Since the start of HBO’s mini-series about the 1986 nuclear disaster, “Chernobyl,” journalists have praised the series for getting the facts of the event right, even if its creators took some creative liberties.
“The first thing to understand about the HBO mini-series “Chernobyl,”wrote a reporter for The New York Times, “is that a lot of it is made up. But here’s the second, and more important, thing: It doesn’t really matter.”
The reporter notes a similar inaccuracy I wrote about last month: “radiation victims are often covered in blood for some reason.”
But HBO “gets a basic truth right,” he writes, which is that Chernobyl was “more about lies, deceit and a rotting political system than… whether nuclear power is inherently good or bad.”
This is a point that the creator of “Chernobyl,” Craig Mazin, has stressed. “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous,” he tweeted. “The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous.”
Representatives of the nuclear industry agree. “Viewers might see the Hollywood treatment and wonder what the relevance is outside the USSR,” writes the Nuclear Energy Institute. “The short answer is: not much.”
Personally, I’m not so sure. Having now watched all five episodes of “Chernobyl,” and seen the public’s reaction to it, I think it’s obvious that the mini-series terrified millions of people about the technology.
“Two weeks after I finished the series, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” wrote a Vanity Fair reporter. “What stayed with me most were the bodies of the radiation-poisoned first responders, so ravaged by their exposure that they are putrefying slowly, horribly, while clinging to life.”
“I watched the screeners with my husband, and for days afterward we were googling the disaster, sending morbid facts to each other,” writes the Vanity Fair reporter, while my father… has researched all the active nuclear power plants in the United States.”
“I watched the first episode of Chernobyl,” tweeted Sarah Todd, a sports writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Then I spent a couple of hours reading about nuclear power. Now I’m in a full blown panic and I need someone to explain to me how it is at all okay to live on the east coast when this is the situation.”
Many thought the mini-series was, indeed, about nuclear power.
“But nuclear energy itself is perhaps the show’s most developed character,” writes a reviewer for The New Republic.”It is constantly talked about, its nature endlessly debated and described… It becomes a demon.”
This reaction wasn’t just from journalists. “After finishing Chernobyl I immediately googled to find the nearest power plants,” tweeted one viewer. “Scary.” Said another, “I have watched a lot of gore and horror, but this takes it over the top. Why? Because it could happen again one day.”
“[P]ay attention on what is going on in Belarus,” an artist tweeted to me. “We fear our new nuclear plant because it’s constructed by Russians.
“They dropped 1st reactor from 4m height,” she said. “The 2nd’s shell was damaged during transportation. They installed it anyway. So watching HBO’s Chernobyl, please, consider that it could happen again pretty soon.”
What “Chernobyl” Gets Wrong
In interviews around the release of HBO’s “Chernobyl,” screenwriter and show creator Mazin insisted that his mini-series would stick to the facts. “I defer to the less dramatic version of things,” Mazin said, adding, “you don’t want to cross a line into the sensational.”
In truth, “Chernobyl” runs across the line into sensational in the first episode and never looks back.
In one episode, three characters dramatically volunteer to sacrifice their lives to drain radioactive water, but no such event occurred.
“The three men were members of the plant staff with responsibility for that part of the power station and on shift at the time the operation began,” notes Adam Higginbotham, author of, Midnight in Chernobyl, a well-researched new history. “They simply received orders by telephone from the reactor shop manager to open the valves.”
Nor did radiation from the melted reactor crash a helicopter that flew too close, as depicted in “Chernobyl.” There was a helicopter crash but it took place six months later and had nothing to do with radiation. One of the helicopter’s blades hit a chain dangling from a construction crane.
The most egregious of “Chernobyl” sensationalism is the depiction of radiation as contagious, like a virus. The scientist-hero played by Emily Watson physically drags away the pregnant wife of a Chernobyl firefighter dying from Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS).
“Get out! Get out of here!” Watson screams, as though every second the woman is with her husband she is poisoning her baby.
But radiation is not contagious. Once someone has removed their clothes and been washed, as the firefighters were in real life, and in “Chernobyl,” the radioactivity is internalized and not contagious.
Why, then, do hospitals isolate radiation victims behind plastic screens? Because their immune systems have been weakened and they are at risk of being exposed to something they can’t handle. In other words, the contamination threat is the opposite of that depicted in “Chernobyl.”
