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247: Chernobyl Part 3

HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries tells the story of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Today, we’ll be looking at the third episode in the miniseries called Open Wide, O Earth.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Episode number three starts with a continuation of what we saw at the end of the last episode. We’re in darkness with the three men submerged in radioactive water trying to turn the valves that’ll avoid an even worse disaster.

Unfortunately, their flashlights went out at the end of the last episode. In this one, they manage to get the lights working again and continue on. They also manage to find the valves and get them turned. In the next scene, we’re back above ground where the men are received with cheers and claps—the three men were successful. Finally, some good news!

That’s true.

Setting up the terrible disaster they were trying to avoid by going into the water was something they showed in the last episode—so that’s when we learned about that as well.

The three men aren’t listed in the credits for the HBO series with first names—they only have their last names: Ananenko, Bezpalov and Baranov.

Those were really the men who volunteered to go, but of course there’s more to the story than we see in the series.

Alexei Ananenko knew where the valves were located because he was a senior reactor mechanical engineer. Valery Bezpalov was a turbine engineer who was going to turn the second valve. And then Boris Baranov was a shift supervisor. He decided to go along with the other two men to both carry a flashlight for the others so they could see what they were doing as they used both hands to turn the valves—but he was also there in case of emergencies. He would rescue the other men and/or be the backup to turn a valve in case something happened.

The whole ordeal losing their light like we see in the series actually happened, too. Although they weren’t able to get the light working again as fast as we see in the series. Instead, once their light failed they had to feel their way in the darkness using the pipes to guide them to the valves.

Of course, that wouldn’t look good on screen since…well, pitch darkness doesn’t create good visuals. So, I can see why they changed that in the series.

The three men were told their families would be taken care of. I couldn’t find any sort of proof in my research to know if that happened or not. While the men were expecting to sacrifice their lives for what they’d done—spending a lot of time in highly radioactive water will do that—they all seemed to survive the ordeal much better than others. In one of the excellent books that I used during my research for this episode, called 01:23:40, the author, Andrew Leatherbarrow, mentions that he actually spoke with Alexei Ananenko in March of 2016, just before the first edition of Leatherbarrow’s book was published. Valery Bezpalov was still alive in June of 2019 while Boris Baranov died of a heart attack in 2005 at age 65.

So, all in all, considering what they volunteered for in 1986 all three men seem to have lived rather normal lives afterward.

If we go back into the series, even though they successfully avoided the thermal explosion thanks to the three men turning the valves, they’re far from being safe. The next major plot point happens as they’re trying to solve the issue of the meltdown burning its way through the platform under the reactor and into the earth. If it does that, the radioactive material will leak into the drinking water and poison it for everyone around.

To avoid that, the plan is to install a liquid nitrogen heat exchanger underneath the concrete pad. To do that in time before it burns through the concrete pad, they need to bring in more men. According to the series, 100 coal miners from Tula in Russian SSR are brought in to do this.

Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina tell the miner’s crew chief, a man named Andrei Glukhov, what the situation is. They don’t beat around the bush—this job involves digging underneath a nuclear reactor that is actively melting down. But if we don’t do it, the nearby river feeds into the primary water supply for about 50 million people. They could all be poisoned and lead to untold scores of deaths.

There are elements of truth to this, although there is more to the story that we don’t see.

For one, the character of Andrei Glukhov was not a crew chief at a coal mine in Tula. You can read more about the real Glukhov in Adam Higginbotham’s book Midnight in Chernobyl. Glukhov actually worked in the reactor’s physics laboratory at the Chernobyl power plant. He was a friend of Leonid Toptunov and in the morning hours of April 26th, just after the explosion, he called his friend to find out what happened. When he was finally able to get a hold of Toptunov, Glukhov asked about Unit 4. Toptunov told his friend that he had been told not to talk about it…but look out the window.

What of the miners we see in the series, then?

There was a plan to dig beneath the reactor in May. But it wasn’t the first plan after avoiding the threat of thermal explosion. The first idea the state commission had was to try and cool the melting reactor core from beneath. To do this, they’d pump in liquid hydrogen underneath the reactor.

But that didn’t work.

