Jun 07 2019

Chernobyl Miniseries – The Good and Bad

If you haven’t watched the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” I recommend it. It is fantastic storytelling, and manages to grip your attention even though you know what happened and the story is extremely grim.

But there are also some major problems with the story. Unfortunately, one of its flaws undercuts its primary strength. This is historical drama, and as everyone should know by now “Hollywoodized” versions of history are never accurate. Braveheart, for example, is famously good storytelling, but horrible history. It gets pretty much everything wrong, but has had a massive influence on the public’s understanding of the historical events it mangles.

I know – fiction is fiction. But historical fiction does often pretend to be at least minimally accurate. It is perhaps more insidious in that it mixes truth and fiction in a way deliberately crafted to be compelling. It is a powerful method of misinformation.

So how does Chernobyl do? What I liked about the series is that the main villain is the lies and deception inherent in the Soviet system. A quote from the final episode states this well:

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes. Lies.”

Truth and facts were anathema to the power structure, because that structure held power partly by controlling truth and facts. They had to have a monopoly on information, and everyone in the system had to play their role. This is how events take on a life of their own, and everyone, even those in power, are powerless to avert disaster. Lies made the Chernobyl disaster inevitable.

This is a powerful narrative, and is the core of the miniseries. But storytelling mechanisms in the series unfortunately undercut this core narrative. Masha Gessen, writing in The New Yorker, reviews this well. For example, the scientists that were depicted has way too much moxie. They spoke truth to power in a way that was unrealistic for the system, but did create compelling drama.

Further the series focuses too much on individuals, good and bad, when the system should have remained the main character. In the end the explosion at Chernobyl was not the fault of individual people, but of a flawed system. Sure, there were individual failures, but they cannot be understood except in the context of the power hierarchy and culture of the time, and they probably would not have been avoided by others trapped in the same system.

This complaint, however, is relatively minor compared to my primary problem with the series. I expect, for example, that the actions of many people will be condensed into a single dramatic persona. Work involving hundreds of people over years are often credited to a single hero over weeks or months. This is how we tell stories. It is unfortunate that this creates a distorted view of history and reality, but it’s hard to be “disappointed” at every example, when this practice is almost ubiquitous.

What was disappointing, however, was how nuclear power was depicted in the series. I guess I should have expected this too – this is a story about a nuclear accident, and so of course one way to maximize the drama is to maximize the threat. The real threat, however, is dramatic enough without getting demonstrable facts wrong.

Let me start with the reality, for context. Nuclear power, if you consider the lives lost compared to power generated, is actually the safest form of energy that we have. By orders of magnitude, nuclear is safer than fossil fuel. It is even safer than wind and solar. Nuclear power has, in fact, saved millions of lives from reduced air pollution alone.

Further, Chernobyl is, ironically, an example of how safe nuclear power is. Chernobyl represents the worst nuclear accident in history. It resulted from a complete failure of safety precautions. The plant itself was poorly designed, and lacks many of the safety features of modern plants. Yet despite this, the death toll from Chernobyl was modest. This is a major fact that the miniseries gets wrong.

The immediate deaths caused were 2 workers killed in the explosion, and 28 first responders died within three months. However, most survived their acute radiation sickness. To be clear, this is not to minimize these deaths, but to correct their exaggeration.

Long term deaths have also been modest. The only documented increase in cancer, for example, was from thyroid cancer. The UN estimates there were an additional 5,000 cases as a result of Chernobyl, leading to at most 160 additional deaths. There was otherwise no increase in background cancer rates. There was also no increase in miscarriages or birth defects. All these deaths are tragic, and should have been avoided, but they must be put into perspective.

Thyroid cancers increase, by the way, because of the absorption of radioactive iodine. This can be avoided, however, by taking regular iodine in a large dose. This essentially fills the thyroid and prevents the absorption of further iodine for a while, blocking out the radioactive iodine. So those excess cancers and deaths could have been minimized with proper preventive treatment.

The amount of environmental radiation was also minimize. After a brief spike, it decreased to barely above background radiation levels – at a level that has no apparent health risk.

The miniseries also pretends that radioactivity is contagious – that a person with radiation sickness is radioactive. This is not true. Ionizing radiation passes through you, killing cells along the way. But no radioactivity is left behind. Radioactive elements can contaminate the clothes and skin of those exposed, but once you get rid of the cloths and wash the skin, they are no longer radioactive. They are not a danger to others.

The unfortunate thing is that I think most viewers will come away from the miniseries with the impression that nuclear power is inherently dangerous, when the opposite is true. It is the safest way to produce electricity on a large scale. It has the further bonus of not producing CO2.

The writer of Chernobyl, Craig Mazin, says the story is not about nuclear power. It’s about lies, and the effects of a system that survives on lies and misinformation. To the extent this is the case, I think the series is great (although could have been even more powerful) and is an important message for our time, and any time.

But the story was also about nuclear power, even if Mazin did not intend this. He ends up telling a very misleading story about nuclear power, and this is precisely, in my opinion, the wrong message for our time. Many scientists believe that nuclear power is necessary if we are going to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming. It is the great irony of the environmentalist movement, I would argue, that for decades they opposed nuclear power. Environmentalists contributed to the greatest threat to our environment by unfairly demonizing the safest and perhaps greenest form of energy. (A close second, by the way, is their opposition to GM crops.)

Chernobyl perpetuates that unfortunate narrative, at perhaps the worse possible time.


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