A LENGTHY REBOOT

By Richard Hsu
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Chernobyl

The wife and I watched HBO’s TV series Chernobyl. At the end of the TV series, it showed real footage of the scientists, politicians, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (whatever was left of it). It also tells the story of what happened after. Or does it?

The epilogue of the TV series says the character of Ulana Khomyuk is fictional. That surprised me because the character played a major role as a scientist in containing the damage from the open reactor core, as a fact-finder that pieced together the cause of the disaster, and as a moral compass that convinced Legasov to tell the truth. Her character is meant to represent dozens of scientists that helped. As I was watching the TV series, I did wonder why they had only two scientists helping with the recovery. There must have been so many factors, theories, and simulations to work through. Where did all the Soviet scientists go?

The HBO TV series isn’t a documentary, it is a historical drama based on real events. Putting all that into five episodes requires creative liberties. But they did name it Chernobyl after the real Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant where the incident happened. The trailer of the TV series says it is "BASED ON THE UNTOLD TRUE STORY". Actual dates and names of real people are used. As I watched the five-part episodes, I came to think of it as a documentary, believing everything to be realistic. It was very well made, kept me fully engaged throughout, made me think, feel, admire, and empathise. It certainly deserves all the critical acclaim and awards. I would likely watch it again.

Curious about the details of the real disaster, and what happened after, I went to Wikipedia.

Reading the Wikipedia articles about Chernobyl was educational but it also challenged the authenticity of many events and characters in the TV series.

Here are some things that aren’t accurate or are completely fictional.

Death toll

In the epilogue, it says "Most estimates range from 4,000 to 93,000 deaths". That is a very large range, and the upper limit is especially suspect. According to the Wikipedia article, the number of deaths is contested due to lack of consensus among various government and international groups that have attempted to calculate it. I did see the figures of 4,000 (immediate and long-term deaths) but the upper-end estimates reach 16,000. Nowhere did I read anything close to 93,000!

16,000 to 93,000 is a serious inflation, and I will try to erase that number from my memory.

The Bridge of Death

A powerful, sad, and memorable image from the TV series are of the residents of Pripyat standing on a bridge to see the burning Chernobyl power plant. Per the epilogue, none of them survived. This is not true according to Adam Higginbotham who spent a decade researching Chernobyl and wrote a book about it. He interviewed someone who was on that bridge and is still alive. It is possible everyone on that bridge watching the burning power plant didn't die.

This one will be hard to forget.

Threat of force

In episode 1, Anatoly Sitnikov is forced by an armed guard to go to the roof and confirm if Reactor Core 4 exploded or not. He didn't want to go because the radiation measurements maxed out, and he saw what he thought were graphite pieces from the Reactor Core on the ground outside the building.

By one account, this isn't true. He went to inspect it willingly because he was familiar with the reactor, and like others, he wanted to help contain the damage. By other accounts, in 1980s USSR, bureaucrats couldn't just order armed guards to force people into doing things against their will.

Watch but take an antidote

If I didn’t read Wikipedia articles and the TV series was the only source of information about Chernobyl, then, over time, that would have settled in as fact, and history. It would likely have influenced my opinion about the Soviet Union, about the role of bureaucrats, scientists etc.

I would rewatch the TV series because I tend to miss many things the first time. But I will watch it the way I read opinion pieces in newspapers. Take it as one person's opinion made with news events arranged to influence the reader in a particular way.

My kids watch a lot of YouTube and they tend to believe what the videos show. It is a constant challenge for me to remind them that everything they watch isn’t real, or true. I keep repeating that YouTube is for entertainment only. But I feel like I am on the losing side of this.

Of course, I keep thinking about limiting or completely blocking YouTube. Often, I force them to stop and watch Netflix or Crave instead. Yes, we’ve reached the point where binging on Netflix is the lesser of two evils. They watch it the same way they read storybooks and comics. But they take YouTube videos seriously.