Not because the plan was a bad one necessarily, but the drilling crews couldn’t get close enough to Unit 4 because of the high levels of radiation. So that’s when they had the idea to drill horizontally from a safe area behind Unit 3.

That didn’t work either.

Again, it wasn’t because the plan was a terrible one, but this time it was an issue with the equipment. What they had available at the time couldn’t correctly build the entire frozen platform that would be needed to cool the reactor down. They could do parts here and there, but it wasn’t enough.

As a quick little side note here, one of the ways the HBO series oversimplifies things is by suggesting there were three people—Shcherbina, Legasov and Khomyuk—behind the ideas for how to solve a lot of the problems after the accident. We already learned there were hundreds of people involved and that’s especially relevant here as ideas for how to slow the meltdown were being bounced back and forth by scientists. It wasn’t just Valery Legasov coming up with ideas like the series suggests. In fact, many of the ideas that were proposed were ideas that Legasov didn’t like. For example, one of Legasov’s colleagues in the scientific community was a man named Yevgenii Velikhov, and he was the one to propose freezing the earth under the reactor and then building a concrete platform. Legasov wasn’t so sure of this idea.

But it is true there was an idea similar to what we see in the series: Build a concrete platform that could be cooled. To do that they needed to build a tunnel and then a chamber under the reactor for housing the freezing chamber that would be used to cool down the entire concrete platform.

As an added benefit, they planned on the platform being used to help support a structure over the entire reactor. They anticipated it would need to be built to keep radioactivity from escaping after the immediate threat of the continuing meltdown was solved.

To get this built, the series was correct to suggest there were people brought in from Tula. The series mentions in dialogue that there are 100 men who gather their equipment and get into trucks to head to Chernobyl…but that’s not the full story.

According to Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl book, over 230 miners came from the Donbas region as well as over 150 from Tula.

On top of that, because of the delicacy of the situation, the miners weren’t allowed to use heavy mechanical equipment they were accustomed to. The state committee didn’t want to risk the heavy equipment damaging the foundation in any way. That could lead to releasing radioactive elements into the ground.

What that meant for the workers was they basically had to dig things with shovels or in many cases, literally by hand. There was a lot of digging and pushing dirt with bare hands. The miners worked for three hours at a time and they did all this for free.

At least that’s what they thought. They did end up getting paid rather well for what they did, but they didn’t know about any special compensation at the time. That came later. At the time, all they knew was if they didn’t do it, no one would. They were doing a job they knew needed to be done to avoid poisoning the drinking water of millions of citizens.

Something else that sort of underscores the complexities of reality compared to the HBO miniseries—well, in the series, we see a bunch of miners arriving at Chernobyl on buses. In the true story, each miner was approved by the state committee before they could go to Chernobyl. But, of course, we can’t see everything in the series.

Speaking of which, if we go back to the series, we’re back at the hospital where some of the men at Chernobyl when the explosion happened are being treated. Men like Anatoly Dyatlov, Leonid Toptunov, and Alexandr Akimov.

Ulana Khomyuk visits the hospital to talk to get a picture of what happened in the control room that night.

At first Khomyuk tries to talk to Dyatlov, but he’s not in the mood to talk. So she goes to talk to Toptunov. During their conversation, Toptunov tells Khomyuk that the power level jumped from 200 to 400 megawatts super-fast. Khomyuk asks him why he didn’t press the AZ-5 button to initiate an emergency shutoff. Toptunov says he told Akimov about the increase and it was Akimov who pressed the AZ-5 button.

Then comes something that seems to shock Khomyuk.

Toptunov tells her that it was only after Akimov pressed the AZ-5 button that the reactor exploded.

That doesn’t make sense. Why would the reactor explode after the emergency shutoff button had been pressed? That’s the whole point of an emergency shutoff—to, you know, shut the reactor off in the event of an emergency. Haha!

Khomyuk verifies this and Toptunov repeats that’s what happened: The AZ-5 button was pushed by Akimov and then it exploded.

So, Khomyuk goes to talk to Akimov to get his side of things. He confirms it and tells Khomyuk that he pressed the AZ-5 button before the explosion. But he’s confused on why shutting it down didn’t work.

