and Nikolai Fomin. But even though he was found guilty of criminal negligence, he maintained that he was not responsible for the issues that led to the explosion, and claims that he, Bryukhanov, and Fomin were being used as “scapegoats” to cover up the structural problems. He was released in 1990, after which he wrote an article for Nuclear Engineering International Magazine calling the design of the reactor the “sole reason for the Chernobyl accident.” Dyatlov died from an illness, related to his radiation exposure, in 1995 at the age of 64.

How does Chernobyl compare to the recent Fukushima disaster?

fukushima power plant disaster aerial photo
In this satellite view, smoke lingers above the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant which released radioactive material into the air following a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 14, 2011 in Futaba, Japan.

While both Chernobyl and the Fukushima disaster of 2011 at the Daiichi plant were classified as level 7 nuclear accidents, only a tenth of radioactive material was released in Japan compared to Chernobyl, despite three reactors melting down versus one. In Chernobyl, the reactor was not protected by a containment structure, allowing radiation to escape freely. In Fukushima, the radioactive cores remained protected despite the explosions and fires. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist and acting director for the Union of Concerned Scientists Nuclear Safety Project believes Chernobyl was far more dangerous “as damage to the reactor core unspooled very rapidly and violently.” Radioactive material was released in Fukushima, but much of it was carried out to sea and away from populated areas. The government also quickly evacuated people and prevented contaminated food from getting into stores. At Chernobyl, many residents continued to drink contaminated milk, and thus developed thyroid cancer.

What has been done to the RBMK reactors since the event?

The miniseries epilogue notes that the reactors were “retrofitted to prevent an accident like Chernobyl from happening again.” The IAEA confirms that upgrades were made to all RBMK units to correct the issues that existed, improve shutdown mechanisms, and “heighten general safety awareness among staff.” The plant was officially closed in 2000, with the last reactor shut down. But the process of decommissioning the three retired reactors that remain could take decades.

Are there animals still in Chernobyl?

chernobyl hbo miniseries burning questions stray dogs play in front of the chernoby
Stray dogs play in front of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Sergei Supinsky/Getty Images

For any animal lover, the scenes in the series that showed men going door to door and eliminating any live animal they could find were heart-wrenching. It’s unclear how many animals were actually killed in Chernobyl to prevent the spread of radiation, and it is known that some animals were born with deformities and disfigurations. But today, several animal species actually live in the Exclusion Zone, including brown bears, bison, wolves, lynxes, horses, and more than 200 bird species. They appear to be thriving, though studies have discovered some negative effects, like insects with shorter lifespans and birds with higher levels of albinism. Some believe that wildlife might be more resistant to radiation than initially believed, or that they are simply adapting to living with the radiation.

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