Why HBO’s “Chernobyl” Gets Nuclear So Wrong

Why HBO’s “Chernobyl” Gets Nuclear So Wrong:



At the end of the show, HBO claims there was “a dramatic spike in
cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus,” but this too is wrong. Residents of those two countries were “exposed to doses slightly above natural background radiation levels,” according
to the World Health Organization. If there are additional cancer deaths
they will be “about 0.6% of the cancer deaths expected in this
population due to other causes.”

Radiation is not the superpotent toxin “Chernobyl” depicts. In
episode one, high doses of radiation make workers bleed, and in episode
two, a nurse who merely touches a firefighter sees her hand turn bright
red, as though burned. Neither thing occurred or is possible.


Consider how one of the scientist heroes describes radiation: as “a
bullet.” He asks us to imagine Chernobyl as “three trillion bullets in
the air, water and food… that won’t stop firing for 50,000 years.” But radiation isn’t like a bullet. If it were we would all be dead
since we are every moment being shot by radiation bullets. And some of
the people who are exposed to the most bullets, such as residents of
Colorado, actually live longer. What starts in episode one as a bullet evolves through the
mini-series into a weapon. “Chernobyl reactor number 4 is now a nuclear
bomb,” the hero scientist says, one that goes off “hour after hour” and
“will not stop… until the entire continent is dead.”

Until the entire continent is dead? The fear being conjured
is, obviously, of nuclear war. As such, “Chernobyl” uses the same trick
as every other nuclear disaster movie. In the 1979 “China Syndrome,” a scientist famously claims that an
accident at a nuclear plant “could render an area the size of the state
of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.” Hollywood borrowed the misrepresentation of melting uranium fuel as
an exploding nuclear bomb from anti-nuclear leaders like Ralph Nader,
who in 1974 claimed, “A nuclear accident could wipe out Cleveland and the survivors would envy the dead.”

In the end, HBO’s “Chernobyl” gets nuclear wrong for the same reason
humankind as a whole has been getting it wrong for over 60 years, which
is that we’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants.

In reality, Chernobyl proves why nuclear is the safest way to make
electricity. In the worst nuclear power accidents, relatively small
amounts of particulate matter escape, harming only a handful of people. During the rest of the time, nuclear plants are reducing exposure to
air pollution, by replacing fossil fuels and biomass. It’s for this
reason that nuclear energy has saved nearly two million lives to date.

Oh boy

So I’m just going to use this to respond to a few things I’ve seen said.
The estimate for the radiation release from the Chernobyl incident
ranges from 100 to 400 times that of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but
something to think about is that 100 to 400 times Hiroshima is “only”
equivalent to the release of a 1.5 – 6 megaton weapon. Throughout the
Cold War, the US tested 196.5 megatons of weapons combined, and the
Soviet Union tested 297 megatons combined, with every other state
testing a combined yield of 47.6 megatons. Some 90 – 360 times more than
the equivalent release of Chernobyl from nuclear testing globally.

However this doesn’t even get into the fact that release from Chernobyl
was quite a bit more localized than the release of most weapons testing
is. While fallout from nuclear weapons could rain down thousands of
kilometers away, as was seen many many times with atmospheric testing,
effectively all deposits of Caesium (the most long-lived isotope
released in the incident, while 40% of the radiation from the release
was Iodine-131, which has a half-life of 8 days, and 30% was a
combination of Tellurium and Rubidium isotopes which had half-lives of
19 days at most) had rained down on the 100 km area surrounding the
Chernobyl facility, with the by and far majority being within the
exclusion zone.
What Caesium deposits there are in the 100 km area surrounding the
reactor have a half-life of 30 years, so by 2086 the most radioactive
areas will only be roughly 1/10th as radioactive as they were in 1986,
currently they’re only about ½ as bad as they were at first.

What little was left in the plume that spread was only enough
to increase radiation from background by 20 times in the days after the
disaster in the worst hit areas outside of Ukraine and Belarus, that
being Poland and the coastal regions of the Eastern Baltic Sea. Within 2
weeks, so many isotopes had degraded and the cloud was so greatly
dissipated that radiation was only 2-3 times background in the worst
effected areas outside of Ukraine and Belarus. The long-term effects
which have actually been measured stand at a maximum of 4,000 to 6,000
excess cases of thyroid cancer in the century after the incident. By
1995 there had only been some 700 excess cases of thyroid cancer among
children in the region.

Birth defects among the offspring of (by
far) the worst exposed individuals, that being the liquidators who
carried out the cleanup, peaked with a 7-fold increase some 9 months
after the incident, which rapidly declined to base levels. By far the
biggest human cost was some 200,000 excess elective abortions in Europe
following Chernobyl, which was caused by fearmongering sensationalism
regarding birth defects following the radiation release. The absolute
peak of birth defects anywhere was 9 months after the incident, and the
rate had returned to baseline within 3 years of Chernobyl just as with
the Liquidators. This was also spurred by studies estimating the effects
of Chernobyl based upon the Linear No-Threshold model of radiation
effect estimation, which has been shown to be pseudoscientific nonsense
time and time again, just like the Hot Particle Theory that it’s based

These methods of calculation are still used to make absurd
claims such as the ones that anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 excess
cases of cancer have been caused by Chernobyl. However, using this exact
same method of calculation, some 100,000 cases of cancer are caused
every year by flying on airliners, which most would rightfully consider
to be nonsense. Even the far more reasonable calculation by the
Chernobyl Forum of 4,000 excess deaths in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia,
of which 2,200 would be among liquidators, has yet to materialize. The
United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
has only found 62 deaths directly caused by Chernobyl as of 2011, and
the only evidence it could find of any increase in cancers was some
6,000 possible excess cases of thyroid cancer, of which by 2005 only 15
had been fatal. By far the biggest effects from Chernobyl found by
UNSCEAR was widespread fear and psychological issues attributed to the
media campaign around the incident.

It’s trendy in Europe to attribute any case of anything that could be
related to radiation to Chernobyl, but next to none of the evidence
supports this. If anything, the lingering effects of nuclear testing
during the 1950s is still causing far more harm than Chernobyl. All of
this contributes to why some 3.5 million Ukrainians are able to claim
benefits in relation to the incident, because the standards for blame
are so incredibly low. This doesn’t even mention that the majority of
those claimants in Ukraine are receiving benefits for psychological
conditions such as depression being blamed on the Chernobyl accident.

The point of all of this is that it is incredible how little
damage was actually done by what is by far the worst civilian nuclear
accident in history. Regardless of attempts to spin it as an apocalyptic
disaster by anti-nuclear groups like Greenpeace and lobbyists of the
fossil fuel industry, the Chernobyl disaster is honestly a testament to
just how safe nuclear power is, in that the worst case scenario did
relatively little harm in the long term. Compare this to the immense
health effects caused by living within 30 km of a coal power plant, the
millions of excess deaths per year from fossil fuel burning, or even the
effects of lead and cadmium waste from solar panel and battery
production and disposal.