Wednesday. 29.11.2023

Why the HBO series Chernobyl is specially scary for Finnish spectators

In the Russian town of Sosnovy Bor, over 200 kilometers from Helsinki, there is a nuclear plant equipped with the same type of RBMK reactors as the one that exploded in Chernobyl. A Finnish expert says the plant is not maintained according to Western safety standards. The last of these reactors is scheduled to be turned off in 2026.

Chernobyl hbo
An screenshot of the official trailer of the HBO series Chernobyl. Image: HBO.

The HBO television series Chernobyl, which premiered in May, is an attempt to dramatize the story of the worst nuclear civil disaster, which occurred on Saturday 26 April 1986 in Ukraine (then Soviet Union).

This 5-chapter drama is centered in the stories of the liquidators, the first civil and military personnel who entered the zero zone of the rugged nuclear power plant to tackle the consequences of the accident and therefore received high doses of radiation. It tells also how one of the main concerns in those days for the Soviet administration led by the Head of State Mikhail Gorbachev was to prevent the world from knowing the real extent of the disaster.

The series, acclaimed by international critics, has also received criticism from experts in the Chernobyl disaster. They argue, in general, that some of the facts actually shown did not happen, certain characters in the plot simply did not exist or are a mixture or a composition made from several others. In general, they agree that truth is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of drama.

Chernobyl official trailer (2019). Video by HBO.

For instance, the BBC has questioned the number of fatalities numbered. Fred Weir, a Canadian correspondent in Moscow for the Boston-based daily 'The Christian Science Monitor', for the monthly Chicago magazine 'In These Times' and for the British online newspaper 'The Independent', said that "the miniseries goes overboard with its characters, depicting Soviet officials and plant management as too evil and conniving".

Russian documentary producer Oleg Voinov, who also made a film about the Chernobyl disaster, said the series is "wonderfully shot, professionally edited, and the special effects are great. But it doesn’t come close to reflecting reality". The New York Times reviewer Mike Hale criticized Chernobyl’s "propensity toward Hollywood inflation, to show us things that didn’t happen" and also for taking "fictional license over the line into contrivance and melodrama".

The Finnish VTT's Research Professor responsible for nuclear reactor safety, Jaakko Leppänen, who according to the newspaper Helsining Sanomat has followed the series "with great interest" and gathered his comments in his personal blog, said that Chernobyl is a skillful drama which combines facts and myths. "Myths about the accident are still strong", he says. For instance, when it comes to the consequences for some of the liquidators who were sent into the plant, the series suggests that they exposed to lethal levels of radiation. But Professor Leppänen says that “in reality, the radiation doses they received were not so great".

Secrecy imposed

One real thing was the secrecy imposed by the Soviet authorities over the accident. It is well shown in the second chapter, which recreates a meeting of Soviet high command hours after the accident, chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev.

The scene makes clear that one of the main concerns of the Soviet Union was that the extent of the problem was not known abroad. In fact, they did not make it public until April 28 at night, two days later, after the Swedish Forsmark nuclear power plant detected the high levels of radiation. At this point the Russian leaders could not continue denying it.

According to Helsingin Sanomat, in Finland elevated values of radiation were measured ​​at the same time in Kajaani and Nurmijärvi, but the ongoing Civil Servant Act slowed down the communication, says Hannele Aaltonen, STUK's Emergency Response Manager. Today this may sound apologetic. The fact is that it took two days for the Soviet Union to admit the disaster. They did it through a statement of just 14 seconds broadcasted by the Soviet television.

The accident's first announcement made by Soviet TV two days after. Video: Tim McLain.

In Sweden and Finland, nuclear contamination reached high levels after the accident. In both countries fish in deep freshwater lakes were banned for resale and landowners were advised not to consume certain types. Restrictions were imposed also on other stock animals and farm products. One study reported also increased levels of birth defects in Germany and Finland after the accident.

Similar reactors operating close to Helsinki

Experts agree that the viewers who see Chernobyl should keep in mind that it is a fiction and not a documentary made with historical rigor. However, they also agree that, although partly fictional, Chernobyl is a well-depicted and dramatized story,  capable of keeping the viewer glued to the chair during the time that each chapter lasts.

Part truth, part fiction, the viewing of this series has awoken some old terrors among the Finns. Mainly this is due to the fact that the same type of nuclear reactors (RBMK) as the one which exploded in Chernobyl are still operating very close.

RBMK (acronyms in Russian for 'High Power Channel-type Reactor') is a class of graphite-moderated nuclear power reactor designed and built by the Soviet Union and included in several nuclear plants across the country. Nowadays there are still three of them working regularly in the Russian town of Sosnovy Bor, just over 200 kilometers from Helsinki.

Since 1973, at this municipality 70 kilometers to the west of the city of Saint Petersburg is located the Leningrad Power Plant, whose RBMK reactors are similar to reactors 1 and 2 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Sosnovy Bor Leningrad nuclear power plantThe Sosnovy Bor power plant. Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #305005 / Alexey Danichev.

Information exchange improved

Could the disaster ever happen again? According to the Finnish experts, after Chernobyl's explosion the international conventions on information exchange an assistance in case of accident have improved a lot. In addition to those international agreements, Finland has its own bilateral with Russia. 

Professor Jaakko Leppänen pointed out that after the accident changes have been applied also to the RBMK reactors. "The worst problems were corrected by the alterations, and at least the same accident should no longer be possible. Technically, however, the plant type is not maintained at the level of western security standards, as the reactor, for example, lacks a gas-tight pressure-resistant containment", he says.

Sosnovy Bor power plant's RBMK reactors are scheduled to be replaced by safer light water reactors in the next decade. The first one, Leningrad 1, was shut down in 2018. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 will be turned off also in 2021, 2025 and 2026, respectively.

Why the HBO series Chernobyl is specially scary for Finnish spectators