Breaking Down HBO's 'Chernobyl' With a Radiation Specialist Who Works at Chernobyl

"This is not a theme park, this is not a canvas for artistic expression."

chernobyl hbo

We've still got a lot to learn about Chernobyl. The HBO miniseries came to its bleak, horrific end on Monday night, closing out the network's dramatic exploration of the 1986 disaster that left the famed nuclear power plant on fire, with a gaping hole in its roof, spilling tons upon tons of nuclear detritus into the air, infecting the men, women, and children of Ukraine. 

With only five episodes in the series, the show has been so jam-packed with eye-opening, heartbreaking details, that, at times, it all felt quite difficult to believe. But it did happen, and the long-lasting effects of the disaster are still being felt today at Chernobyl, in the Exclusion Zone (the highly-irradiated region just outside of the power plant), the abandoned city of Pripyat, and the surrounding areas of Ukraine.

Like many viewers, I took a trip down a multitude of Internet rabbit holes (seriously, the number of YouTube videos on this subject are vast), and after an abnormal amount of hours pouring through Twitter posts and Reddit threads, I made the online acquaintance of Luke Hixson, a nuclear researcher and radiation specialist who moved from the United States in 2013 to conduct some profoundly important work at the much-maligned power plant. 

When I found out Hixson worked at Chernobyl, by choice no less, the questions came pouring out, and he was more than happy to oblige. One of the biggest lessons from our correspondence over email is that there is still quite a lot to be learned from the RBMK reactor explosion that turned "Chernobyl" into a dreadful, ominous word. 

From political unrest to America's misguided perspective of the region, Hixson schooled me on the present day reality the people of Ukraine -- including the nearly 3,000 Chernobyl employees -- deal with every day. And considering the humanitarian work he does with the handicapped, orphaned, and stray dogs in the region, he had a lot to say about that "hard-to-watch" scene with the dogs from Episode 4, "The Happiness of All Mankind," along with the enduring canine population that has thrived in the region since.

chernobyl hbo

Thrillist: Have you seen HBO's Chernobyl miniseries? What are your thoughts on it compared to your own experience at the nuclear plant?
Luke Hixson:
I have been watching the miniseries and very much enjoyed it. So far, I think it is one of the most accurate re-creations to date. The cinematography has been wonderful. They filmed at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, which is similar, but the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant [which had its own RBMK-related incident in 2010] would've been a little more closer to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's design. Overall, I'm fascinated and thrilled.
So, you are currently working at the Chernobyl Power Plant? Can you explain why you pursued this job and what exactly you do there?
My background is as a radiation specialist, focusing on the fate and transport of radioactive contamination through the environment -- that's what first brought me to Chernobyl. I also am the president and co-founder of the humanitarian organization, Clean Futures Fund, which supports communities affected by industrial accidents like the areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. We support safe work operations, the workers and their families, and the community, as we are able. 

At Chernobyl, we provide direct financial assistance for sick and disabled children, for current workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, for retired liquidators and their families. We also support the disabled children’s rehabilitation center, the local orphanage and the Chernobyl Liquidator's Union.

chernobyl hbo

Talk about the first time you arrived at the Exclusion Zone. I can only imagine how surreal that might have felt.
I clearly remember my first visit to Chernobyl and the overwhelming feelings when the power plant first came into sight while traveling on the train from the city of Slavutych, where the Chernobyl workers live. The Exclusion Zone is a sanctuary filled with emotion, memories and the hopes and dreams of those that were evacuated. There is no place like it on earth. The people that work at the plant every day are some of the most incredible people I've ever met. I've never met a single worker that has complained about having to work at the plant -- they all see this as their responsibility. This is their home and they know that healing and restoration will only come through hard work and dedication to their duties. 

Many of the tourists that visit the zone don’t really get the opportunity to see it behind the curtains as I have been able to over the years. I always try to get them to realize this isn't just a disaster zone, this is a place where people lived and grew up. It's where their parents and grandparents lived. They had plans for the future and those dreams were destroyed when the Unit 4 reactor exploded. Things would never be the same.

