What HBO’s Chernobyl Can Teach Us.

Uncovering the social problems in nuclear advocacy.

Written by

Daniel Chen

June 29, 2019

(credit: essential.beatfinger CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Disclaimer: I have not seen the series, but through internet osmosis (and tvtropes), I roughly know the background, plot and reactions surrounding the show.

Recently, my Facebook feed has been exploding with arguments over the HBO Chernobyl series, specifically its effects on public perception of nuclear energy, and I wanted to give my own two NTDs on it.

I was born and raised in Yilan county, Taiwan. My upbringing in a Christian family, as well as the natural beauty of my hometown instilled upon me a sense of moral duty to be a good steward to God’s green Earth. At the same time, I have always been interested in science and technology, accentuated by the three childhood years I spent in England, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, where my father pursued his medical studies.

Natural beauty of rural Taiwan (Photo by me)

Thus, from a young age, I was acutely aware of the dilemma between choosing industrial development and human prosperity on the one hand, and environmental protection and ecological preservation on the other. Early in college, I became aware of the role of nuclear energy could play resolving both sides of the conflict, and have been fascinated by nuclear technology ever since.

Chernobyl has played a crucial in modern Taiwanese politics. For a long time, Taiwan was ruled by the Koumintang (KMT) under a one party dictatorship. After Chernobyl, political activist Lin Yi-Hsung published a book titled “Opposing Nuclear to Oppose Tyranny”, claiming the accident demonstrated the kind of destruction that can be brought about by authoritarian regimes. Five months later, in September 1986, the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) was founded to oppose the authoritarianism of the KMT. Today, as the party currently in power, the DPP’s anti-nuclear policies have had unquestionably negative effects on Taiwan’s economy, environment, and even national security.

Lin (center) protesting for voting rights in 1992. Presidential elections did not take place in Taiwan until 1996. (Photo from Wikipedia)

So on the one hand, I understand the position some have that it doesn’t matter the HBO show wasn’t intended to portray the dangers of nuclear. The fact that it does portray nuclear negatively will scare a good portion of viewers into being against nuclear. Indeed, the scary portrayal of nuclear could be (accidentally or on purpose) blended with the intended message about government corruption, to entice people to oppose nuclear in order to oppose tyranny.

Current president Tsai (left) at her inauguration in 2016. Policies include making Taiwan nuclear-free by 2025. (Photo from Presidential Office Website: https://media.president.gov.tw/TW/Media)

On the other hand, I seriously question that the correct strategy is to tirelessly harp on about the technical inaccuracies in the show. Like it or not, bad things surrounding nuclear technology have happened. The technology was initially used to produce horrific weapons. People were oppressed and injured and killed in its development. These issues need to be discussed, rather than dismissed because the show was somewhat loose with the technical details.

Taiwan is no stranger to the less savory aspects of nuclear power. We have a nuclear plant built on a nature preserve, a nuclear waste storage site on the land of disgruntled indigenous peoples, and a (now canceled) nuclear weapons program that went on for 20 years without the knowledge or consent of the public. The family of Lin Yi-Hsung (“Opposing Nuclear” author and DPP founder) was murdered, allegedly, by the same regime that built our nuclear plants.

President Tsai discussing (amongst other things) nuclear waste storage with Tao elders on Orchid Island. (Photo from Presidential Office Website: https://media.president.gov.tw/TW/Media)

Nuclear advocates often claim such issues are “social and political” rather than technical. This is certainly true, yet it is remarkable that the response (including my own approach in the past, I admit) to these supposedly “social and political” issues are typically technical, often involving statistics that show the plant’s impact on the surrounding ecology being minimal, cancer rates around waste storage sites being lower than the national average, materials used in the weapons program being safely contained, and arguing that murdered family members are no excuse to go on a anti-nuclear rampage (and in any case, is there “proof” that the KMT is behind it, hmm?). The same people then bemoan the angry masses for getting emotional when presented with objective SCIENCE!

Nuclear Plant 3, sore (albeit environmentally benign) concrete thumbs midst the lush green of Kenting National Park. (Photo by me)

This appears to demonstrate a common misunderstanding among nuclear advocates (including myself, three years ago): “social and political” problems are not non-issues that can be ignored, nor can they be solved by spewing SCIENCE at the masses until the masses get it right. It means that they need to be solved with social and political solutions.

