Chernobyl: Who Was At Fault?

A Blatant Lie': Chernobyl Engineer Says HBO Show Is Full Of ...
The destruction of Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor can be seen from this helicopter image.

During the early morning on April 26, 1986, one of the most significant and influential moments of the last 40 years occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. During a test, the plant’s no. 4 reactor completely exploded, allowing radiation to escape and spread across northern Ukraine along with the rest of Europe.

Viktor Bryukhanov, Anatoly Dylatov and Nikolai Fomin
From left to right: Viktor Bryukhanov, Anatoly Dylatov, and Nikolai Fomin.

Following the explosion, many around the world, both in and out of the Soviet Union, wanted to know who was responsible for the disaster. The blame, at least legally speaking, was placed upon three individuals: deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, chief Chernobyl engineer Nikolai Fomin, and plant manager Viktor Bryukhanov (Doyle). Each was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but Dylatov received the majority of the blame as he was directly responsible for overseeing the test on the night of the disaster (Doyle). Moreover, he scared the workers into completing their tasks by threatening to fire them and dismissing any of their concerns. While these three individuals were directly liable for the disaster occurring, they were not the only people who received blame as many within the Soviet government faced accusations about the coverup and delayed response. The fact that Pripyat, the closest major city to Chernobyl, was not immediately evacuated is a travesty that most likely cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Off of this, it also took Mikhail Gorbachev three weeks to finally appear on television to report to the public about what had happened (Siegelbaum). The most obvious example of the government’s cover-up, at least in my opinion, is the fact that they never really bothered to keep track of how many people died as a result of this disaster. Officially, only 50 people can be directly attributed to the reactor’s explosion, however, estimations put the deaths in the thousands (Gray).

Chernobyl: Is it safe to visit the nuclear disaster site? | The ...
Chernobyl’s “New Safe Confinement” was completed in July 2019 and will last for the next 100 years.

Ultimately, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl had far greater ramifications than the Soviet government may have initially lead on. It can be directly credited as one of the main reasons for Gorbachev’s desire to “reverse the nuclear arms race” (Freeze, 457) along with his support for genuine glasnost (Siegelbaum). Furthermore, it has forever tarnished nuclear power as many countries and leaders around the world point towards this event as to why this energy source should not be trusted. Lastly, if you want to watch a short, but great, mini-series, I highly recommend HBO’s Chernobyl.


Cole, Brendan. “Chernobyl Engineer Says HBO Show Is Full of Russian ‘‘Vodka’ and ‘KGB’ Stereotypes.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 15 June 2019,

Dobbs, Michael. “CHERNOBYL’S ‘SHAMELESS LIES’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Apr. 1992,

Doyle, Liam. “Chernobyl Disaster: Who Was to Blame for Chernobyl?”,, 24 June 2019,

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Gray, Richard. “The True Toll of the Chernobyl Disaster.” BBC Future, BBC, 26 July 2019,

Siegelbaum, Lewis. Meltdown in Chernobyl. 2 Sept. 2015,


24 Replies to “Chernobyl: Who Was At Fault?”

  1. The lack of action by the Soviet government to not keep track of how many people had be directly or indirectly affected by Chernobyl, is both surprising but also not. With all the actions they had taken to delay a public revelation of the event and to actively put blame onto 3 specific people, its no wonder that they would want to keep the numbers of those affected to be low. But even so, it is a remarkably suspicious thing to do and, I would assume, draw criticisms not only by the public but of other nations.

    1. Hey, Alyssa thanks for the comment! I completely agree that the Soviet government, and Russian government by continuation, acting in the manner that they did did not instill faith from the international community that they were telling the truth about the disaster.

      1. The Soviets have a long history of Propaganda; Forced Labor; Tass state newspaper coverups; Hurry up development; Cutting corners; & Pressure for quick results. Modest rewards for success & harsh penalties for failure. The town of Chernobyl was relatively new; had above average lifestyles for Technicians, Engineers, Scientists, & Administrators. Moving townspeople that were ordered not to talk would take resources. Moving adjacent towns would take even more resources & create more news leaks. The Central Committee bureaucracy & Five Year Plans were not set up for quick decisions & allocations. So the Soviets / Russians had done what they had always done for 70 years.

        1. My understanding is when they spun The Beast down for a test (main turbine shaft) they lost too much power to run the electric circulation pumps. At the very least, there should have been auxiliary Diesel generators or power transformers to compensate for lower RPM operation. Also way more experienced operators present for this test. The process folded in on itself & spiraled down. An extra hot reactor core is always disastrous.

  2. Agree 100% about the HBO mini series — which generally has received positive ratings from experts. One of the things I most appreciated about the mini series was how successfully it distributed blame and recast the focus away from the accident itself to the equally disastrous response to it — which involved so many people at so many levels. Of course Diatlev bears responsibility for the explosion, but the response — sending unprotected people to certain death in an effort to contain it, denying anything had happened while a radioactive cloud spread over all of eastern Europe and Scandinavia, not moving vulnerable populations out of harm’s way….the whole thing is just breathtaking in its callousness. At the same time, as the series indicates, there were so many genuine heroes and heroines who spoke truth to power and tried to help — often at tremendous personal cost. Given the current crisis with COVID19, this all makes you stop and wonder if we’ve learned much at all since 1986.

