Chernobyl, the historical dramatization of the Soviet-based nuclear incident of 1986, aired in May 2019 and continues to be praised for its powerful portrayal of the disaster’s events. The impactful series retells the incident at Chernobyl, according to many first-hand accounts from those living in the area at the time, as well as recounting from scientists. The series is known for its ability to tell the more obscure stories of locals and first responders and its expert build-up with only five episodes.
All of the many moving parts and perspectives of the complex disaster come together in the finale, titled “Vichnaya Pamyat.” The series goes back in time to show audiences what really happened at the nuclear power plant in a riveting but heavy episode. Between a crash course in nuclear physics and a dark ending to an attempt at doing the right thing, the final episode of Chernobyl is a puzzle that needs piecing together.
Leading Up to ‘Chernobyl’s Courtroom Scene
The successful miniseries follows three main players in the aftermath of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history: Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), the director of a nuclear energy institution; Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers; and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a fictionalized nuclear physicist made to represent the scientific community. The three take action after an incident at a nuclear power plant causes a massive, radioactive explosion. The effects of the accident were so widespread that thousands of people are suspected to have died as a result, and many more were permanently displaced from their homes due to high radiation levels that still linger in 2023. As the three navigate preventing further damage, evacuating cities, and gathering accounts in an attempt to find out what caused the nuclear explosion, their efforts lead to an account that tracks what led to that night, second by second.
The finale of the Chernobyl series starts with a key moment a mere 12 hours before the devastating explosion. A brief meeting occurs between three management figures at the power plant: Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), Director Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill), and Chief Engineer Nikolai Fomin (Adrian Rawlins). Dyatlov and Fomin discus how changes at the plant will most likely lead to them getting promotions, especially if the ill-fated safety test goes well that day. The point of this safety test was to check how long the generators would produce electricity in case of a shutdown.
However, Bryukhanov reveals that a call from the grid controller regarding productivity quotas means that the plant must wait until midnight to complete the test, instead of finishing it during the day. When asked if it is safe to keep the power at the same level for 10 hours, Dyatlov says yes, which audiences later learn was not the case.
In the present day, Legasov is struggling with the possibility of telling the truth about the incident in a Soviet courtroom after giving a falsified testimony in Vienna, claiming that the nuclear accident was caused by an “operational error.” He has already been promised a promotion and a slew of state-issued awards, but he cannot shake when Khomyuk urged him to tell the real story. What holds him back is the fear of telling the truth and advocating for reform in front of people who would not hear of it or tolerate it, and could even potentially take his life.
A Retelling and Explanation of the Chernobyl Disaster
Legasov, Shcherbina, and Khomyuk arrive to court as witnesses in the trial for Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin, who are being held responsible for what happened at Chernobyl. Shcherbina starts off, explaining the suspicious and negligent nature of conducting a safety test of the reactor that exploded in 1986, even though it was built and approved years earlier in 1983. The three men on trial signed off on the completion of the reactor quickly after its construction, giving them each an award presented by the government for finishing the project so quickly. However, they had falsely claimed its completion, since a safety test was not fully attempted until years later, on the night of the nuclear explosion. Shcherbina also discusses how the three put everyone at risk by continuously testing dangerous strategies. Back-up generators were put to use at the plant in case the power went out. The problem is that they would take a whole minute to start up, which is way too much time when dealing with a nuclear reactor. The plant tested this three previous times and failed all three times, and the fourth attempt is when the explosion occurred. Shcherbina’s testimony meant that the three men in charge at the plant knowingly utilized and went forward with practices that had failed multiple times.
Khomyuk testifies next and takes the room back to the day before the accident. This was also the day the test was originally supposed to take place. She goes into detail about how the reactor itself needed to be at a specific level in order for the test to run. However, after being delayed by grid controllers (as seen in the beginning of the episode), it is decided that the test will take place at midnight instead. The reason this was another catastrophic mistake was due to a shift change happening at midnight. This meant that instead of having people working the day shift complete the test, who were trained and prepared for it, the three managers instead left it for men on the night shift. Heartbreaking flashbacks show the men in the plant, some only a few months into their position, quickly reading up on directions for tasks they had never been asked to do, only minutes before the test was starting. Some of the men in the control room that night were seemingly terrified, and based on what we had seen about the work environment, no one felt comfortable fully walking out on the demanding management of the plant.
