'Lost tapes' from Chernobyl show the haunting fallout of the nuclear disaster

Soviet "liquidators" who were sent to Chernobyl to clean up after the accident wore protective gear to shield them from high levels of dangerous radiation.
Soviet "liquidators" who were sent to Chernobyl to clean up after the accident wore protective gear to shield them from high levels of dangerous radiation. (Image credit: Courtesy of HBO)

Haunting scenes of the death, destruction and sickness that followed the Chernobyl meltdown 36 years ago — the deadliest nuclear accident of all time — were recorded on film and video but remained hidden for decades. Now, these previously unknown stories are finally coming to light, in a new HBO documentary, "Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes."

A trailer for the film, which HBO shared Friday (June 3) on YouTube, offers a glimpse of what unfolded in Ukraine (then a part of the Soviet Union, or USSR) after the horrific disaster, which took place on April 26, 1986 in the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, about 81 miles (130 kilometers) north of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. 

In the long-lost tapes, testimony from witnesses offer a glimpse of life in Chernobyl before the disaster, and show how it was forever transformed in the accident's aftermath. "Everything was documented," one of the witnesses says in the trailer, but many of the explosion's details and potential dangers were obscured by Soviet officials, who sent in soldiers to "liquidate" the damage and to help cover up the incident, HBO representatives said in a statement. 

Related: 5 weird things you didn't know about Chernobyl

People who lived in Chernobyl and nearby, as well as the workers who were assigned to clean up the damage at the site, were subsequently kept in the dark about the risks posed to their health by exposure to deadly radiation. As more people who had been exposed to Chernobyl's radiation fell sick, their trust in Soviet leadership eroded, contributing to the widespread unrest that ultimately dissolved the Soviet Union, according to the statement.

Chernobyl's reactor explosion killed two plant workers, and 29 more people, many of them firefighters who rushed to battle the blaze, later died from radiation poisoning, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Over the years that followed, cancer rates skyrocketed among Ukrainian children, climbing by about 90%, Live Science previously reported. In 2006, a report commissioned by Greenpeace International estimated that over 93,000 people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia died from illnesses linked to radiation exposure from Chernobyl. 

The report further stated that approximately 270,000 people in those countries who developed cancers, would not have done so had they not been exposed to the high levels of radiation produced by the accident.

"Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes" premieres June 22 on HBO at 9 p.m. ET/PT, and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

Originally published on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.