Drama reveals hero scientists who saved Europe after Chernobyl

Chernobyl heroes who saved Europe: A nerve-shredding new drama reveals how brave scientists stopped the nuclear disaster making the entire continent uninhabitable

  • Five-part Sky Atlantic show Chernobyl stars Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard
  • In April 1986 safety test at Chernobyl power plant went catastrophically wrong
  • Scientists realised if melting uranium came into contact with millions of litres of water at the plant it would make Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of years
  • TV series shows how three workers went into burning building to release water

This is an epic tale of heroes and villains, of extraordinary bravery and breathtaking incompetence – of enduring love and tragic loss.

Five-part drama Chernobyl, with a star-studded cast including Emily Watson, Jessie Buckley, Stellan Skarsgard and Jared Harris, tells the story of the biggest disaster in the history of nuclear energy.

In the early hours of 26 April 1986, a safety test on a reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in the Soviet state of Ukraine went catastrophically wrong. 

Errors were made by the poorly trained night shift, who were finding out how reactor number four would cope in a power cut.

Five-part drama Chernobyl reveals how scientists helped to save Europe after a safety test on a reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine went catastrophically wrong. Pictured: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard and Jared Harris in the Sky Atlantic show

Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer who’s played by Friday Night Dinner actor Paul Ritter, made reckless decisions and an explosion was triggered which released 400 times more radioactivity than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 41 years earlier.

Soviet officials put the official death toll at 31, although the real figure may have been in the hundreds of thousands. 

A 19-mile exclusion zone has been in place around the site for decades – an area that has now been reclaimed by nature and wildlife – and experts say it won’t be fit for habitation for 20,000 years.

Yet, it could have been much worse. 

‘It took scientific know-how, and the extraordinary bravery of three men, to prevent a greater catastrophe,’ says Emily Watson, two-time Oscar nominee and star of the BBC’s 2017 drama Apple Tree Yard.

Emily plays Ulana Khomyuk, who represents one of the quick-thinking scientists who realised that if melting uranium came into contact with the millions of litres of water in safety tanks at the plant it would cause a radioactive blast that would make Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of years.

Scientists quickly realised that if melting uranium came into contact with millions of litres of water in safety tanks at the plant it would cause a blast that would make Europe uninhabitable

A trio of workers, Boris Baranov, Valeri Bezpalov and Alexei Ananenko – nicknamed The Suicide Squad – went back into the burning building to open valves by hand and release the water. 

They completed the mission and their actions saved a continent.

Emily’s character is the only fictional one in the drama – representing scientists in Ukraine and nearby Belarus who realised something was terribly amiss when they started getting sky-high radioactive readings hundreds of miles away from Chernobyl.

‘Ulana is a tribute to those scientists who put their lives and careers on the line to expose the failings at the plant,’ says Emily. ‘She’s from Belarus and she’s tough.’

Emily admired her character’s tenacity. ‘She’s a truth ninja, committed to finding out what happened – even if her life is endangered.

‘She realises there’s been a cover-up. She comes across redacted documents and realises there were design faults at Chernobyl that had been known about all along.’

Emily hopes the drama, on Sky Atlantic, will be a tribute to those who died. 

She read Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, a chronicle of the accounts of those who lived through the event and often died as a result. 

Emily, pictured, plays Ulana Khomyuk, who represents one of the quick-thinking scientists who thought about the water. She is the only fictional character in the series

No one’s story is more heartbreaking than that of firefighter Vasily Ignatenko, who was trying to put out the blaze at Chernobyl just minutes after the explosion and suffered massive doses of radiation.

‘He had no hope of survival,’ says the show’s writer Craig Mazin. 

‘The levels of contamination on his and other firefighters’ boots, gloves and masks were so great that they remain in the basement of the hospital in nearby Pripyat. Those items were, and still are, that radioactive.’

Vasily endured two weeks of agony before dying from radiation poisoning, his wife Lyudmilla, portrayed by Jessie Buckley (Marya Bolkonskaya in BBC1’s War And Peace), constantly at his bedside.

‘Her love for him was so absolute that, despite the danger, she stayed with him,’ says Jessie, star of current movie hit Wild Rose. 

One of the tragic stories is of firefighter Vasily Ignatenko, who just minutes after the explosion went inside Chernobyl and suffered massive doses of radiation. Pictured, a scene from the new series

‘And their child, that she was carrying, was stillborn.’

Chernobyl doesn’t shy away from the consequences of radiation exposure. 

Prosthetics designer Daniel Parker provided burning and blotching, depending upon the amount of exposure. 

‘He had a spreadsheet of radiation levels,’ explains Craig. ‘He almost had to become a physician.’

At the heart of Chernobyl is the unlikely alliance of Soviet hardliner Boris Shcherbina, played by Mamma Mia!’s Stellan Skarsgard, and scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris, son of the late actor Richard). 

After threatening to throw him out of a military helicopter when he questions the official Soviet line on the disaster, Boris starts to respect Valery and they work together.

‘Boris was a notorious yeller, sent to sort problems by shouting at people,’ says Stellan. 

‘But he knew Chernobyl couldn’t be covered up, as the Soviet hierarchy wanted: their supposedly perfect system failed.’

Even now, it seems, the truth is hard to handle for some. 

Much of the filming of Chernobyl took place at a nuclear plant in Lithuania, which had supposedly been decommissioned.

‘It was part of the deal when they joined the EU in 2004 to decommission this plant,’ says Jared. 

‘But one day we weren’t allowed on the plant until 3pm because they were moving nuclear waste. That doesn’t sound like a decommissioned plant!’

Chernobyl starts on Tuesday 7 May at 9pm on Sky Atlantic. 

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