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Artistic License / Chernobyl

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Craig Mazin conducted extensive research into the Chernobyl disaster and has created one of its most authentic depictions. Nevertheless, a number of licenses were taken for the miniseries, which he has addressed in the accompanying podcast.

  • The real Legasov was married with children, and was being looked after by his wife and daughter when he committed suicide. Mazin chose not to include the Legasov family in the story, to avoid a When You Coming Home, Dad? theme that he felt would detract from the tragedy of the explosion and the various fallouts. Episode 4 acknowledges the existence of Legasov's family when Shcherbina warns Legasov they will be targeted by the KGB if he goes public about the true cause of the disaster.
  • The hasty construction of the Containment Sarcophagus (the entire reason for the biorobots and clearing the roof of the radioactive graphite) is omitted, though they do mention plans to cover the reactor with concrete.
    • The omission of the Sarcophagus was explained by Mazin in a Reddit AMA as feeling more of an epilogue to the main story he wanted to tell; at that point everyone has accepted what happened and recognized the danger, so the core conflict is over.
  • In real life Legasov himself didn't record any tapes where he revealed the truth behind Chernobyl; instead his writings were disseminated throughout the Soviet scientific community, and presumably were committed to tape at some point. Legasov taping his own words, and hiding them for someone else to retrieve, made for a better opening visual and setup.
  • Legasov is shown hanging himself in his apartment and timing his suicide down to the minute of the anniversary of the disaster. In reality there's debate over whether he hanged himself in his home or in his office, but wherever his death took place it happened on April 27, 1988, two years and one day after the disaster.
  • Radiation effects are speeded or otherwise exaggerated for story-telling purposes:
    • Misha starts feeling the effects of having touched the graphite within seconds and develops severe blisters in his hand either several minutes or a few hours after at best. In reality, the fireman that inspired this scene only told a doctor that he felt his hand numb and become swollen.
    • There wasn't as much visible smoke in reality... and it was white-ish, not black. The change helps visualize the danger, but at the cost of not understanding why the characters keep thinking it's not as severe as it really is.
    • It took weeks for the Red Forest to turn red. In the show, it happens overnight.
    • The show depicts ash from the power plant falling on the civilians gathered to look at the fire from the railroad bridge, who develop "nuclear tans" by the following morning. Neither happened in reality, but it is used as a stand-in for people receiving radiation there and developing cancer later (although how many and how much is disputed). The only people outside the plant who displayed that level of radiation poisoning were two fishermen in a canal right next to the plant.
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    • The Episode 5 epilogue states that it was reported everybody that was present on the "Bridge of Death" watching the reactor fire died. However, due to incomplete records and the questionable reliability of witness ancedotes, it's difficult to determine whether everybody on the bridge actually died or if the claim was merely an urban myth.
    • Perevozchenko was responsive and involved with containment efforts for some hours a least, rather than succumbing right after reporting to the control room.
  • Zharkov is fictional and the early morning meeting where he has his most poignant scene never happened.
  • Bryukhanov arrived at Chernobyl at 2:30am and Fomin arrived two hours later. However, Fomin is shown having arrived first and waiting for him.
  • The corridor Dyatlov walked in right after the explosion had no windows so he really couldn't have seen broken glass, let alone graphite.
  • Three men saw the exposed core (Perevozchenko, Kudryavtsev and Proskuryakov), but only Kudryavtsev and Proskuryakov do in the show. It is hard to justify this as a Pragmatic Adaptation, because Perevozchenko is not Adapted Out and still appears in the control room.
  • Yuvchenko, having suffered serious radiation burns, undergoes something of an Heroic BSoD, asking a comrade for One Last Smoke and seemingly resigned to his fate. He's never seen again, implying an offscreen death. Whilst the Real Life Aleksandr Yuvchenko suffered horrific radiation burns and had to undergo over a year of medical treatment at a specialist hospital in Moscow, he eventually recovered enough to be discharged and even went back to work in the nuclear industry for a time. He credited his muscular build as the main reason he was able to pull through the effects of ARS. He eventually died in 2008 at the age of 47. Though the cause of death is listed as unknown, Yuvchenko was known to suffer from leukemia at the time, likely an after-effect of being at the plant that fateful day.
  • Most of the work done by the plant workers to contain the consequences of the explosion is omitted.
  • A lot of containment tasks that were undertaken by volunteers (examining the core, turning the valves, the miners) are depicted as being coerced at gunpoint.
  • The miners are shown drinking while on the clock, something they never did in real life. They also never took off their clothes, no matter how wet or uncomfortable they got.
    • There are at least claims that some miners took off their clothes, but without clarifying how many miners and how many clothes. The same claims insist they did only at night after the watchment and management crew went to sleep.
