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5 things HBO got wrong about Chernobyl


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Scene from ‘Chernobyl.’ | HBO

This article is brought to you by the Idaho National Laboratory, which has extensive experience developing, demonstrating and evaluating different reactor concepts; handling nuclear fuel and materials; conducting post-accident analyses; and keeping employees and the public safe from radiation exposure. Click here to find out more on the Chernobyl disaster.

It happened more than three decades ago on the other side of the world, but the Chernobyl disaster still captures our attention, as HBO’s recent miniseries proved. But how accurate was it?

Many aspects, especially related to the causes of the 1986 accident, were quite accurate. Other parts focused more on eliciting an emotional response than on facts. Below are a few examples:  

  1. Radiation didn’t cause a helicopter crash. A helicopter crash occurred months later when its rotor clipped a crane, killing the four people on board. Although radiation can affect some electronics, it did not disable a chopper at Chernobyl.
  2. The “Bridge of Death” is an urban legend. Residents of Pripyat received an average dose roughly the same as one chest, head or abdominal CT scan, and less than the annual occupational dose limit for adult radiation workers in the United States.
  3. There was no “dramatic spike in cancer across Ukraine and Belarus.” Residents of those countries received doses slightly above natural background radiation levels, which would increase cancer deaths less than 1 percent more than expected in this population due to other causes.
  4. Radiation didn’t hurt unborn babies. Although the firefighter widow’s baby did die four months after birth, the cause was liver fibrosis and congenital heart defects, neither of which are caused by that level of in utero radiation exposure. Studies by the World Health Organization found no convincing evidence that radiation exposures from Chernobyl affected pregnancy outcomes. Sadly, more than 100,000 women in Western Europe terminated pregnancies because of fear that the radiation from Chernobyl posed a significant health risk to unborn children.
  5. Most with acute radiation syndrome survived. Of 600 first responders, 134 were confirmed to have ARS. Among them, 28 died within the first few months and roughly 20 more died within the next 20 years. Thus, more than 70 percent of those who suffered ARS survived long after the explosion.

Do you want to learn more? Join Idaho National Laboratory experts for a panel discussion and audience Q&A regarding what really happened at Chernobyl. Come ask your questions or email them in advance to

Idaho Falls

Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 1 p.m.

College of Eastern Idaho
1600 S. 25th E., Building 3, Room 306

Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 5 p.m.

Art Museum of Eastern Idaho
300 S. Capital

Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m.

Art Museum of Eastern Idaho
300 S. Capital


Thursday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m.

ISU Physical Science Building, Room 140
921 S. 8th Ave. (corner of 8th and Carter)