HBO’s Chernobyl: A Fictionalized Representation of the True Horrors of Sidelining Science

, Research Analyst | June 10, 2019, 12:54 pm EDT
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HBO’s new five-episode miniseries “Chernobyl” at the time of this writing is the highest rated TV show on IMDB. I’ll say straight out that the show is a fictionalized account and that I recommend reading Forbes and the New Yorker’s summaries on what the show gets right and wrong. And if you want to know more about the real events of Chernobyl disaster, check out our summary on the topic and our work trying to answer how many cancers resulted from the Chernobyl disaster.

But what got under my skin when I watched the show was how the scientists and politicians interact. Here’s one quote from the show:

“I must tell you– this is why no one likes scientists. When we have a disease to cure, where are they? In a lab. Noses in their books. And so, grandma dies. But when there isn’t a problem? They’re everywhere. Spreading fear.” (episode 2)

And while this scene probably never went down like this in real life (see the New Yorker article), I had to wonder: was there truth ensconced in the fiction? Is it common for scientists to be sidelined by political leaders? While I can’t speak about what exactly happened at Chernobyl, I can certainly speak to the fact that the sidelining of science has occurred for decades in the US, and that it is especially egregious under the current administration.

Why does the TV show feel relevant today?

Incidents like this are not ancient history. Whistleblower protections for scientists are as important today as they were in 1986. And we need to protect our scientists and the science they produce more than ever – science saves lives and political leaders ignore it at their peril. These issues aren’t simply relegated to the Soviet Union, they are happening in the US. Here are some examples of recent attacks on science by the Trump administration, which now number over 100:

  • Ignoring inconvenient scientific truths: The director of US Geological Survey (USGS) ordered scientists to only use climate models that end at 2040, thereby ordering scientists to ignore the worst impacts of climate change.
  • Ignoring scientific evidence of a public health crisis: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has flat-out refused to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a nasty pesticide that decades of science shows can harm the brains of children.
  • Reports buried and ignored by political officials: The White House buried a health study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a chemical class called PFAS (which is super common, it used to be found in Teflon and Scotchgarde) because it was “a potential public relations nightmare.”

While safeguards were put in place at RMBK power plants after the Chernobyl disaster (though it should be noted that wasn’t a perfect solution), the Trump administration has dismantled safeguards put in place at offshore oil rigs after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth”

Again, it should be noted that HBO’s Chernobyl is not a documentary. But the purpose of good fiction is to make you think. And I was definitely thinking.

I was thinking that it angers me that scientists are still being censored today, and that their evidence-based words on issues like asbestos, pesticides, and toxic chemicals are being suppressed and ignored in favor of a more politically-friendly narrative. The science that can save countless lives should never be hushed up simply because it is politically inconvenient.

And so, like the unseen cloud of radiation that erupted from Chernobyl, the current administration’s actions to dismantle science are seeping into our lives and are messing with our health.

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  • TimS

    Much more people have died yearly installing/cleaning up solar panels/wind turbines than in all civilian nuclear industry in sixty years.
    Rooftop solar installations in 2012: 440 deaths;
    Fukushima & Tree Mile Island: zero deaths from radiation exposure;
    Chernobyl: <60 deaths(most not related to radiation);$width_375%2C$height_212/t_crop_auto/q_86%2Cf_auto/c4e6b46cbc28f922ddae85862395c52a489d501a
    Renewables and "The fossil fuel industry in ONE DAY does vastly, vastly more damage to the planet and to human life than the entire civilian nuclear industry has done in sixty years."
    By providing "greenwashing" (decorative facade) for coal/oil/gas in order to displace carbon-free nuclear energy,
    intermittent renewables are as deadly and dirty as fossil fuels.
    death/TWh: coal 161.00, oil 36.00, solar 0.44, wind 0.15, hydro 0.10, nuclear 0.04
    "Even the worst nuclear accidents result in far fewer deaths than the normal operation of fossil fuel power plants."

  • J Kim

    Censorship of science is a serious concern. However, it is deeply ironic that Chernobyl should blatantly misrepresent science in the name of promoting truth and science.

    This is particularly relevant in the debate over climate change, which science is showing will have significant impact. Nuclear power is of vital importance in reducing carbon emissions. By misrepresenting many aspects, the series exaggerates the danger and heroism to make for a heroic narrative – which cannot help but influence people to be more wary of nuclear power.

    I was particularly struck by the narrative of the coal miners. The implication is that they were taken from work that was dirty but ordinary, and placed in extraordinary danger. This reinforces the common belief that coal is dirty but normal, but nuclear is deadly poison. That is effectively an advertisement for the coal industry, which is a horrible message to convey. Coal mining is incredibly unsafe for the miners, and coal power releases thousands of tons of toxins into the air every year. (5000-8000 metric tons of mercury alone.)

    The series uses many fictional devices to play up the deadliness of radiation exposure. The most prominent is how Legasov predicts that from their exposure, he and Shcherbina are doomed to die within 5 years because of their exposure. This is flatly false. Many of the people involved who took even larger doses of radiation have survived to this day. Legasov committed suicide as portrayed, but there is nothing to suggest that he had cancer as was implied. (And he presumably would have mentioned that in his tapes if he did.)

    By inventing incidents and over-dramatization, the Chernobyl series is inevitably reinforcing the common perception that nuclear power is extraordinarily dangerous compared to ordinary fossil fuels. That directly harms the climate change movement.

    • jimhopf

      You’re totally right about coal being vastly more harmful. Just to put some numbers on it….

      Around ~100 deaths can clearly be attributed to Chernobyl. Significant increases in diseases (cancer, etc..) have not been clearly observed, and any excess cancers will be hard to sort out (from the “noise”). Upper-bound theoretical estimates, based on public exposures and the conservative (pessimistic) Linear-No-Threshold (LNT) model for radiation effects, are between 4000 and 9000 total eventual deaths. No deaths can be clearly attributed to the Fukushima release, and no measurable public health impacts will occur. Conservative (high) theoretical estimates based on the LNT model top out at ~100 total eventual deaths.

      For (stark) comparison, worldwide fossil power generation (esp. coal) causes several hundred thousand deaths, *annually*. That’s on the order of ~1000 deaths every single day, and on the order of 10 million deaths over the ~50 years nuclear power has been around. That’s in addition to global warming impacts from fossil generation. (Nuclear has negligible climate impact.)

      In summary, fossil power generation causes more deaths *every day* than non-Soviet nuclear power has over its entire 50+ year history. If you include Chernobyl (which is totally non-applicable to the merits of nuclear power, as practiced anywhere else), then it takes fossil power generation a week or two to cause as many deaths as nuclear power has over its entire history. Again, before even considering global warming.

    • So this comment falls out of the scope of the blog post – the post was about how scientists should not be sidelined in any decade, whether that be 1986 or 2019. I also cannot comment on the choice that a screenwriter makes when creating a fictionalized TV show.

      Therefore, the best I can do is point you to helpful resources. Here is UCS’ full backgrounder on nuclear power and global warming, which addresses most of your concerns raised in the post. Here is more information on cancer rates post-Chernobyl. And here is more information on coal and air pollution.