HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’: Were The Liquidators Affected By Radiation During The Nuclear Cleanup?

Over the span of three years, many liquidators were exposed to varying degrees of radiation.

A firefighter arrives at reactor 4 in Episode 1 of HBO's 'Chernobyl'
Liam Daniel / HBO

Over the span of three years, many liquidators were exposed to varying degrees of radiation.

HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series delves into the events that resulted because of the nuclear disaster. During Episode 4, people, known as “liquidators” were sent in to perform all sorts of cleanup duties. For example, some people were tasked with destroying all of the pets left behind due to the evacuations after the nuclear disaster. But, what happened to these liquidators? Were they affected by radiation?

According to Live Science, “530,000 recovery operation workers” or liquidators, were put to work in the cleanup effort after the nuclear disaster occurred in reactor 4 at Chernobyl. For three years the liquidators performed many tasks involved with the cleanup and were exposed to varying levels of radiation. However, on average, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), these liquidators each received approximately 120 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation. To put that into perspective, it would be equivalent to each liquidator receiving more than 1,000 chest x-rays.

With the initial liquidators arriving on scene and in the immediate days after, the levels of radiation were much higher. As a result of this, 134 liquidators developed radiation poisoning fairly quickly after being on the scene at Chernobyl. Of those, Live Science reports that 28 of them died.

The effects of the immediate exposure to radiation were seen early on in HBO’s Chernobyl. Firefighters who initially responded were seen to get very sick. While there was a brief period of time when it appeared the men were recovering from their radiation exposure, this rapidly deteriorated and some of these men succumbed to radiation poisoning. This response is typical of radiation poisoning at a high level.

Two liquidiators, as featured in Episode 4 of HBO's 'Chernobyl'
  Liam Daniel / HBO

However, for the liquidators who were on the scene much later after the initial disaster, when it was known just how dangerous the rector location was, their exposure, while still great, was much less than for the first firemen on the scene. As a result of this, the known complications as a result of their exposure took much longer to develop. And, the most obvious reaction to lower levels of radiation is the increased prevalence of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer.


“But remember, the cancer risk is something you see 10 years down the road, so you have to live for 10 more years in order to see [that],” said Dr. Lewis Nelson, chairman of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

While it is known that large levels of radiation exposure can cause cancer, the data surrounding the effects of radiation on the liquidators on-site at Chernobyl are “murky.” However, it is estimated that “270,000 people in the Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus who wouldn’t have otherwise developed cancers did develop these illnesses.”

Chernobyl is currently airing on HBO every Monday at 9 p.m. until June 3.