HBO’s Chernobyl: Impacts on Climate Efforts and Public Health

The HBO series about the Chernobyl nuclear accident has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, managing to achieve the highest ever IMDb

Written by

Jim Hopf

July 5, 2019

Questions About the Series’ Accuracy

Many articles have been written about how close to the truth — or otherwise — the series was in its depiction of the nuclear accident and its impacts. Some articles have raved about the series’ accuracy and attention to detail. Some have pointed out various inaccuracies or examples of creative license. Others maintain that there was a significant amount of sensationalism and that it greatly exaggerated the effects of radiation and environmental impacts of the accident.

Many people have expressed concern about the show’s impacts on public support for nuclear power, while the series creator, Craig Mazin, says that he’s pro-nuclear and insists that the show is not anti-nuclear, but is instead an indictment of the Soviet system.

I’m inclined to agree that the show contained important inaccuracies and exaggerations. When confronted with this, many people respond by retreating to the position that this is, after all, just a TV show, i.e., a work of fiction. The problem with this is that the public forms many of its views based on “works of fiction” that they’ve seen or read. It’s also somewhat disingenuous after the show’s creator and many articles went on about how accurate the series is. This is all important because inaccurate public impressions about the effects of radiation and the consequences of nuclear accidents may have significant impacts on our efforts to reduce fossil fuel use and address global warming.

Exaggerated or outright false characterizations such as radiation being contagious, people bleeding profusely from radiation exposure, a baby dying by absorbing radiation from its father, or that all of the residents who watched the accident from an offsite bridge later died, have a powerful emotional impact on viewers, which leads to significant, undue fears of radiation and nuclear accidents. On the more intellectual (vs. emotional) level, false or exaggerated claims of significant increases in local birth defects and cancer rates, along with suggestions that radiation levels will remain high for 50,000 years and that Chernobyl could “kill the continent”, lead to grossly inaccurate public impressions of nuclear accident consequences.

The Facts Concerning Chernobyl

Thousands of scientists from multiple United Nations bodies have thoroughly studied the impacts from Chernobyl, over decades. The consensus from these formal scientific bodies is as follows:

Chernobyl’s Impacts Put In Perspective

While unfortunate, the deaths from Chernobyl must be put in proper perspective.

First of all, Chernobyl is not the world’s worst industrial or energy related accident. Not by a long shot. The Banqiao Dam failure in China caused ~170,000 deaths, while the Bhopal disaster in India caused ~4000 immediate deaths, another ~11,000 subsequent deaths, ~4,000 severe, permanent injuries, and significant increases in various diseases among a local population on the order of 100,000 people.

Secondly, all reactors in use today outside the old Soviet Union are fundamentally different from the Chernobyl reactor, and are therefore not capable of such an accident or release. They are not capable of a runaway nuclear reaction, they do not have flammable materials (such as graphite) in the core, and they have robust containment domes which will greatly reduce any releases. This is evidenced by the fact that the Fukushima event (i.e., a worst-case meltdown event for three large reactors) caused no deaths from radiation and no measurable public health impacts in the future are predicted.

Even more important is the comparison of the impacts of nuclear accidents to the impacts of fossil power generation (currently the primary alternative to nuclear). Fossil fuel use (in general) causes almost four million annual deaths, with pollution from fossil fuel electricity-generating plants estimated to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths annually. That’s about 1000 deaths every single day, and ~10 million deaths over the 50+ year period that nuclear power has been around. All that, compared to at most ~4000 deaths from Chernobyl at some point in the future and few if any deaths from Fukushima (i.e., from all nuclear power outside the old Soviet Union, over its entire history). And those are just the deaths from air pollution. It doesn’t even consider global warming, which is perhaps the greatest environmental problem we’ve ever faced.

Potential Negative Environmental Impacts from the Series

Nuclear, which does not emit CO2 and has negligible global warming impact, plays an enormous role in limiting climate change. Nuclear has also saved almost 2 million lives (by replacing polluting fossil generation). How many millions more lives it will save in the future will be significantly affected by public attitudes and fears.