The baby dies. Watson says, “The radiation would have killed the mother, but the baby absorbed it instead.” Mazin and HBO apparently believe such an event actually occurred.
HBO tries to clean-up some of the sensationalism with captions at the very end of the series. None note that claiming a baby died by “absorbing” radiation from its father is total and utter pseudoscience.
There is no good evidence that Chernobyl radiation killed a baby nor that it caused any increase in birth defects.
“We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” reported UCLA physician Robert Gale in 1987, and “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”
Indeed, the only public health impact beyond the deaths of the first responders was 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident.
The United Nations in 2017 concluded that only 25%, 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A-C). In earlier studies, the UN estimated there could be up to 16,000 cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation.
Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of just one percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be 50 to 160 over an 80-year lifespan.
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.
“Chernobyl” ominously depicts people gathered on a bridge watching the Chernobyl fire. At the end of the series, HBO claims, “it has been reported that none survived. It is now known as the “Bridge of Death.”
But the “Bridge of Death” is a sensational urban legend and there is no good evidence to support it.
“Chernobyl” is as misleading for what it leaves out. It gives the impression that all Chernobyl first responders who suffered Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) died. In reality, 80 percent of those with ARS survived.
It’s clear that even highly educated and informed viewers, including journalists, mistook much of “Chernobyl” fiction for fact.
The New Yorker repeated the claim that a woman’s baby “absorbed radiation” and died. The New Republic described radiation as “supernaturally persistent” and contagious (a “zombie logic, by which anyone who is poisoned becomes poisonous themselves”). The Economist, People, and others repeated the “bridge of death” urban legend.
There is a human cost to these misrepresentations. The notion that people exposed to radiation are contagious was used to terrify, stigmatize, and isolate people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, Chernobyl, and again in Fukushima.
Women in the areas that received low levels of radiation from Chernobyl terminated 100,000 to 200,000 pregnancies in a panic, and those who were exposed to Chernobyl radiation were four times more likely to report anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Why “Chernobyl” Got It Wrong
“Chernobyl” is supposedly about the lies, arrogance, and suppression of criticism under Communism, but the mini-series portrays life in the Soviet Union in the 1980s as inaccurately, and melodramatically, as it portrays the effects of radiation.
“There are a lot of people throughout the series who appear to act out of fear of being shot,” notes a writer for The New Yorker. “This is inaccurate: summary executions, or even delayed executions on orders of a single apparatchik, were not a feature of Soviet life after the nineteen-thirties.”
The central tension of the mini-series is the effort by the heroic scientists to discover what caused the Chernobyl reactor to fail but Soviet scientists “were well aware of the faults of the RBMK reactor years before the accident,” notes author Higgenbotham, and “reactor specialists came down from Moscow within 36 hours of the explosion and quickly pinpointed its probable cause.”
But the need for dramatic tension alone can’t explain why “Chernobyl” got nuclear wrong.
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.
If there is a silver lining to “Chernobyl” and pseudoscientific dreck like MIT professor Kate Brown’s book, Manual for Survival, it’s come in the form of newly outspoken radiation scientists and honest journalists like Higgenbotham.
“Nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide and have been statistically safer than every competeing energy industry,” he writes, “including wind turbines.”
As for our exaggerated fears of nuclear weapons, the last 74 years have been the most peaceful of the last 700. As the bomb has spread, deaths from wars and battles have declined by 95%.
Can human consciousness evolve to understand why something so dangerous has made the world so safe?
I’m increasingly hopeful. One of the best books I’ve read lately is an ethnography of nuclear weapons scientists, Nuclear Rites, by an anti-nuclear activist turned anthropologist, Hugh Gusterson.
At the very end, he admits “nuclear deterrence played a key role in averting the genocidal bloodshed of a third world war and if a world full of nuclear weapons is a dangerous place, so in a different way is a world without the terrible discipline enforced by nuclear weapons.”
If Hollywood ever decides to tell the true story of nuclear, and the paradoxical relationship between safety and danger, it won’t need to resort to sensationalism. The truth is sensational enough.
*Michael Shellenberger is president of Environmental Progress, a research and policy organization.