  • Although the helicopter accident happened exactly as shown (it is a remake of video footage), it was in October instead of April. In the series it serves as an object lesson of how severe a direct line-of-sight hazard the core would be.
  • In general, there were dozens of scientists from different disciplines working under Shcherbina, and hundreds that contributed to the government's response in some way. In the show, their work is condensed on Legasov and the Composite Character Khomyuk, which turns them into something of an Omnidisciplinary Scientist.
  • In the series, Shcherbina is rude and hostile towards Legasov while they both are on a flight to Pripyat, to the point of threatening to throw him out of the helicopter, and also totally ignorant about nuclear power. In his actual tapes recorded before his suicide, Legasov remembers briefing Shcherbina and other bureaucrats about the Three Mile Island accident while flying to Kyiv (from where they reached Chernobyl by land) and describes the conversation just as "anxious" (which is hardly surprising). In general, Shcherbina definitely had an impressive experience of collaborating with scientists, since in the 1960s he was one of the first champions of oil exploration in the Western Siberia (still providing Russia with petrodollars). And Legasov was right-hand man of Anatoly Alexandrov, the President of the Academy of Sciences and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (both position implied direct access to the Secretary-General). Therefore, in real life Shcherbina most likely treated Legasov with respect.
  • Legasov persuades Shcherbina to evacuate Pripyat as soon as possible after the two witness citizens going about their daily lives in spite of the disaster. In real-life, it was Armen Abagian, the director of one of the Moscow nuclear-power research institutes who had been dispatched to Prypiat as a member of the government commission, who approached Shcherbina and demanded the city be evacuated.
  • A title card identifies Tula as being in Russian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic). The official name of Russia under Soviet rule was Russian SFSR (Soviet Federative Socialist Republic).
  • Shcherbina receives a call indicating that a power plant in Sweden has detected the radiation and now the West is aware of the disaster. This is presented as his reason for ordering the evacuation of Pripyat. However, the scene takes place on Sunday, April 27, which was indeed the date that the city was evacuated. The Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden did not detect the radiation until the morning of April 28, after the evacuation.
  • The divers only had one light that went out, instead of three, and had no backup wind-up flashlights. They accomplished their mission in total darkness, using a pipe to guide themselves to the pumps and then out of the basement. Presumably this was changed to avoid the need for Hollywood Darkness.
  • The real Mikhail Shchadov, Minister of Coal Industries, was 58 (but looked older) and more imposing than his fictional counterpart. He was an ex-miner himself who started working at 15 and he introduced a new type of open-ground mining during his tenure just to make the miners working conditions better, a far cry from the clueless Upper-Class Twit in the show. But then the introduction of the miners wouldn't be as funny.
  • The "Animal Control" task force was made of professional hunters rather than inexperienced draftees.
  • When it came to writing the scenes involving Vasily and Lyudmilla Ignatenko, Craig Mazin drew extensively on the Real Life Lyudmilla’s account of the disaster. Both he and actress Jessie Buckley were so moved by her recollections that they felt her narrative should be as true to life as possible out of respect. Nonetheless, a few deviations from reality were needed.
    • In reality, Lyudmilla was about 5 months pregnant when the accident happened but she managed to conceal it because of her thin physique, and she gave birth two months after Vasily's death. In the show, she appears to be one month pregnant or less when the explosion happens, and doesn't give birth until eight months later.
    • When visiting Vasily at the Moscow hospital, Lyudmilla didn't initially have to lie about being pregnant as nobody thought to ask her at first. Lyudmilla did have to tell a lie of a slightly different nature, as the doctors main concern was that the radiation could render her barren. She lied, by telling them they already had a boy and a girl (and therefore did not want/need any more children) in order to allay their fears.
    • When the lead doctor, Angelina Guskova, found out Lyudmilla was pregnant, she expressed disapproval but did not bar her from seeing Vasily altogether. Likewise several of the nursing staff warned her of the dangers but allowed her to stay on the ward with him for extended periods out sympathy for her.
    • According to Lyudmilla, they actually had a good view of Moscow from Vasily's window and they even watched the May 1 fireworks together. Vasily also bribed or convinced a nurse to bring flowers for Lyudmilla.
    • The doctors at the Moscow hospital did actually try to save Vasily’s life. An American oncologist, Dr. Robert Gale, had voluntarily flown to Moscow to offer his services and attempted a bone marrow transplant on Vasily and several others. Sadly, it was to little avail as the majority of the transplant recipients died anyway.
    • Despite her determination to be at his side, Lyudmilla did miss Vasily's final moments, which is how events play out on screen. However, the real life story is possibly even more of a tearjerker. Two firefighters who had been friends of Vasily had already succumbed to the effects of ARS, and one of their widows had asked Lyudmilla to accompany her to her own husband's funeral for support. In a truly heartbreaking case of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, Vasily died whilst Lyudmilla was away.
