Chernobyl Episode 5 Review – Vichnaya Pamyat

So here we are. The final episode entitled ‘Vichnaya Pamyat’ which is Ukrainian for ‘Memory Eternal’. And it takes place during another trial. Valery has already attended the trial in Vienna and blamed the operators for the explosion but now there’s another trial where Dyatlov, Bryukhanov and Fomin are in the dock.

First, there is a flashback to 10 hours before the explosion and it is established that the test should have taken place on the 25th April and Reactor Number 4 has already been lowered to half its usual output to 1600 Megawatts for the test. However, a phone call from Kiev puts the test on gold for 10 hours as they cannot run their operations on 1600 Megawatts. There are also some rumblings that there would be promotions all around if the test went well.

Cut to Moscow, 1987.

Ulana visits Valery and tries to convince him to tell the truth so the remaining RBMK reactors in the Soviet Union will be fixed. It seems that Valery took the deal with the KGB that was mentioned in the last episode where he would lie, and the remaining reactors will be quietly fixed. It seems that the government are already starting to renege on that deal.

If Valery tells the truth then he will be removed from his position or worse but if he lies, then three people will be sentenced for a crime that they were not entirely responsible for. They hold some culpability but not all of it.

Now the trial.

Boris states that the operators were already in violation of safety regulations because the safety test that they were performing on the night of the explosion should have already been performed before the reactor was used for commercial operation. They had already tried to perform the test three times and had failed.

It is described by Boris that the test was to see if, in the event of power failure to the plant, the slowing turbines would bridge the one minute gap to keep the pumps running until the three back- diesel generators would fire up and keep the plant running.

For the test, the reactor (which has already been reduced to 1600 Megawatts and has remained like that for 10 hours), is reduced further to 700 Megawatts to simulate the conditions of a black-out.

Now it’s Ulana’s turn. She mentions the phone call and states that by keeping the reactor at 1600 Megawatts, they’ve already shot themselves in the foot. Not in those exact words, obviously. Her evidence goes further into the human element of the disaster in that since the test took place after midnight and into the 26th April, there had been a shift change and the operators who came in were Toptunov and Akimov. Toptunov had only been in the job for 4 months and was not experienced enough to carry out the test. All they were given were a set of instructions but some of the directions had been crossed out. They were told to follow the crossed out instructions which totally defies the point of them being crossed out.

In the flashbacks to the night in question, Dyatlov is shown to be the ‘scary boss’ who’s emotionally and verbally abusive to his staff and since he’s the bloke in charge, none of them question his demands to run the test despite their concerns.

Now for Valery’s testimony and since the scientific particulars are quite complicated, he takes the approach of a science teacher with a board and cards to place on it which show the necessary elements of running a reactor. I won’t go through them all but essentially, when a reactor is running normally, an element called ‘Zenon’ is produced which can be harmful but it’s burned away before it becomes a problem. However, since the reactor had been running at half-power, the Zenon had not been burned away and building up inside the core, poisoning it.

As it shows in the control room, Toptunov and Akimov are slowly bringing the power down but the reactor’s power starts decreasing on its own. That poses a problem. Akimov suggests turning off the ‘Local Automatic Control’ which Dyatlov approves but it doesn’t help and the power keeps decreasing. Akimov wants to shut the reactor down and leave it for 24 hours but Dyatlov still wants to do the test and orders them to raise the power to 700 Megawatts. The current power level is near zero.

The only way to gain power is to remove the control rods but as Valery explains, they have to do it very slowly over 24 hours. Instead, they do something drastic. There are 211 control rods in the reactor and they remove 205, leaving only 6 in the reactor. The power begins to climb to 200 Megawatts. Dyatlov decides to go ahead despite there being not enough power to spin the turbines for long enough until the generators came on. The computer gives a report recommending that the reactor be shut-down but this is ignored and the test begins. The pumps are shut down. There is no fresh water being pumped to cool the reactor and what’s left is being converted into steam. The Zenon is burned away so there is nothing to cool down the reactor. There is a power surge.

Here in is the last fatal decision and it’s one that we’ve talked about before.

The SCRAM button. Or the ‘AZ-5’ button. The button that initiates an emergency shutdown and puts all the control rods back but as we know, the rods are tipped with graphite and when graphite hits water, it causes a surge in reactivity. Since the action of the ‘AZ-5’ button pushes all the control rods back in at the same time, it caused a massive power surge to an already unstable reactor.

We all know the result.

I’ve seen documentaries that state that there were two explosions and the show confirms it. The first explosion blew the lid off the reactor, exposing the core to oxygen which combines with Hydrogen and they super-heated graphite. The resulting second explosion blew the roof off the facility.

Valery goes on to say that the operators didn’t know that the ‘AZ-5’ button could have this effect because they weren’t told and confesses that he lied in Vienna. He’s telling the truth because there are other reactors of the same design operating in the Soviet Union and they should be fixed.

End of trial.

