The number of victims in nuclear disasters like Chernobyl is greatly exaggerated for drama

Original author: Michael Shellenberger
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An article by Michael Schellenberger, a well-known author and columnist writing about energy and the environment. Written after watching the first episode of the series.

Judging by the HBO Chernobyl show, it’s very difficult to make an interesting movie about a nuclear catastrophe without making viewers believe in exaggerated consequences

Over the past ten years, more and more celebrities, including Sting and Robert Downey Jr. , publicly announced support for nuclear energy. Then last May, CBS released an episode of Madame Secretary. In it, the oil tycoon tried to prevent the advancement of nuclear energy, and two characters complained about the widespread misinformation about the relative safety of this technology.

As a result, I began to believe that Hollywood’s hostility to nuclear energy was on the decline - so my breath caught in my throat when I found out that HBO was releasing a big-budget television movie dedicated to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

In the course of my research, I was faced with the fact that the entertainment industry is the main reason for the spread of popular fears of nuclear energy. Films such as Chinese Syndrome (1979), Cloud (2006), and Pandora (2016) are about stopping the construction of nuclear power plants and are calling for burning fossil fuels instead.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by the tweet of the director and author of the Chernobyl script Craig Mazin on April 8: “The lesson of Chernobyl is not that modern nuclear energy is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppressing criticism are dangerous. ”

Mazin later told the reporter: “I am for nuclear energy, I think nuclear energy is a necessary element in the fight against global warming.” Then he agreed with a tweet that Chernobyl could not happen in the United States.

Mazin insisted that his television movie would stick to the facts. “I am inclined towards a less dramatic version of events, ” Mazin said, adding : “do not slip into sensationalism.”

Therefore, when I sat down to watch Chernobyl, my fear gave way to hope. Could it happen that Hollywood finally presents the worst nuclear disaster honestly and accurately?

Chernobyl and Chernobyl

In the first episode of Chernobyl, a nuclear reactor explodes, tears off the roof of a building and lights up. Station workers vomit, their faces turn red, some, apparently, die.

We see how an employee of the station, at the age of twenty-something, holds the door to the reactor hall open and blood begins to flow from different parts of his body. He rescues his comrade with a red face covered in blood and blisters, and seems to leave him to die in the hallway. Later we see this man fall and smoke, apparently, his last cigarette.

Later, the station manager, who denied the severity of the incident, became very ill, learning about the real scale of the tragedy. When he is taken to the hospital, we see a firefighter carrying a body on a stretcher fall and drop him.

It seemed that dozens of employees and firefighters immediately died, but according to the official UN report (p. 66) about the incident, in the first few hours after the explosion, only two workers died - not tens or hundreds. And both of them died not from radiation. One was killed by fragments of an explosion, and the other died from burns (from fire).

Two weeks later, firefighters and people who arrived at the site first began to die. The main cause of death, apparently, was burns. Two-thirds of the dead rescuers, in addition to high levels of radiation, also received serious burns (from fire).

“In five cases, skin damage from fire and radiation was the only cause of death,” the UN report concludes (p. 624). However, “six patients who did not receive critical skin burns survived.”

“Burn victims often die from infections,” Dr. Geraldine Thomas, a professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London and a Chernobyl expert, explained to me. “Skin is our best barrier to deadly germs.” By damaging this barrier, we greatly facilitate the task of getting pathogenic microbes into the body. ”

If the body of the person who opened the door to the reactor room really bleeds, then the blood would come from thermal burns, or because of the high temperature of the door, and not because of radiation. I don’t know if Mazin and HBO wanted to give the impression that all the symptoms shown were due to radiation rather than fire, or that many more workers and firefighters died on the spot than they actually were - but it was this impression that remained with me.

Charges at the wrong address

Whatever their intentions, our tendency to attribute radiation to the harm of Chernobyl, rather than fire, is typical of a general attitude toward nuclear disasters. The total number of Chernobyl victims is relatively small compared to other famous disasters. According to a UN report, 31 deaths are directly related to this incident. Three people died at the scene, and 28 a few weeks later. Since then, another 19 have died for “various reasons,” including tuberculosis, cirrhosis, heart attacks and injuries. The UN concluded that "the involvement of radiation in deaths has become less apparent."

Accidental death is always a tragedy, but it is worth looking at the situation in the future. The worst disaster related to energy was the collapse of Banqiao Damat a hydropower plant in China, which killed between 170,000 and 230,000 people [26,000 were directly drowned, but several hundred thousand / approx. died from starvation and epidemics. transl.]. In the Bhopal disaster in an accident at a chemical plant, 15,000 people died [according to other sources - 18,000, of whom 3,000 on the day of the disaster, and 15,000 subsequently / approx. transl.].

Even other fires are much worse. The fire in the Grenfell Tower building in London in 2017 killed 71 people. During the fire of the twin towers in a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, 343 firefighters were killed.

What about cancer? Among people who were under 18 years old during the disaster, 20,000 cases are documented.thyroid cancer, and a recent UN report of 2017 concludes that only 25% of cases, that is, 5000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A - C in the summary). In earlier work, the UN estimated that 16,000 cases could be attributed to Chernobyl radiation.