The show’s creator (Mazin) claims that it is not anti-nuclear and that viewers should not take away that message. But for those of us who are veterans of the nuclear power debate, the resulting viewer reactions were obvious and expected. This article gives several examples of people, including educated ones, reacting with greatly heightened fears of radiation, nuclear accidents, and nuclear power in general. Hard core anti-nuclear organizations have reacted to the show’s release with glee. Mazin thinks (hopes?) that viewers will understand that the situation at Chernobyl is completely different and not applicable to Western nuclear power. But despite the fact that an event anything like Chernobyl is impossible with Western reactors, the distinction was (predictably) completely lost on most viewers. The totally different reactor designs, government institutions, and measures in place all meant nothing. Most people aren’t engineers….

One would think that professional communicators like Mazin would know what the public reaction to his series would be. In fact, it strains credibility to believe that he is genuinely pro-nuclear and didn’t anticipate this response or effect. It makes one wonder if he’s actually a nuclear opponent and is just claiming to be pro-nuclear to increase the show’s credibility (and thus, negative impact). Why else would one make such a show, and air such provocative mischaracterizations? This movie will have a significant negative impact on public attitudes on nuclear, which in turn may result in less nuclear use and more fossil fuel use. And that will be a genuine environmental disaster.

Skewed Public Risk Perceptions Due to Skewed Media Attention

To a large degree, our perceptions of relative risks (and how “serious” various issues are) are more a function of how much we talk about a given issue than the accuracy of what is actually said. Even if the presentations and discussions (such as TV shows and news articles) were accurate, if we dwell relentlessly on negative aspects of nuclear, while not discussing the negative aspects of other energy sources nearly as much, the public will come to view nuclear as a relatively dangerous and problematic energy source, regardless of the actual facts. There is clear proof of this. Polls show that the public views nuclear as the most dangerous energy source, whereas the statistics show the exact opposite, i.e., that it’s the safest of all.

How could that be? It all comes down to human nature. We usually don’t base our risk perceptions on objective statistics and data. Most of us don’t read scientific reports. Who has the time to do that? Instead, we get our views and opinions from what we see, hear and read in the media, including how often something is discussed, and how it’s characterized (where words and adjectives matter far more than numbers). If we hear a lot about something, and it is characterized in a scary fashion, we generally assume that it’s a significant problem. If we don’t hear about something, we assume that it is not. For instance, your chance of being killed by a mass shooter is actually quite small, yet many consider it to be a very serious issue, and we train our kids for “active shooter” scenarios. Nuclear accidents get enormous attention despite their lack of significant loss of life, whereas the millions of annual deaths from fossil fuels are buried in dry, dusty government reports. It’s rarely discussed in the media.

I recently participated in a presentation about nuclear that was given to students at an elite high school. We asked how many of them had heard of Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, Bhopal and the Banqiao dam disaster. Virtually all of them had heard of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and many had heard of Three Mile Island. Only a couple had heard of Bhopal and none had heard of the Banqiao dam. This, despite the fact that Bhopal and Banqiao were far greater disasters. Even most of the students of Indian descent had not heard of Bhopal. Also, few were aware of the scale of the harm caused by fossil power generation.

The results of our poll were telling and troubling. And it begs the question as to why nuclear is singled out as a “topic of interest.” It is clearly having an impact on people’s perception of relative risks. Why aren’t equal or greater hazards associated with other industries given more attention? There have been no international, high-profile movies or shows about the Banqiao and Bhopal disasters. It’s probably a vicious cycle where they know nuclear-themed movies or shows will do well due to already-existing undue fears of everything nuclear, and said shows act to continually increase that fear.

I’m not sure what the answer is to this problem, but the consequences of undue nuclear fears have been, and will be, high: millions of deaths from fossil fuel pollution and an unstable planetary climate.


Jim Hopf

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