We’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

Michael Shellenberger explains (in Forbeswhat HBO’s Chernobyl got 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 is suggested 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.


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.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    There is still the problem of the spent fuel rods, all of which remain in cooling ponds next to just about every reactor, all 100 plus of them. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository has been blocked for years by Nevada’s congressmen and environmentalists, although there is a move afoot to activate it. Something has to be done soon, because all those spent fuel rods would make nice dirty bombs.

    The Democrat Party is now a full-blown socialist party with a dominant communist wing, and they have bought into every environmentalist wet-dream there is. They also have the support of a majority of Americans. Someday, perhaps 2020, they will get control of the Presidency and both Houses of Congress. Then, nuclear power, as well as coal and natural gas, will cease to be sources of electricity. Welcome to all of human history before the industrial revolution.

  2. Ezra says:

    “We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” . . . “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”

    Animal life in the forbidden zone seems to be thriving almost in an incredible manner. Small mammals that reproduce quickly and abundantly being studied for some time now and no remarkable problems if indeed any problems found.

  3. Graham says:

    “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.”

    Just think. Those organs, and many like them, and their target audiences, are the people forever lecturing us about their strict adherence to evidence-based answers, reason, logic, Science!, materialism, whenever anyone transgresses any of their preferred pseudoscience or spiritual bugaboos. I’ll bet even People, from whom no comments should be expected at all, has managed to do so at least once.

    Physicians, heal thyselves.

    Of course, there is a fair amount of crossover between anti-nuclear and anti-vaxx, so it’s not like there’s no cutting across ideological lines.

  4. Graham says:

    Come to think, Anti-vaxx is mostly the People crowd mixed with the New Yorker crowd, anyway. Probably not the Economist crowd, at least.

    At any rate, it is surprisingly difficult to get entertainment media to present radiation as a physical attack rather than a chem or bio agent. There is something about contamination/contagion that cries out for those kinds of stories and visual metaphors we associate with disease, or chemical spills at best. I’m not sure how they could deal with it more accurately and tell their dramatic stories, I mean these kinds of exposures would still be horrifying. Somehow, it never gets presented properly.

  5. Kirk says:

    Think about the kids you knew in high school that went on to become “journalists”. How many of them did well in anything except English, and even that challenged them?

    One of the bigger problems we have is that the “nervous system” of the nation is filled with morons who no more understand what they’re writing about than a trained monkey. They’re not “deep thinkers”, they’re mostly pretty people with egos the size of a warehouse, and nothing at all in between their ears.

    If you look at the twaddle put out by the media, and which is never questioned, it’s no damn wonder we keep making bad decisions. How many times has the story changed on things like diet, and whether or not coffee is bad for you? And, every single time the “conventional wisdom” shifts, there’s the news media, pious and straight-faced, reporting the exact opposite of last week’s wisdom, all the while ignoring the fact that it’s in diametric opposition.

    The real idiots aren’t in the media, though–It’s us. How many of us really pay attention, and bother to remember what was said by the same jackasses a few years ago?

    If you put any belief in anything these people tell you, in whatever medium they fill with BS, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. You’re too stupid and forgetful to see that they’re unreliable liars.

    I would love to have kept a list of all the things that “changed” in the media, down the years I’ve been paying attention. I used to spend my lunch hours in the school libraries reading the newspapers and news magazines, seeking to understand the world around me. I used to take all that crap at face value, but then I started to notice all the inconsistencies and “shifts”. Pay attention to the way they say one thing, now, and then when the enemy of the moment changes what they’re doing, all of a sudden that’s the bad thing. Trump is a wonderful illustration of all that, and you can see the mind-bending hypocrisy oozing out, practically in real time. If Trump tweeted tomorrow that kids ought to be eating their vegetables, then the day after, that’d be a sign he was in bed with “Big Vegetable”, and that he was seeking to cause cancer in schoolchildren by exposing them to carcinogens in the food chain…

    Only news here? Someone’s noticing it all, and highlighting it.

  6. CVLR says:

    If you’re a utilitarian, you’ll notice that there are three known possible practical sources of energy: oil/coal, solar, and nuclear. Of these, only solar is capable of producing electricity “off grid”, and only nuclear is capable of producing orders of magnitude more energy than presently. GDP is essentially a measurement of energy used to effect work, and to increase economic output by a factor of ten through innovation in efficiency would result in impossible demands such as to use 10% of the energy to perform processes which may already only have absolute slack in the single or very low double-digits range.

    Line-level people are morons, but that doesn’t discount the existence of underlying interests in the establishment of supra”national” taxes, which are the founding and existential purpose of all government. Nuclear power in particular was shanked by the will of an interesting group.

  7. Graham says:


    Good lord. Are you suggesting graduation from Columbia J School is not the equivalent of a master’s in Engineering from MIT?

  8. Kirk says:

    I’m not suggesting anything. I’m saying it–Journalists are the dregs of the educational system, and the fact that everyone is listening to the kids that couldn’t hack other, more challenging majors…?

    Doesn’t speak to the wit and wisdom of the average person. Not at all. Got into an argument with one of the mal-educated elite, the other day, and shut him right the hell up when he tried telling me, in essence, that if it were printed or broadcast in the news, it had to be true, true, true.

    My question? “Hmmm. So… In your personal experience, who was it that went for their degrees in journalism, and communication… All that crap: Were they the best and brightest? The smartest kids in the room? Or, were they people who fell into those majors because they couldn’t hack anything more difficult? What requirements are there for journalism? Do they have to do, y’know… Math? Statistics? Logic? Any of that stuff…?”.

    End of the conversation, he pretty much shut up. His first wife was a “journalist”, and she damn near ruined his life.

  9. Bert says:


    How about a magazine where every writer must pass an IQ test?

  10. Kirk says:

    Bert, I don’t think you’ve read my opinions on the IQ testing regime, to suggest such a thing…

    The root of the issue with the media is that we’ve given it way too much power in our society, and because of that, it’s attracted entirely the wrong sort of people. We’re in that shadow zone, right now, in between where those people still have some of their unearned credibility, and the next era when they have none.

    It’s not healthy, at all, on a social scale.

  11. Phil B says:

    (H)ighly educated and informed viewers, including journalists

    Journalists are highly educated? Well, well. You learn something new every day, eh? >};o)

  12. Kirk says:

    I think we need to use another word besides “educated”. “Credentialed” springs to mind…

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