Chernobyl HBO TV Series: What Really Happened and What Never Did!
On April 26, 1986, Oleksiy Breus worked morning shift of ChNPP. He arrived at the station immediately after a night accident and immediately began fighting the consequences of the disaster
Oleksiy Breus is one of the witnesses of the first hours following Chernobyl Accident.
In 1986, he was a senior engineer at the fourth power unit of the station. In fact, the console, shown in the first episode of the HBO Chernobyl series was his workplace.
April 26, Alexey worked morning shift and carried out work on the localization of the accident, trying to feed water to already destroyed reactor.
It was he – then the 27-year-old operator – who pressed the last button on the remote control of unit 4.
Oleksiy Breus met and personally communicated with the plant’s employees, who later became prototypes for the heroes of Chernobyl HBO TV series.
What is true and what is fiction in Chernobyl series – impressions of eyewitness
We talked to him about the circumstances of those days and how faithfully these events are shown in the HBO Chernobyl series, which today lets the world once again get to know about the largest in the history manmade catastrophe.
Catastrophe, radiation and “euphoria”
The remains of reactor 4, the view from the roof of the neighboring reactor #3
Irradiation, red skin, radiation burns, steam burns – people talked about it, but it has never been shown so clearly as in these series…
That day I saw Akimov and Toptunov. They were, to put it mildly, not in their best condition.
It was clear that they were feeling very bad, they were very pale – Toptunov was, literally, white. Later in the hospital, as they told me, his skin blackened.
Toptunov and Akimov in the series
I saw other colleagues who worked at night – their skin was vibrant red.
The film has an episode when a person goes inside the reactor and then walks out – and red spots immediately appear on the cloth. It is hard for me to say if radiation burns so fast.
I had a small burn under my right eye, but on the first day, I did not notice it.
Having finished my shift, when I came out of the unit #4, I noticed skin under the clothes was brown – such a strong “tan” it was. Everything not covered with clothes – hands, face, and neck – was bright red.
However, for my colleagues who worked at night, it was much worse – those whom I saw red later died.
This is how Leonid Toptunov and Alexander Akimov looked like in real life. Both died of radiation poisoning in Moscow Clinical Hospital #6; Akimov died on May 11, 1986, Toptunov – on May 14, 1986 (photo from the ChNPP Archive)
My colleagues and I went to the room near the reactor to open the water supply, for me this was the place with the strongest radiation exposure, where I stayed the longest. When I returned, it was a sense of loftiness and determination, I felt I am ready for feats at any price.
This is called “radiation euphoria” – it happens after exposure to high levels of radiation.
However, it quickly finished and I began to feel sick – this is classic reaction to irradiation.
As it is shown in the film, many really did feel sick.
People often tell about metallic taste in the mouth (in the series, firefighters also mention it – Ed.), but I never felt it. Probably, some people felt it but not everyone…
In general, in the series, probably the very first attempt is made to show what the station staff did inside the destroyed unit after the explosion.
Vasil Ignatenko is Pripyat firefighter who came first to the accident. In the series, he is one of the main characters of the first episode
That night firefighters, same as station operators, extinguished the fire at that location in many places.
Everyone has heard that there was a fire on the roof; we were afraid that the fire would roll over to the next block and go further.
However, the fire on the roof is a myth. The firefighters and operators who were there that day state there were no fires.
There were small local fires, but they were quickly doused.
There was no fire on the roof of the ChNPP, says Oleksiy Breus
On the roof, there were firefighters who supplied water into hot and broken reactor.
However, if in the usual mode 48 thousand tons of water are pumped into the reactor each hour, then the amount of water firefighters were pouring probably, evaporated, not even reaching the destroyed unit.
Nevertheless, they had such a task, they were sent there and they tried to douse the reactor.
Because of this, they all died.
Vasil Ignatenko died May 13, 1986 from radiation sickness in Moscow Clinical Hospital #6. In total, during the first days after the accident, 27 people died – two directly in the course of the disaster (one body was not found), the rest – from the radiation sickness within several weeks after the catastrophe
These are five firefighters from the fire department of Pripyat, among whom was Vasil Ignatenko. Volodymyr Pravyk, Chief of the guard of the ChNPP Fire Department was the sixth dead firefighter.
Although nobody tries to diminish their heroism, the question remains: was it necessary to extinguish the reactor in such a way?