The “Invisible Dance” That Led to the Chernobyl Accident
Ending off as the final witness, Legasov brings with him a visual aid that represents that elements that are in play when balancing a reactor. One side of his aid had red cards, listing off factors that increase reactivity. The other side has blue cards, things that decrease reactivity. The use of these elements together are designed to make sure that a reactor is kept in check. For example, while uranium fuel increases reactivity, factors like water and control rods made of boron reduce reactivity. The heat in the reactor creates steam from the water, increasing reactivity, is then countered by a negative temperature coefficient, and so on. Legasov calls this the “invisible dance” that allows cities to have power.
Where the plant’s management failed was keeping the reactor at a stagnant power for 10 hours following the grid controllers asking for a delay. While they should have rescheduled the test, the reactor was kept at half power for almost half a day. The problem here is that the lack of balance for so long created an element called xenon, which reduces reactivity and is referred to by Legasov as a “poison” to the reactor. This meant that a production of xenon was happening over several hours.
Flashbacks show when panic began to set in, as reactivity began to quickly drop for no apparent reason, a phenomenon Legasov called a “xenon pit.” The workers in the room begin to sense that something is very wrong, but are forced to keep going by Dyatlov. Even as they begin to stand up to him, he insists that the test happen at that moment, threatening their jobs and their futures if they do not comply. In the courtroom, Dyatlov even tries to claim he was not in the room when this occurred. This is immediately shut down.
In the control room, levels make it up to 200 before it stalls. The safety test requires 700 megawatts, but Dyatlov demands they start at 200. Before long, emergency alarms are going off in the control room and their computer system recommends they shut down the reactor. Still, Dyatlov refuses.
Due to their attempts at quick, short-term fixes with something as sensitive and dangerous as a reactor, the final step that led to the explosion was the emergency shutdown button that was designed to immediately stop the reactor through the boron control rods, or so they thought. The findings of the scientists led them to discover that the state had actually utilized boron control rods with graphite tips, which instead increases reactivity. When asked by the judge why this was the case, Legasov makes his final decision to stand up to the Soviet government and reveal the truth about all the reactors in the area, not just the once that exploded.
This revelation causes a stir in the courtroom as Legasov finishes with the retelling of those final seconds before disaster. As the control rods that were thought to help stabilize the reactor were initiated, only the graphite tips of the boron rods make it to the core, meaning that the workers in the control room unknowingly triggered the explosion. High pressure blows the protective lid off the reactor, exposing it to oxygen, thus causing one of the most devastating nuclear disasters the world has ever seen. The room is silent after Legasov finishes the story.
The Aftermath of Telling the Truth
As initially suspected by Legasov, the government retaliates for his revealing the secret of the reactors’ design flaws and demanding safer changes. After explaining to the courtroom that the other 16 reactors in the area are built with the same deadly problems, he is condemned to a life without his legacy. He is told that all of his achievements and findings as a scientist will be credited to other people. On top of that, his testimony telling the truth was kept from the press and was actually successful in being kept quiet from the public for many years. He was blacklisted and prevented from getting another job in his field, and was only kept alive because the government knew he was dying from radiation exposure due to being in constant proximity to the disaster site, an unfortunate circumstance that was also slowly killing Shcherbine.
What makes the events of the finale so powerful is what lies beneath the surface. For most of the series, the three men who help manage the plant, particularly Dyatlov, are painted as being the sole bad guys. They act despicably and constantly gaslight any of the plant workers who disagree with them. But by the end, there is the understanding of why they act this way. The series depicts an underlying problem of a system that keeps secrets from people, thus putting people in danger. The recurring theme is how those in powerful positions abuse an already-toxic hierarchy and cast aside anyone who tells a truth that is outside their own personal understanding. This is a running idea from the first episode, right after the explosion occurs. In the plant, Dyatlov seems to be unknowing or deeply in denial when a worker runs in, visibly affected by the skyrocketing radiation, and explains how there is no core. Dyatlov calls him delusional as the man vomits on the floor. However, the series goes further in explaining that even those with some level of power, like Dyatlov, act the way they do because that is how they were told to do it. But secrets were even kept from him, as revealed during the trial. Would he have acted the same way that night if he knew the flaws in the plant’s and reactor’s design? Probably not. Chernobyl as a series is telling in how keeping secrets and things unspoken do not make them go away, but rather make them implode.