There are some elements of truth to that, but the specifics of what we’re seeing here are made up for the series. If you recall, the character of Ulana Khomyuk is a fictional one that’s intended to be an amalgamation of all the scientists who worked on the Chernobyl accident.

So, obviously, it wasn’t just one person who was talking to three of the men in the control room to figure out what happened. There were a lot of people trying to get to the bottom of what happened talking to a lot of the people who were working at the power plant that night.

With that said, though, as we learned earlier in this series the characters of Dyatlov, Toptunov and Akimov were real people. And the things we see Toptunov and Akimov tell Khomyuk in the series were also true: The AZ-5 button was pressed just before the explosion occurred.

That night, as they were running the test, Leonid Toptunov was looking at the computer data when he saw the power levels rising way too fast. Akimov was too busy focusing on the test they were running so he didn’t notice the levels until Toptunov shouted to Akimov that the levels were rising way too fast. Akimov must’ve realized how serious the situation was because he ordered Toptunov to push the AZ-5 button.

So, he did.

We already learned what that button does in the first episode of this series so I won’t repeat all of that now, but just as a quick refresher, when the operator pushes AZ-5, all the control rods are inserted into the reactor at once to stop the fission reaction.

It’s not a normal thing to push AZ-5, but think of it like the emergency brake in your car. If something is going wrong, you’re going to use it. At least, I would hope you do. Some cars these days have automated braking because they can sense a wreck—but you get the idea. It’s not something you use on a daily basis. That’s why it’s called an emergency haha!

And in the emergency, the AZ-5 button should’ve stopped everything and let them take a breather to figure out exactly what happened. According to Dyatlov’s recollection later, it was about 12 to 15 seconds after Toptunov pushed the AZ-5 button was pushed that the reactor exploded.

That’s another big reason why everyone was so confused in the moments immediately following the explosion. There are the obvious after-effects of what an explosion must be like…but then there’s the other part of it that just doesn’t make sense.

Imagine pulling the emergency brake in your car and instead of the car slowing to a stop as you’d expect, it just explodes.

Wait. What? Why? That’s not even anything close to what that is supposed to do!

So, you can imagine the pure confusion in the immediate aftermath of that!

If we go back to the series, as Khomyuk is leaving the hospital she happens to notice Lyudmilla Ignatenko in a room with her husband, Vasily. If you recall, he was one of the first firefighters to arrive on the scene. He’s not looking good now in the series, and Lyudmilla wants to be with her husband so he doesn’t die alone.

But when Khomyuk sees that Lyudmilla is holding Vasily’s hand, she scolds her and forces her out of the room. Lyudmilla is pregnant, she shouldn’t be touching Vasily’s hand! Khomyuk scolds the doctor in charge for letting it happen—something the doctor had told Lyudmilla not to do, but the doctor was so overwhelmed with other patients she didn’t keep an eye on Lyudmilla. Then, Khomyuk says something to the effect of how everyone is going to hear about this.

Just then, two KGB agents step out of the shadows. They heard everything and, as you can imagine, they don’t like the idea of Khomyuk telling anyone anything. So, they arrest her.

That’s made up, but mostly for reasons we’ve talked about already with Ulana Kyomyuk not being real. However, Lyudmilla and Vasily Ignatenko were real people.

A fantastic book to learn more about them is a book called Voices From Chernobyl from Svetlana Alexievich—she interviewed the real Lyudmilla and it’s so sad to read. It’s not a happy story at all, but I think you know that. I can’t replicate those words here, but if you want to dig into some of the stories of those who lost loved ones at Chernobyl, check out Svetlana’s book.

As for the idea of Khomyuk being arrested like we see in the series, that didn’t happen. How could it? Khomyuk wasn’t a real person. But it is true that the KGB tried to silence, detain and arrest people in an attempt to cover up what was happening at Chernobyl.

In all honesty, we’ll probably never know exactly how many people were arrested like we see happen to Khomyuk in the series. But I don’t think we need to. The series isn’t even trying to be accurate here, because we know this is a fictional character who is portraying the idea of something that happened.

On one hand, there was the state committee that was charged with figuring out what happened. On the other hand, the Soviet Union didn’t want too much information getting out—especially to other countries.