(In the series, Legasov and Shcherbyna, the leaders of the commission to eliminate the consequences of the disaster are looking for people who would go underneath the reactor and drop the water that accumulated there. The scene is shown as a search for volunteers who “will die a week later” from the radiation. In real life, Alexey Ananenko, Valery Bespalov and Boris Baranov, who performed this task and became known as Chernobyl divers, survived the liquidation. Two are still alive and Baranov died in 2005. Oleksiy Ananenko is a friend of OleksiyAlexei Breus – Ed.)
In the series, Chernobyl divers are dressed in costumes for scuba diving. In fact, they were only in wetsuits
The movie describes a meeting where they were looking for volunteers. In reality, it never happened.
This work was planned.
Executives somewhere at the top decided that it is necessary to remove water from the reactor; the task was given to the government commission, subsequently – to executives of the nuclear power plant, and those assigned Ananenko, Bespalov and Baranov to do it…
They were not volunteers – they were told that they needed to do it, they answered – will be done… Which does not diminish their heroism.
Of course, they did not have aquals or batiscafes. All they had were transparent plastic wetsuits, heads open.
They walked with their knees in the water; in certain places, it was necessary to walk on the pipe, so as not to touch the water.
In fact, they had a light out there – the Soviet torch died.
They found the necessary valve, and then the flashlight, like, worked.
“Divers” had ordinary respirators “Peliustka” (Ukrainian for petal), which do not interfere with talking (photo – other liquidators, not “divers”)
The radiation level of course was high – much higher than normal. However, it was not catastrophic; it even did not result in radiation sickness for them. Wherever necessary, they ran to reduce the effects of radiation.
Surprisingly, none of them – neither Ananenko nor Bespalov – can accurately remember when it all has happened. Approximately, it was May 6.
I remember in the Pioneer camp “Fairy Tale” in the Chornobyl zone, where staff from Pripyat was evacuated, they hand the order of the Head of the plant. For the fulfillment of especially important task Baranov, Bespalov and Ananenko were awarded with 80 rubles each (in the series Legasov was looking for volunteers for this mission and offered 400 rubles to those willing to perform the task – Ed.).
(Another storyline in the series is about miners who dug a tunnel under the reactor to stop the down movement of the molten active zone. – Ed.)
The miners in the series are strict and decisive. There were several hundreds of them, and more than 200 – from the Donbas
The situation with miners are one of those stories that were completely inappropriate and unnecessary.
There were fears that the “lava” in the reactor would move through the bubbling chamber (this is actually where the divers had to work) from which the water was “diver” – Ed.), and get to the groundwater.
To stop this, they tried to dig a tunnel to feed liquid nitrogen and seize the lava. However, in the end they never used nitrogen.
Although the miners did everything required, and as a result were irradiated.
It happened not in the tunnel, which was actually a repository of radiation, but when the workers came out to drink and smoke.
They were taking off the respirators and undressed – but not like in the film, they did not get naked…
Watching the fire
(In the series, on the night of the accident several dozen inhabitants of Pripyat go to to observe the glow of a fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, not aware of the risk of radiation – Ed.)
Today the bridge where the inhabitants supposedly watched a fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is unofficially called the “bridge of death”. However, as Oleksiy Breus says, this episode is likely one of the legends
First, there was no big flame at night.
There was light during the very explosion, and later there was no fire.
The next day, there were certain physical processes inside the destroyed reactor, and they did give a glow, but it was not fire.
However, I know that people really walked closer to the station – to see what was going on.
When I was in the hospital, I met one person, a student who bicycled to the bridge in the morning on April 26. According to the professor who was treating him, he received the dose of irradiation that resulted in a classical radiation illness of the first degree.
That is, it was enough that he just went there to have a look.
Another friend with told me that on the night of the explosion, he was walking near this bridge with his girlfriend. He then had some health problems as well.
Nevertheless, I have not heard that that many people looked at the catastrophe that very night – I think this is fiction part of the series.
Antihero Dyatlov and the ChNPP executives
The series perfectly show emotional state that prevailed then among the staff and among the authorities.
Anatoly Dyatlov, Deputy Chief Engineer was responsible for conducting the experiment on the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which ended with the accident. In the film, he is one of the antiheroes. In real life, he was sentenced for 10 years but was later set free on parole and died in 1995 from a heart attack. Until the end of his life, Anatoly Dyatlov denied his guilt in a catastrophe
In fact, nobody knew how to act.
