HBO's new five part series Chernobyl is an intense and powerful journey into the events surrounding the horrific real-life disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. Commanding performances by Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris, and Emily Watson bring the terrible events to life, from the human incompetence that led to the initial explosion, to the devastating long-lasting effects of the nuclear fallout that followed.

5 things you need to know before you watch Chernobyl

The critically acclaimed five-part HBO miniseries about one of the worst “unnatural” disasters in history.

The human story of the Chernobyl disaster is brought to life by brilliant performances from Stellan Skarsgård (The Avengers), Emily Watson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Jared Harris (The Crown) in a gripping series that follows the responders who made incredible sacrifices to contain the nuclear fallout.

But what actually happened on that devastating day in 1986 and, crucially, in the aftermath?

5 things about Chernobyl

  1. The cause of the accident, which occurred at reactor 4, was a combination of poor design and human error during a safety test. Operators ran the plant at low power without taking the correct precautions. The reactors were highly unstable at low power. A power surge caused a sudden increase in heat, which ruptured tubes containing fuel. Hot fuel particles then reacted with the cooling water, causing a steam explosion that lifted the 1 000 ton cover off the top of the reactor. A second explosion exposed the reactor core to the environment and a fire that burned for 10 days released radiation into the atmosphere.

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  1. The disaster took place in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, and affected Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Today the Exclusion Zone covers an area of approximately 2 600 km2 and has become a tourist attraction. If you happen to be on holiday in Kiev, Ukraine, you can take a day trip there.
  1. The nearest human settlement to the power plant was the newly-built city of Pripyat, which had a population of about 50 000 people. Soviet authorities started evacuating around Chernobyl within 36 hours of the accident. They evacuated 115 000 people following the incident in 1986 and a further 220 000 after that.

  1. At least 31 people died from the initial steam explosion, exposure to radiation, and thermal burns. One was due to cardiac arrest. The long-term health effects of the disaster are much harder to determine, but there is evidence that instances of thyroid cancer increased in the contaminated areas.
  1. After the accident, authorities enclosed reactor 4 in a concrete structure that broke down over time. It’s now encased in an enormous steel “sarcophagus” that should last 100 years.

Chernobyl starts on Wednesday 23 May on M-Net (101) at 22:00 »
Also available on Catch Up and to stream online with DStv Now »