The horrors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine are well known—the early-morning meltdown of one of the plant’s reactors on April 26, 1986, became the deadliest nuclear accident in history. But learning about the tragedy and seeing it firsthand are two entirely different things.
Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, a new documentary premiering on HBO Max on June 22, uses never-before-seen footage to show how the meltdown harmed the lives of nearby residents for decades to come—and extent to which the Soviet Union suppressed the truth about the disaster’s severity.
In a newly-released trailer, disturbing images flash across the screen one by one: a crackle from a radiation detector, a helicopter falling from the sky and the charred remains of the hollowed-out plant. In a stark contrast, a crew of men offer seemingly unconcerned responses in a translated interview.
“This talk about radiation is nonsense, guys,” they say. “We’re healthy.”
In large part, the footage shows efforts to clean up the plant and the surrounding area after the explosion, reports Collider’s Margarida Bastos. Everyone from “soldiers to miners” attempted to contain the radiation at Chernobyl, not necessarily understanding how unsafe it was.
Meanwhile, the public was in the dark about both the botched response to the nuclear emergency and the ongoing danger of radiation that lingered near the plant. The documentary includes U.S.S.R. propaganda films that commend the Soviets on their success in handling the explosion—essentially hiding the whole truth.
The Soviet Union never fully admitted the extent of the atrocity. The documentary notes that the official U.S.S.R. death count from Chernobyl remains at just 31 people. Two plant workers died from the explosion and 28 others, including firefighters sent to put out the flames, succumbed to radiation poisoning, reports Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) data.
But the true toll of the disaster was much higher. As Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger reported in 2019, cancer rates in Ukrainian children who lived in the area increased by more than 90 percent. A 2006 Greenpeace International report estimated that as many as 93,000 people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia may have died as a result from illnesses connected to radiation exposure. As many as 270,000 people living in those countries may have developed cancer because of the high levels of radiation they experienced.
The numbers remain controversial, and it may be impossible to ever get a truly accurate reckoning of the accident’s toll. In fact, Richard Gray reported for BBC Future in 2019, tussles over the death and injury count are ongoing—and challenging, because “Establishing the links between radiation exposure and long-term health effects … is a difficult task.”
Chernobyl had another victim: the U.S.S.R. itself. In many ways, the documentary suggests, budding distrust of the Soviet handling of the nuclear disaster was the start of the government’s downfall.
Filmmaker James Jones was initially spurred to research Chernobyl after he came across a footnote in a book about the disaster.
“It referenced footage that was shot in Pripyat the weekend after the accident,” he told the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage. Though deadly radiation was pumping through the city where power plant workers and their families lived, residents were walking around like normal.
“You can see mothers pushing babies around and kids playing football in the sand,” Jones told the Guardian. “Then you start to see these white flashes on the film because of the insanely high level of radiation. It was so chilling.”
Finding this early footage convinced him that there must be more, but the search proved difficult. It was a logistical nightmare that involved scouring Russia and Ukraine, contending with elaborate bureaucratic processes and navigating Covid-19 restrictions. In a sad twist of fate, the documentary was delivered as a completed work just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Jones could not have foreseen the resonance this documentary—about the fall of the Soviet Union as much as the nuclear disaster—could have in current events. In fact, his initial thought was to relate it to Covid-19.
“I was interested in the idea that this invisible enemy was threatening us,” Jones told the Guardian. “An authoritarian regime was lying about it, and Chinese citizens were starting to voice their disquiet publicly.”
But footage taken before April 1986 also offered insight into life before the nuclear accident destroyed a once-healthy part of Ukraine. These were real people, Jones emphasizes, who didn’t expect the outcome they were dealt.
“This whole other reality existed, of people swimming in the sea and having ordinary lives,” he says to the Guardian. “So when the tragedy does hit, you feel that this wasn’t the distant world of grim Soviet citizens. It was a lively and joyous place.”