We, operators, executives, officials, Gorbachev – nobody knew what should be done, because such catastrophes have never happened before.
However, this is normal for such a situation – it takes time to determine what has happened and what to do next.
As for the key personalities of the Chernobyl catastrophe, such as Director Bryukhanov, Chief Engineer Fomin, Deputy Chief Engineer Dyatlov – what series show is not just fiction, this is simply a lie.
Their personalities are completely distorted – just as if they were some villains.
In fact, they were not like that.
ChNPP Director Victor Bryukhanov, Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov and Chief Engineer Mykola Fomin during the trial
I think that Dyatlov, who on April 26th led the tests on the fourth block, became the main anti-hero in the series because it was how he was among the station’s employees, subordinate operators, in the first time after the accident.
However, this understanding of his actions was not correct. Over the time the thoughts of people have changed.
He was really a hard man, people were afraid of him – when he walked in the unit, it was an event and everybody was stressed.
However, Dyatlov was highly qualified expert… and the reason for the accident was not his authoritarian style, but the disadvantages and faults of the reactor…
Oleksiy Breus never personally talked to main hero of the series – Valery Legasov.
I never met Legasov.
His workplace was a bunker under the first administrative building.
Oleksiy Breus on the panel of the fourth block – a photo from the Soviet Komsomol newspaper “Young Guard”, 1984
One of the moments that I did not like in the series, that workers at the station are afraid of something all the time, their knees are shaking.
The miners for example are shown as strong people. On the contrary – nuclear scientists have been shown for some reason as people of completely different and weak breed.
20 years after the accident – Oleksiy Breus at the panel of the third reactor
Although they were not like this – nobody escaped, everybody stayed in their workplaces.
I did not even have the thought of escaping from there, because there was a job that was to be performed.
The series show that operators saved the victims, inquired about the state of the reactor and the level of radiation, and tried to feed water to the reactor.
However, they did not show that operators also shut down the fire, provided water to the firefighters and tried to prevent new explosions and fires.
And this was a difficult and important work that took the lives of operators.
Blackening of the Soviet Union and the KGB?
Of course, there are many typical western stereotypes in the series: a mug of vodka and KGB at every step.
The KGB was indeed at every step, but it was not visible and it did not seem to be very disturbing (although, in fact, it hindered, and secrecy, after all, was one of the causes of the catastrophe).
Clean-up workers before going on the roof of the unit 4 of the ChNPP
I have also signed non-disclosure about the Chernobyl accident on three pages. And the first point I was forbidden to tell was, I quote, “about the real causes of the Chernobyl accident”.
The real causes of the disaster can still be debated, but those days it meant the prohibition to say that pressing the emergency stop button of the reactor led to the explosion.
In general, trying to show the drawbacks of the Soviet Union using those stereotypes is one of the faults of the series.
At the same time, there were real shortcomings those days… I do not consider the series as the offense of the Soviet Union.
Series we all needed
In general, impressions are positive.
Apparently, it is the first time the Chernobyl accident is being shown so powerfully – as a global catastrophe that dragged out huge masses of people.
They spoke about it before, but not so expressively.
The film brings back the attention of mankind to the phenomenon of Chernobyl – to its extent and to the fact that it has not passed, but still exists.
And in this regard, the series were very needed.
From time to time, I work with tourists who go to the Chernobyl zone. I can definitely say that interest in Chernobyl is not local, but truly global.
Moreover, given the ratings, the series are still increasing this interest.
I imagine how many people will go to Chernobyl after the last series.
Tour operators survey their tourists about the motives of the trip, and some have already answered that they decided to go, just having watched the trailer of the show – after all, imagine how many people will go after they watch the series.
Oleksiy Breus worked at the ChNPP since 1982. Work place – the control panel of the unit #4 of the Plant.
On April 26, he found out about the accident when he came to the ChNPP as scheduled.
In fact, all day he worked in a devastated block to eliminate the consequences of the explosion.
It was Oleksiy who made the last attempt to launch the last surviving pump for already non-existent reactor from the console.
He returned to the station in the first days of May 1986 – just when the divers came down to the reactor.
During all these events, he received significant exposure (120 rem with the Soviet standard of 5 rem per year), after which doctors banned him from working on radiation objects.
Later, Oleksiy Breus worked as a journalist.
He also does painting – he is part of Strontium-90, the group of independent artists whose paintings are devoted to Chernobyl accident.
Lives in Kyiv with his family. Now he is 60 years old.
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