    1. Hi Professor Nelson! Yeah, I was always interested in this topic, but the mini-series was the first time that I could truly see what happened during this disaster. It was definitely an eyeopener and I can sadly see parallels to the modern world with various country’s dealings of the coronavirus.

  3. Its crazy how you can think of the Chernobyl disaster as a broadened metaphor of everything that was wrong with the Soviet system and why it collapsed. From the government faithlessly attempting a cover-up of the incident, the chief engineer threatening workers into committing liability actions in their work, and their murderous drive in the arms race being one of the underlying factors to this nuclear disaster.

    1. Hey Chris, yeah, this disaster was definitely indicative of how the Soviet Union had been failing for the past decade or two before this. It also highlighted the mess that their central government was in when dealing with this crises in particular. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Nice post Michael! I wasn’t aware that it took Gorbachev 3 weeks to appear publicly and speak about the incident. I think that that fact alone sums up the governments response to the disaster which you did a great job of explaining. I’m dying to see the miniseries but I don’t have HBO, however there is a show called Impossible Engineering which talks about the method which the Russian government has used to contain the radiation at Chernobyl. It’s basically a giant concrete box which they built around the reactor, and it’s almost comical that it’s all they could come up with considering it will only last a few hundred years.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Rory! I think I’ve actually seen part of that episode or something on Youtube about it. It’s just crazy that that is the best solution available currently and that they can’t do anything better.

  5. Great post Michael. As I was reading your post I couldn’t help but think about the aftermath of this accident and the effects that it had on the citizens of the Soviet Union and neighboring countries. Even though it was wrong for the Soviet Union to respond to this accident in the way they did, I could see why they were so quick to cover it up because they didn’t want to have to deal with other countries seeking reparations for the damage they caused. As they learned though covering it up only made it worse. However, in my opinion, this definitely was an eyeopener for the rest of the world in terms of the consequences of a nuclear destruction. If an accident like that had the lasting effects it did, I hope the world realized what a nuclear explosion could do and the amount of damage it could have on the global population.

    1. Hey Josh, I think the Soviet government definitely wanted to sweep this under the rug and hoped that it would not end up as big a problem as it ultimately did. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Your post was really informative. You do a good job discussing the different ways that the government failed to act either purposefully or through negligence. I think you are correct in pointing out that this disaster has created a sense of fear when considering nuclear power as an alternative energy source.

    1. Hi Kayt, thanks for your comment! Yeah, I think this is normally the first thing people think of when they talk about nuclear power/energy.

  7. Hey Michael! I really enjoyed reading your post, and I especially love the picture of the new mega tomb for the reactors that was just completed last year. I wasn’t aware of the intimidation Dylatov used to keep potential concerns at bay, although, I’m not at all surprised. The lengths the Soviet Union was willing to go to compete in the arms race is astonishing, but not unlike the US or other nuclear superpowers. What frustrates me so much about the disaster was the prioritization of the cover-up over protecting the Soviet people, and those in other European countries, from serious nuclear fallout. And the fact that the government was unwilling to keep track of the deaths connected to the disaster shows that they were more focused on keeping their reputation in-tact amid a firestorm of bad press, as opposed to protecting their own people.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kendall! Dylatov’s intimidation was really displayed in the mini-series and it just makes you sad that one man’s actions can be credited to such a larger disaster. Even still, the Soviet government failed to act after the fact, like you said, and that most likely cost thousands of innocent lives.

  8. Good post, Michael. It’s crazy how the Soviet government didn’t evacuate nearby civilians sooner. I think it’s interesting how the government tried to downplay how bad the incident was, kind of like China is doing today. I wonder if they did that out of fear from the people.

    1. Hey Chris, I think that the Soviet government probably wanted/expected this to be a much smaller issue than it actually was. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I agree that the Soviet government has equal responsibility for the incident. While the people overseeing the plant should be held accountable, if the government acted sooner and dealt with the problem rather than trying to cover up the incident, then people could have been saved. It is better to deal with a problem early on rather than later.

    1. Hi Matt, I completely agree that so many different parties were at fault for the disaster occurring and for the travesty that happened after the fact. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Matt, we studied the Chernobyl accident in Nuclear Engineering class . The Soviet RBMK reactor at Chernobyl was of very poor design that would not be allowed to be operated in the West. The reactor had no large pressure vessel surrounding the reactor and no full containment building. The cause of the accident was a poorly thought out test of the system with many of the safety controls turned off. Without the warning systems turned off, a massive increase in power and pressure inside the reactor were not noticed until the system exploded. The three individuals on site did take the blame but the Soviet design was the real cause of the problem and was basically ignored.

  11. I can’t believe that it took Gorbachev over three weeks to make public comments on the disaster. It seems like the government was more concerned with saving face than informing the people. The fact that they failed to evacuate the nearest town is also unconscionable. If the proper safety procedures were not put in place, they had no business using nuclear energy.

  12. Great post! I remember watching the HBO miniseries about this and it still blows my mind how ineffective they were in reacting to the disaster. The whole world was at stake and Gorbachev and the Soviet government was still trying to find a way to spin it to their favor.

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