Going back to the series, at the end of the third episode we see Legasov tracking down the head of the KGB, a man named Charkov. In their conversation, Charkov lets Legasov know the KGB is a circle of accountability—just like the old Russian proverb, “Trust but verify.” And the Americans think Reagan came up with that, Charkov laughs.

Then, after Legasov tells Charkov he needs Khomyuk to continue his work, Charkov agrees to let her go on the condition that Legasov is held responsible for her from here on out.

All of this is made up, of course, because Khomyuk isn’t a real character so she couldn’t have gone to prison. What is real, though, is that the real KGB chairman, Viktor Chebrikov, was certainly involved in the Chernobyl situation. Something we don’t see much of in the series was just how much happened outside of the Chernobyl area. At Chebrikov’s command, the KGB was very involved in trying to keep anyone who might try to report on the situation to foreign nations—people like diplomats and news correspondents.

The accident itself was no secret. It couldn’t be since, as we learned, neighboring countries were detecting radiation. It was showing up in media across the world.

For example, there was a headline in London saying 2,000 people were killed while the official death toll at Chernobyl was two people, who they claimed were killed in the blast itself.

The number of 2,000 was an estimate, mostly because foreign nations like the United States had satellites that had taken photographs of the damage. Even though they couldn’t tell a lot of details from that, they knew at least 4,000 people worked at the power plant at any given time so the idea that only two people had perished from a blast that size seemed unbelievable. That number ended up being increased to 30, but almost everyone believes that list is only limited to the people in and around the explosion when it happened. Even to this day, it’s hard to know the exact number of people who were affected or killed because of the radiation…but it’s safe to say it was more than two and more than 30.

As for the “Trust but verify” line we hear Charkov say in the series—he is correct to say it was not President Ronald Reagan who came up with that.

But then again, most Americans at the time didn’t think he did come up with it, either. This was in the era of the Cold War, so tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high. Reagan found out about the phrase when he was preparing to meet with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. That phrase was one Reagan liked best of the Russian proverbs and sayings, so he used it.

I don’t think Gorbachev liked that Reagan used it.

Since then, a number of American politicians have used the saying and attributed it to Reagan. But that wasn’t during the timeline of the series, and it was not Reagan who came up with it originally.

At the very end of the third episode, we see Vasily Ignatenko and other first responders being buried. There aren’t many people there, but one of the people watching is Vasily’s wife, Lyudmilla. Obviously she’s filled with emotion as she watches her husband be put into the ground in a metal coffin that’s then covered with cement. It’s hard to lose a loved one, and this was not a normal funeral.

That is true, although there is more to the story.

The amount of radiation absorbed by the first responders and others closest to the exploded core was so high that officials were afraid their bodies would decompose and release radioactive materials into the ground that could then poison the water and so on.

To avoid this, their bodies were put into plastic bags, then inside regular coffins, and those coffins were then sealed in welded zinc caskets. Once buried, they were covered with cement.

On top of that was the secrecy around it. The Soviet Army was in charge of the funerals wanted to keep everything a secret so no foreign correspondents would know what was going on, or the extent they were going to try to contain the radioactivity of the bodies.

They waited for hours before burying Vasily, as Lyudmilla recalled being driven around for hours before finally getting to the cemetery. It’s almost as if they were trying to lose a tail in case someone was following the car from the hospital to the cemetery. Finally, after everything she had been through watching her husband die a gruesome death at the hospital for 14 days, Lyudmilla had enough. She burst out in a flurry of emotion and the Soviet colonel finally gave the order to go to the cemetery.

When they got to the cemetery it was like they couldn’t get it done fast enough. A minute or two and it was done. The zinc caskets were lowered and covered with cement. Lyudmilla went back to the dormitory where she’d been staying while her husband was in the hospital. The whole time someone was there making sure she didn’t talk to anyone or anyone to her. The day after Vasily’s burial, she was given a plane ticket and escorted to the airport. As she recalled, when she got home she slept for three whole days.

If you want to hear this in Lyudmilla’s words, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of the book Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. In that book, Lyudmilla recounts what happened. It’s so sad the terrible way Vasily died from radiation poisoning and what Lyudmilla had to go through—and all this as she was only 23 years old.



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