HBO's latest series on the horrifying disaster at Chernobyl is terrifying audiences and has been voted "the greatest show ever made!" But the facts are much more frightening than fiction when it comes to the deadliest nuclear meltdown in history...

By Jonathan Reed

20 May 2019

It is the TV show capturing the horrifying events which accumulated in the worst nuclear disaster in history – Chernobyl. But perhaps what is most frightening of all, is this TV show, now regarded as the greatest ever made, tells the story of a real-life disaster which proves fiction isn’t always as terrifying as fact.

In the early hours of 26 April 1986, the No. 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded whilst undergoing a safety test. To coincide, both the safety and power-regulating systems were intentionally disabled, meaning if something should go wrong it would be too late to put a stop to an impending disaster. The combination of inherent reactor design flaws and the Plant’s operators arranging the core differently to the compulsory safety checklist, resulted in uncontrolled reaction conditions.

The Plant’s operators noticed a sudden surge in power and hastily performed an emergency shutdown. What happened next was not intended. Instead of the core stabilising, a second and much larger spike of power caused the reactor vessel to rupture, triggering multiple steam explosions. This exposed the graphite moderator – used for steadying the reactor core – and caused it to ignite.

Within seconds over 400 times more radioactive material was ejected into the atmosphere than the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The scale of the contamination was unprecedented, as were the effects to the firemen and workers exposed to the intense radiation.

231 people suffered acute radiation sickness with 31 dying within 3 months of the meltdown. 28 of those exposed would perish of acute radiation syndrome, mainly those closest to the core reactor where exposure was highest. Sadly, death was inevitable though the length of time of survival depended on how much radiation was absorbed.

For those who were closest to the reactor when it exploded, they were dead within days, though not before suffering unimaginable pain. The agony would stem from the radiation particles ripping the person’s cells apart. For a period of time, this would result in radiation burn giving the appearance of red skin, vomiting or headaches. From here the exposed would then enter a latent stage. This would give the impression that the person is recovering or even healthy. However, they are not. It is the deadliest phase.

Within days, the skin begins to blister as the radiation attacks the nervous system, bone marrow and organs. You effectively decompose whilst you are alive. Your skin turns black and your veins and arteries open up like sieves. This makes it impossible to administer morphine to ease the excruciating pain. And then, inescapably – you die.

28 suffered this horrific end to their lives, and even in death their bodies were extremely dangerous due to the large amounts of radiation. To ensure no nuclear particles could enter the soil, each victim was buried in a lead lined coffin and then submerged in concrete.

© Getty Images

The immediate aftermath of reactor No. 4’s explosion was beyond devastating to the surrounding towns. An area of 100,000km2 was affected with the worst regions being Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Numerous towns were abandoned within hours, leaving a derelict imprint of the past. The same year, a concrete sarcophagus was built over the exposed reactor in an attempt to halt the release of radiation. But after part of the roof caved in and scientists stating that the sarcophagus would most certainly collapse, in 2010 a new plan was formed.

Engineers would construct the New Safe Confinement. This steel dome structure was completed in 2016 and was eventually placed over the entire Power Plant. The aim was not to halt the leak of radiation into the atmosphere, but to allow a safe environment whereby the reactor could be dismantled using remotely operated equipment.

Chernobyl was classed as a Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale – the highest on the chart. Only one other nuclear disaster has reached this terrifying level – Fukushima. But with Chernobyl no natural disaster caused the meltdown. We did.

The extent of the damage reeked upon the world by this nuclear disaster was stretched far and wide. The Alps, the Welsh Mountains and even the Scottish Highlands reported isolated radiation caused by the Chernobyl Power Plant. But whilst these details are frightening, what this disaster also teaches us is the destructive force of man’s incessant need for power.


Nuclear power is both uncontrollable and unpredictable, yet throughout history humanity has wielded it like a child with a toy gun. Chernobyl is a prime example of mankind pushing the limits without thought of the consequences, of the aftermath. On that fateful night, a force unlike any on Earth was unleashed and only barely contained. And the ramifications still exist today.

Hidden within the basement of reactor No.4 is the ‘Elephant’s foot’, a solidified formation of nuclear magma. This “foot” is the closest humanity has ever come to creating ‘Medusa’. To simply look at this clump of nuclear waste for more than 3 minutes would prove fatal. Scientist have tried to capture images of the ‘Elephant’s foot’ for decades and only by using special equipment to protect from the immense radiation, was their wish fulfilled.

The night of Chernobyl’s demise is part of history, but thanks to the HBO series, the stark reality of the tragedy is being seen in horrifying detail. It is worse than a horror movie or even an end-of-the-world blockbuster. Why? Because it almost wasn’t a horror movie. The blockbuster would’ve been real, with almost every human being on planet Earth experiencing the reverberations.

So whilst the TV show ‘Chernobyl’ may be keeping you up at night, or latched to the edge of your seat, be grateful that today the fiction is only fractionally more frightening than the fact.