Chernobyl is in Ukraine, but many still connect the region to Russia and Vladimir Putin. Is there any fear or apprehension connected to your employment at Chernobyl? How has the current political climate impacted your work?
I currently don't have any fears or apprehensions working here. It has been one of the most rewarding and incredible opportunities of my life. Politically, Chernobyl and The Exclusion Zone are very isolated from the rest of the world. The 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone was established to keep the public out of contaminated and dangerous areas, but it also works as a buffer that keeps the world at an arm's length. 

I was here during the 2016 presidential election. I remember waking up the next morning after the elections were over and feeling like all of that was taking place on another world. The 2016 election was a very tumultuous event in America, it seemed like everyone was divided. But from Chernobyl, I found it hard to relate... We just have so much more pressing issues that we are dealing with here on a daily basis. 

In regards to Russia: Yes, there is a lot of tension and conflict in Ukraine overall. The older generation that was born and raised in the USSR seem to often have an opinion that things were better. For example, the cost of bread was cheaper. Yes, there was corruption, and the whole Soviet system was funneled through Moscow, but they were also indoctrinated in the Soviet culture and way of life. The younger generation, seems to me, to value their independence and ability to stand on their own feet. They are tired of the corruption that seems to be so pervasive in national politics, they want a government that supports them and protects their interests. 

I will say, though, those political tensions are much more evident in Kiev, Odessa, or Lviv. Here in Chernobyl, we have work to do and people are largely focused on that work -- which will continue despite the political climate.

chernobyl hbo

In Episode 4, there was an upsetting scene that documented the mass killings of animals throughout the city, including a handful of innocent dogs. Given your own involvement documenting the enduring dog population in Chernobyl and the surrounding area, what is your reaction to this depiction?
When locals were evacuated, they were told that they would only be gone for a few days. Soviet officials knew that the evacuated would not return and that it would be unsafe for them to take their own possessions and animals with them. They needed to evacuate over 200,000 residents and it would have been impossible to take all of their possessions with them. The Soviet military was sent in to cull the animals -- cats, dogs, livestock, etc. -- that were left behind, but this was very difficult, psychologically. 

Many of the animals escaped into the woods and surrounding areas. We have historical photos that show some puppies and dogs made their way to the power plant just a few weeks after the evacuations. They were looking for food and for people, and that was the only place that they could be found. Over the years, these dogs that were left behind continued to breed and live as wild animals. When I first came to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, I was surprised to see hundreds of wild dogs living in nearly all areas of the facility -- even in some of the most contaminated areas. 

These animals suffer from a lack of food, water and shelter, and are also heavily predated by wolves and other predators in the zone. They have a very short lifespan because of predation and the lack of food, water and shelter during the winter. If we see a dog over 4 or 5 years old, we call them "Grandpa" or "Grandma." 

Holy hell, that's profoundly sad.
Well, our program is providing humane management of these abandoned animals through spay, neuter, and vaccination. We have also worked to adopt out some of the young puppies as we are able. We provide medical care and want to provide them with the best quality of life possible.
The HBO miniseries really brought to light a lot of unknown details about the Chernobyl disaster. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the power plant, and what would you like the rest of the world to know about Chernobyl in 2019?
Many people are confused by the geographical location of the plant. I constantly hear comments saying, "This is Putin's problem," and that "the Russians should take care of it." The Russians don't have any interest in Chernobyl. This is a Ukrainian problem, and Ukrainians are the ones doing most of the work.

I want people to understand this is not a theme park, this is not a canvas for artistic expression. This is a sacred place, this is a memorial, this is a warning.  

We spend our whole lives building for the future, but it can be taken away from us in just a few moments. It is important to remember what is the most important in life: our families, our loved ones and those that we carry with us in our minds and our hearts. Chernobyl will teach you about life and about the things that you are blessed to have -- all you have to do is be willing to open your eyes and to listen.

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Aaron Pruner is a contributor to Thrillist.