Since the mortality rate for thyroid cancer is only 1%, the number of deaths from it caused by Chernobyl can be estimated at 50-160, with most of them affecting older people. That's all. There is no reliable evidence that radiation in Chernobyl has led to an increase in some other diseases or disorders, including birth defects.

People have a natural tendency to find the guilty party in a disaster. Many parents of autistic children blame vaccines that were made shortly before autism was discovered. The same applies to parents of children born with birth defects after the Chernobyl disaster. However, a 2017 review by the University of Oxford did not find “conclusive evidence of an increased risk of birth defects due to radiation in contaminated areas.” And in the study, which stated an increase in the number of birth defects, “there was not enough data about third-party risk factors, for example, the mother’s diet and her intake of alcohol,” said Oxford researchers. Even the lead author of the work, which claims an increase in the number of birth defects due to Chernobyl radiation,admitted later : "With this study, we were unable to prove that radiation leads to birth defects."

The Chernobyl radiation may have done more harm than measured, but if so, it was not enough to stand out from all the other harmful things. “In the USSR there were radical social changes that affected the landscape of diseases,” Dr. Thomas told me, “and this is a very significant factor.”

The main factors were anxiety and stress. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls the “psychosocial influence” of Chernobyl “the main factor affecting health”.

“People affected by Chernobyl had twice the levels of anxiety than the rest,” the WHO report says, “and they were more likely to report many unexplained physical symptoms and a subjective feeling of poor health.”

Part of the blame can be blamed on local doctors. “To some extent, these symptoms were the result of the belief that the disaster had an impact on their health,” writes WHO scientists, “and the fact that they were diagnosed by a doctor with“ Chernobyl-related health problems. ”

And also, in my opinion, the fault lies with the entertainment industry. For decades, she has exaggerated the importance of nuclear disasters and fed the public with fears, anxiety and stress regarding radiation. Mazin said that he seriously approached the need to adhere to the fact, but as the story unfolded in the episode, my anxiety grew.

The wife of one of the main characters, a fireman, is pregnant, like other women. We see several ominous scenes where parents walk with their children in wheelchairs. It is hard to believe that HBO placed all these pregnant women in the frame in the first act, and will not show the widespread occurrence of birth defects, together with a causal relationship, in the third.

Why are we so afraid of this?

If mortality is so low, why does Chernobyl continue to attract and scare us, and also receive tens of millions from HBO?

Part of the answer, I believe, is that nuclear disasters remind us of nuclear bombs and our vulnerability to them. At the beginning of the series, one station employee asks another: “Is this a war? Are they bombing us? ” The conversation is later repeated by others. The station manager and the bureaucrats of the CPSU meet in a special room capable of "withstanding the nuclear attack of the Americans."

In this, and in some other aspects, Chernobyl seems familiar. The New York Times surveyor called it "an old-fashioned and ordinary, albeit longer, disaster movie." And that bothers me.

“The largest and most artificial fiction is the creation of a fictional character, a Belarusian woman scientist, played by Emily Watson,” writes the Times. A Times critic accuses Chernobyl of "a tendency to Hollywood exaggeration - to show us what was not there," and "rolling into fiction and melodrama."

However, this television movie is not necessarily the end of the story. HBO and Mazin created a podcast and video about filming the movie. There, or somewhere else, Mazin and HBO can reveal to the audience a scientific consensus that the fear of radiation from nuclear disasters does much more harm than radiation itself.

And this is not taking into account the role that this fear played in hindering the spread of nuclear energy, which today has savedalmost two million lives, simply because we didn't need to burn fossil fuels, and can save even more.

They may somehow reflect the fact that I discovered during research for this article: a young man named Alexander Yuvchenko, who opened the door, lost a lot of blood, and somehow survived, remains a supporter of nuclear energy. “I have a normal attitude towards this,” Yvchenko told a journalist in 2004. “If safety remains the highest priority at all stages of the planning and maintenance of the station, then everything should be in order” [Yuvchenko died at the age of 47 in 2008 / approx. transl.].

After reading my tweets, where I compared the number of Chernobyl victims (about 200) with more common causes of deathfor example, walking (270,000 a year), driving a car (1,350,000 a year) and work (2,300,000 a year), several people who said that they came from those places accused me of insensitivity towards to the suffering of the people to whom they were subjected due to evacuation.

But real insensibility will either exaggerate or force the public to believe in exaggerating the number of Chernobyl victims and the power of radiation, since this leads to panic, as, for example, happened at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, where about 2,000 people died. Certain volumes of evacuation could be justified, but there was no reason for such a large and long-term movement of people.

“Looking back, we can say that this evacuation was a mistake,” saidPhilip Thomas, a professor of risk management who led a recent project investigating nuclear energy incidents. “We would not recommend any evacuation.”

As a result, from Chernobyl from HBO, regardless of the intentions of the producers, it is clear that it is difficult to make an exciting movie about a nuclear disaster without exaggerating its real consequences for the audience. And if one sets aside the anti-nuclear ideology, the entertainment industry has to invent all kinds of fables about nuclear disasters simply because so few people die in them.

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