Valery is taken away where he thinks he’s going to be shot but actually, he is told that his testimony will never be revealed and he will keep his position at the Kurchatov Institute but he will essentially be invisible. Valery lies and states that Boris and Ulana didn’t know what he was going to say so nothing would happen to them. Valery is led out and driven away.

At the end, there is a montage showing what happened to all involved.

As we saw at the start, Valery documented is knowledge of the disaster and then took his own life. His suicide meant that the Soviet officials couldn’t ignore the scientific community who backed Valery’s position and the remaining RBMK reactors were fixed to prevent another disaster like Chernobyl.

I said in an earlier review that Ulana Khomyuk was not a real person, the show acknowledges this and Ulana is a representation of all the scientists who worked with him at Chernobyl. I can see why they did this. By all accounts, many scientists worked with him and that’s a lot of people to cast and characterise and they only had five episodes. As the show tells us, some of the scientists were subject to silencing arrest and even imprisonment for trying to tell the truth about what happened at Chernobyl.

During the trial, Boris reveals that he is sick but it’s not specified as to which illness but he is coughing up blood, just like Valery in the first episode. Even Valery said that neither one would live for more than 5 years. Boris Shcherbina passed away on August 22nd, 1990.

Victor Bryukhanov, Anatoly Dyatlov and Nikolai Fomin were sentenced to 10 years hard labour for the parts that they played in the Chernobyl disaster. They didn’t know about the potentially disastrous result of the ‘AZ-5’ button but they weren’t entirely innocent either. Anatoly Dyatlov passed away in 1995 from a radiation-related illness at 64.

Circulating pump operator, Valery Khodemchuk who was played by Kieran O’Brien in the show is thought to be the first person who was killed after the explosion. Sadly, since Khodemchuk was close to the reactor when it exploded, his body could not be recovered and is entombed in the remains of reactor 4.

We then see some haunting, seemingly recent footage of the basement of Pripyat Hospital where the firefighters clothing remains and is still highly radioactive.

Lyudmilla Ignatenko sadly suffered from multiple strokes and she was told by doctors that she couldn’t have children. However, she went on to have a son and she now lives with him in Kiev. After doing some reading, the real Lyudmilla didn’t know about the risks of radiation whilst looking after her husband and whilst it’s shown in the show that there was one nurse who knew about radiation sickness, we don’t know about the situation in reality. No one had dealt with anything like this before and it’s hard to imagine the kind of struggle that the staff of Pripyat Hospital had to deal with.

In the first episode, we saw the on lookers from the bridge and as the dust was falling, they didn’t know that it was radio-active dust. In episode two, we see that some are in hospital and poisoned by radiation. It’s shown in the montage that no one on the bridge survived and the bridge is now known as ‘The Bridge of Death’.

The miners that we saw in the third episode worked constantly in horrendous conditions for a month to stop a full-on meltdown and it’s estimated that 100 died before they were 40.

The next was one that I was curious about. The divers who went into the facility to pump all the water out of the bottom of the reactor and prevent a thermal explosion were thought to have died although there was a book out there that claimed that all three survived. I was dubious about this because if all the firefighters died, and they were outside, how where three divers going into the facility and going so close to the reactor also going to survive? Well, the show tells us that they all did survive and two are alive today as Boris Baranov passed away in 2005 from a heart attack.

We learn that 600,000 people were brought in to serve in the exclusion zone, but we don’t know exactly what happened to them because there were no official records kept.

There is a 30 KM exclusion zone around Chernobyl but the contaminated region in Ukraine and Belarus spreads to 2600 square KM (1615 miles). The people in that zone were removed from their homes and told that it would be temporary, but it’s still forbidden to return.

Mikhail Gorbachev who was played by David Dencik in episodes 2 and 3 presided over the Soviet Union until the Cold War ended in 1991 and the Soviet Union separated. He’s stated that the Chernobyl disaster led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I believe I’ve seen Jared Harris in an interview when he said that Chernobyl was the reason that the Soviet Union couldn’t have a nuclear war with America because the effects of Chernobyl made them realise that no one would survive.

The original containment structure was meant to last for 30 years and well surpassed its expiry date. The new containment facility was finished in 2017 and cost nearly $2 Billion but will last for 100 years.

It’s unknown the true death toll from radiation-related illnesses such as cancer although the was a massive rise in cases but the official Soviet death toll still stands at 31 and hasn’t changed since 1987.

Naturally, the last card shown is ‘In memory of all who suffered and sacrificed’.

And they’re right. Loads of people sacrificed their own well-being in one way or another whether it be their reputation or with their lives. There’s no one true hero when it comes to something like this because all involved did their best to save lives whilst some also tried to fight against a system that was pushing back.

I really liked this series and it’s not surprising that it’s gained the popularity that it has. ‘Chernobyl’ has a 9.7 rating out of 10 in IMDB and a 95% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there were some awards coming its way.

I’m also glad that this was made because something like Chernobyl really shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s only been 33 years, but it was such a huge and important incident that we need to remember the effects that it had not just environmentally but also politically, and the show did a great job of doing that.

That’s my final word.

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