5 things to know about Chernobyl before streaming the HBO miniseries
In HBO’s Chernobyl, the human story of the disaster is brought to life by brilliant performances from Stellan Skarsgård (The Avengers), Emily Watson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Jared Harris (The Crown) in a gripping series that follows the responders who made incredible sacrifices to contain the nuclear fallout. The full series is available on Showmax.
But what actually happened on that devastating day in 1986 and, crucially, in the aftermath?
Here’s a quick crash course.
1 The cause
The cause of the accident, which occurred at reactor 4, was a combination of poor design and human error during a safety test. Operators ran the plant at low power without taking the correct precautions.
The reactors were highly unstable at low power. A power surge caused a sudden increase in heat, which ruptured tubes containing fuel. Hot fuel particles then reacted with the cooling water, causing a steam explosion that lifted the 1 000-tonne cover off the top of the reactor.
A second explosion exposed the reactor core to the environment and a fire that burned for 10 days released radiation into the atmosphere.
2 The Exclusion Zone
The disaster took place in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, and affected Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Today the Exclusion Zone covers an area of approximately 2 600 square kilometres and has become a tourist attraction. If you happen to be on holiday in Kiev, Ukraine, you can take a day trip there.
3 The evacuees
The nearest human settlement to the power plant was the newly-built city of Pripyat, which had a population of about 50 000 people.
Soviet authorities started evacuating around Chernobyl within 36 hours of the accident. They evacuated 115 000 people following the incident in 1986 and a further 220 000 after that.
4 The victims
At least 31 people died from the initial steam explosion, exposure to radiation, and thermal burns. One was due to cardiac arrest.
The long-term health effects of the disaster are much harder to determine, but there is evidence that instances of thyroid cancer increased in the contaminated areas.
5 The “sarcophagus”
After the accident, authorities enclosed reactor 4 in a concrete structure that broke down over time. It’s now encased in an enormous steel “sarcophagus” that should last 100 years.