An English teacher (left), and some sucker in uniform. (Photo by Maggie Lee)

Since August 2018, I have been completing my conscription as a substitute service member at an elementary school 5 miles away from Nuclear Plant 3 in southern Taiwan. One time, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) gave a presentation to the school, reminding everyone that the plant is very safe and therefore not at risk of serious accidents, and also that everyone should be prepared for evacuation should an such an accident occur. During lunch, the English teacher told me that she felt the AEC presentation was a load of bull, and that she had feared for the health and safety of her husband, a firefighter at Nuclear Plant 3, after her father (also a plant employee) died of cancer a few years before.

I remarked that the AEC presentation does indeed appear very inconsistent (if the plant is indeed as safe as they claimed, why is there an evacuation plan at all?) and asked if she felt that was the point of concern. She replied yes, so I told her about the history of the AEC and their complicated role as both promoter and regulator of nuclear technology, compromising their independence and impartiality and leading to their being used as a political pawn by both pro- and anti- nuclear forces. She was fascinated and wanted to know more.

“But don’t worry, the plant is totally safe! 👌” (Photo by me)

The chat went on to cover nuclear safety, the Taiwanese weapons program, nuclear waste storage on Orchid island, then to nuclear advocacy in Taiwan (and my myriad complaints about that)…

Over lunch breaks during the next couple of weeks, her attitude towards nuclear energy (and Plant 3) changed. She came to embrace nuclear power, became more positive about the roles it can play for the future of Taiwan and felt proud of her family members’ work in maintaining it. Recently we even organized a classroom presentation for her students on the subject.

Explaining the wonders of nuclear to schoolkids. (Photo by Maggie Lee)

None of this would have happened if I did what I would have done three years ago, which was spout radiation and cancer statistics while proclaiming undying support for nuclear when she voiced concerns over her husband’s safety and grief at the death of her father.

It was a social problem, solved with social solutions.

Nuclear supporters tend to be very sensitive to negative portrayals of nuclear energy in entertainment, so much so that positive portrayals tend to be overlooked. Blog posts, news editorials, even academic papers have been published on how movies and TV shows like Godzilla or The Simpsons have negatively affected public perception of nuclear power. And yet, when a movie literally about punching pollution monsters in the face with giant nuclear powered robots came out, I see no rush by nuclear advocates to get friends, family and fellow advocates to watch Pacific Rim in theaters, or to gush about nuclear technology’s role in the salvation of mankind in online reviews.

In the run up to the release of HBO’s Chernobyl, the series’ writer Craig Mazin emerged as a supporter for nuclear power. Mazin claims that the show was not meant to demonstrate the dangers of nuclear, but instead to highlight the role of Soviet politics in the accident, something which most appear to agree the show did well. Whining about technical inaccuracies and Hollywood’s lust for sensationalism seems to be missing the point. It’ll be like saying Apollo 13 is clearly anti-space propaganda because the freezing astronauts on an exploding spacecraft weren’t that temperamental in real life, and it didn’t actually take a whole team of engineers working overnight just to fix the CO2 filter…

There is a post on General Atomic’s facebook page to the effect of: “Where is my HBO series on the Banqiao Dam collapse / San Juanico explosion / Great London Smog?” Instead of asking questions like that, perhaps we should try giving answers: there isn’t a TV series on these things because dam bursts, gas explosions and coal smog happen so often and even ones that kill thousands of people aren’t particularly interesting. Conversely, Chernobyl gets a TV series precisely because nuclear is so safe that getting it to hurt anyone takes a full ensemble of incompetent bureaucrats displaying stubbornness and ignorance worthy of an HBO series.

The series addresses political problems. Maybe we should try seeing it as a political solution, rather than complain about its inadequacies as a technical one. Like it or not, HBO’s Chernobyl exists, and the anti-nuclear lobby will use it how they like. Just complaining about the series does no good and risks alienating potential allies. Instead, supporters of nuclear should use the show as the creators intended: to have those difficult discussions about the politics surrounding nuclear power, about the lessons learned, and the things left to improve.


Daniel Chen

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