  • The biggest license of the series, as admitted in the podcast, is the roles of Shcherbina and Legasov as expert witnesses in the trial of Dyatlov, Fomin, and Bryukhanov. In real life they weren't there (nor was Khomyuk, who is fictional), but it makes more narrative sense to have them there as culmination of their arcs and the story than to introduce other scientists out of the blue. The script plays with a bit of Secret History here, implying that they were really there but that the Soviet government managed to "delete" their interventions in punishment for Legasov's final speech (actually based on the notes he left after his suicide).
  • The idea that the radioactive lava could cause an explosion as large as the "2 to 4 megatons" described in the show is based on very flimsy evidence by Vassili Nesterenko and not taken particularly seriously by the vast majority of nuclear physicists - a steam explosion that large could only occur if pretty much the entire remains of the reactor core fell into water at the same time. In reality what the Soviets were worried about was an explosion of any size that would cause the plant to release even more radioactive material than it already was, a very bad scenario but nowhere near as catastrophic as everything within a thirty kilometer radius of Chernobyl being leveled. The explosion would certainly have destroyed the plant and released more radiation to the point that it would make the initial incident look like someone turning on a microwave three miles away, but it would not have been akin to an actual nuclear device going off and destroying the city.
  • The fact that the addition of sand to the reactor helped form corium lava also meant the core melting through the base of the power plant never happened; as a lava it was sufficiently mobile to spread itself out as it flowed through pipes and corridors, losing enough heat in the process to not be a meltdown risk any more. As such, the liquid nitrogen heat exchanger installed under the plant to freeze the ground was never needed.
  • The color and nature of the airglow (the column of light that can be seen above the core during the night) has been disputed, with some, including Aleksandr Yuvchenko mentioned above, describing it as blue and laser-like. Legasov's own notes, however, document the air glow as being crimson, not blue, and more diffuse in nature, more akin to a spotlight than a laser.
  • An In-Universe example occurs at the trial when Legasov, during the description of the sequence of events, describes reactor #4 as having been turned into a "nuclear bomb" due to the pileup of safety risks and oversight. The dramatic term is for the benefit of his audience, a mix of scientists and bureaucrats. In truth, however, it's physically impossible for a nuclear reactor to be turned into an actual nuclear bomb, because the type of uranium used as fuel is completely different from weapons-grade uranium. The first, smaller explosion was likely a steam explosion, caused when the water channels in the core failed and allowed the water to directly interact with the fuel, causing it to instantly superheat and expand, rupturing the core. His description of the second explosion is plausible, though in reality it isn't exactly known what caused it, due to the lack of data. Some scientists have theorized that the reactor might have briefly gone prompt critical, but the exposure of the core to oxygen (thankfully) made it explode before it could become a full-fledged nuclear bomb.
  • In Episode 4, the old woman refers to the Ukrainian famine of the early 30s as the Holodomor. However, that word was virtually unknown in the Soviet Union. In fact, the famine itself was a very taboo subject until Glasnost.
  • Episode 5 shows the power already going up to 1000 before the A-Z 5 button is pressed. In reality, it never went that high then, and there wouldn't have been much of a risk had the button not been pressed.
  • At his trial, Dyatlov is depicted as trying to brazenly shift the blame for the accident onto Akimov and Toptunov. This is at odds with the real-life Dyatlov's public statements following the disaster. Dyatlov was adamant that none of his subordinates made any mistakes during the safety test or caused the explosion. Instead, he blamed the Soviet government for covering up the RBMK reactor's design flaws and accused them of scapegoating Akimov and Toptunov, fighting to clear their names. He also sent a heartfelt letter of condolence to Toptunov's parents, saying that he was a great employee.
    • Also, while the series makes it looks as though Dyatlov deserted the control room to meet with the higher ups, he did in fact stay to assist in rescue efforts. While searching for the (later confirmed to be dead) pump operator, Dyatlov and another plant employee were hit with radioactive water from a broken pipe. The water gave Dyatlov's coworker a fatal case of radiation poisoning. Dyatlov himself, only got a little bit of the water on his shoes. This contact was enough to make Dyatlov extremely ill for weeks, and it was the true reason he had vomited and had to be carried out of the plant. Given that Dyatlov had already received a lifetime dose of radiation in an earlier nuclear accident, the fact that he was able to survive this at all meant the man was probably Made of Iron (or Lead, as the case may be...)
  • While sets generally do an amazing job of representing locations of Perestroika Era USSR, most windows appear to have uPVC frame (as opposed to wooden ones, which was an almost exclusive standard for territory).


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