Environment

Fact-checking HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ with a SC scientist who has been there almost 50 times

Chernobyl: 30 years later

Thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the area, deemed uninhabitable for the next 3000 years, continues to house plant workers and provides a brief glimpse of the chaos left behind for curious tourists.
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Thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the area, deemed uninhabitable for the next 3000 years, continues to house plant workers and provides a brief glimpse of the chaos left behind for curious tourists.

At the heart of a city, a nuclear power plant was on fire. As the burning reactor spewed lethal levels of radioactivity, thousands were forced to leave their homes and belongings. They couldn’t even take their pets with them.

Three decades after the worst nuclear disaster in history, most people would never imagine returning to Chernobyl. But for University of South Carolina Professor Timothy Mousseau, visiting one of the most radioactive places on Earth is just a part of the job.

In fact, Mousseau has been to Chernobyl between 45 and 50 times, he said last week as he prepared to board a plane to fly back to Chernobyl.

“Chernobyl provides us an ideal laboratory for studying chronic, low-dose radioactive contaminants,” Mousseau said.

As the critically adored (96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) HBO docudrama “Chernobyl” has brought an increased public awareness of the disaster (more people are searching Google for Chernobyl than ever before), The State reached out to Mousseau to get the facts on nuclear radiation.

Mousseau is a biologist whose research focuses on how lingering effects of radiation affect wildlife, so this fact check will focus more on the effects of radiation at Chernobyl rather than the story itself. For the latter, the show’s creators have created a podcast where they discuss the historical accuracy of the show.

Overall, the show is “quite accurate,” Mousseau said. “I’m really, super impressed. It’s a first-rate dramatization.”

HBO’s Chernobyl will air the episode five, the season finale on Monday June 3 at 9 p.m.

Chernobyl firefighter provided.jpeg
Liam Daniel/HBO Provided by HBO

Radiation

While the word “Chernobyl” has become synonymous with nuclear disasters and abandoned cities, some parts of Chernobyl are much worse off than others.

In the show, people wearing protective clothing and carrying dosimeters (devices that click when they encounter radiation) are walking through a field as the dosimeters click slowly. They approach a bicycle left in a puddle, the dosimeters begin clicking faster and faster, indicating that the radiation levels spiked.

Standing in some parts of Chernobyl will give someone no more radiation than two CAT scans (a high-powered type of X-ray), while other parts will give someone the equivalent of 1,000 CAT scans, Mousseau said.

“Chernobyl is not a uniform (area) of high radioactivity,” Mousseau said.

HBO Chernobyl provided.jpeg
Provided by HBO

Protective gear

There is a scene in the HBO show where a first responder who was offered a dust mask scoffs at his superior and says, “if these worked, you would be wearing them.”

While keeping radioactive dust out of someone’s lungs is better than ingesting it, there isn’t much laypeople could do to protect themselves from gamma radiation, which is generated by splitting atoms. It takes layers of concrete or lead to reduce the effects of gamma radiation, according to the Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information.

“The truth is there is no way to protect yourself from gamma radiation. The only way to protect yourself is to not be there,” said Mousseau.

Rather than donning HAZMAT suits or wearing gas masks, Mousseau limits his radiation exposure by limiting his time in Chernobyl, and wearing old clothes that he either discards or washes thoroughly before returning home, he said.

Effects on animals

After the Soviet government begins evacuating the area around Chernobyl, several characters in the show are sent to kill local wildlife and stray pets to prevent them from spreading radiation to other areas.

As Mousseau’s research indicates, radiation at Chernobyl has been linked to altered gut bacteria in voles (rodents that are similar to mice), reduced bird populations and reduced seed germination.

The effects on wildlife will linger for tens to hundreds of thousands of years, Mousseau said.

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