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Chernobyl disaster: How accurate is the HBO series?

The true story behind HBO's "Chernobyl"
The true story behind HBO's "Chernobyl" 06:41

The HBO mini-series "Chernobyl" takes a dramatic look back at the 1986 nuclear disaster. At the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union, a reactor exploded, resulting in at least 32 deaths in the immediate aftermath. People who lived nearby were forced to evacuate, never to return. Hundreds of square miles surrounding the reactor are still off-limits.

But how accurate is the mini-series? Adam Higginbotham, author of the new book "Midnight in Chernobyl," (which is published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS), told CBSN the production design is "extraordinary."

For example, there is one scene where workers shovel pieces of radioactive debris and throw it off a roof into the remains of the reactor. Higginbotham said that scene looks like it was shot based off of documentary footage from the time.

"They were timed for the amount of time they could be out there, in seconds, to limit their exposure to what at the time was regarded as safe as it could be," Higginbotham said. Some workers exposed to lethal doses of radiation. And global health officials say thousands of people have developed cancers related to the accident in the decades since.

Officials have also been portrayed as unconcerned. Higginbotham said that's true because they were "extremely reckless" with radiation exposure. There were also disagreements about what to do in the aftermath of the explosion. Soviet officials did not tell the world what had happened until scientists in other countries detected a spike in radiation.

But HBO's "Chernobyl" is still a drama, so parts are fictionalized. One character who was invented for the show, Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson), is portrayed as a whistleblower. Higginbotham said there simply was no need to "uncover the truth" — it was known.

"In reality, so many nuclear scientists knew all along that there were problems with this reactor — the problems that led ultimately to an explosion and disaster," Higginbotham said.

"Chernobyl" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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