How many people did Chernobyl kill?
Written by Posted by Judy Ryan for Don Anderson
The Reason They Fictionalize Nuclear Disasters Like Chernobyl Is Because They Kill So Few People
Over the last decade, a growing number of celebrities including Sting andRobert Downey, Jr. have publicly declared their support for nuclear power.
Then, last May, CBS aired a pro-nuclear episode of “Madame Secretary.” It depicted an oilman trying to block the promotion of nuclear energy, and two of the show’s characters expressing frustration over the widespread misinformation about technology’s relative safety.
These events led me to think that there had been a relaxation of Hollywood’s hostility to nuclear energy, and so my heart sank when I learned that HBO would be airing a big budget miniseries on the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear energy disaster.
In my research, I have come to see the entertainment industry as a major factor behind popular fears of nuclear.
Movies like “China Syndrome” (US – 1979), “Die Wolke” (Germany – 2006) and“Pandora” (South Korea – 2016) all contributed to the halting of nuclear plant construction, and the burning of fossil fuels instead.
I was thus pleasantly surprised when HBO’s “Chernobyl” writer and director, Craig Mazin, tweeted on April 8, “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous.”
Mazin later told a reporter, “I’m pro-nuclear power, I think that nuclear power is essential to combat climate change.” He later agreed with a tweet that said Chernobyl could not happen in the US.
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.”
And so, by the time I sat down to watch HBO’s “Chernobyl,” my dread had given way to hopeful anticipation. Could it be that Hollywood was finally going to represent the worst nuclear accident fairly and accurately?
“Chernobyl” vs Chernobyl
In the first episode of “Chernobyl” the nuclear reactor explodes, blows the top off the building, and catches on fire. The plant workers vomit, their faces turn red, and several appear to die.
We see a plant worker in his twenties hold open a door to the reactor hall and various parts of his body start to bleed. He rescues a comrade with a red, blistered, and bloody face, and appears to leave him for dead in a hall. Later we see the man slumped over and smoking what appears to be his last cigarette.
Later, the plant manager who was in denial about the accident becomes violently ill after he learns the true scale of the disaster. As he leaves for the hospital, we see a fireman who is carrying a body on a stretcher collapse and drop the body.
I was left thinking that dozens of workers and firefighters were immediately killed, but according to the official United Nations report (p. 66) on the accident, just two workers, not dozens, or hundreds, were killed within a few hours of the explosion.
Neither of the workers died from radiation. One was killed by the rubble from the explosion and the other by thermal burns from the fire.
Two weeks later, firefighters and first responders started to die. Having been burned in the fire appears to have played a major role.
Two-thirds of the Chernobyl first responders who died had thermal (fire) burns in addition to having been exposed to extremely high levels of radiation.
“In five cases, skin injuries [from thermal and radiation burns] were the sole cause of death,” concludes the UN report (p. 624). By contrast, “six patients who did not suffer fatal skin burns” survived.
“Thermal fire victims often die because of infection,” Dr. Geraldine Thomas, professor of molecular pathology of Imperial College London, and Chernobyl expert, explained to me.
“The skin is our best barrier to the microbes that kill,” said Thomas. “When you damage that barrier, entry into the body by pathogens is made much easier.”
If the body of the man who propped open the door to the reactor hall really did bleed, it would have had to have been from the fire, or hot metal door, not the radiation.
I don’t know if Mazin and HBO meant for viewers to assume that all of the symptoms that viewers witnessed were from radiation, instead of from fire, or that many more workers and firefighters died right away than actually did, but that was the impression I was left with.
Whatever their intention, our tendency to attribute the harm from Chernobyl to radiation, rather than to fire, is typical of how we view nuclear accidents more broadly.
Chernobyl’s total death toll is small compared to other famous disasters. According to the United Nations, 31 deaths are directly attributable to the accident. Three people died at the scene of the accident and 28 died several weeks later. Since then, 19 died for ”various reasons” including tuberculosis, cirrhosis of the liver, heart attacks, and trauma. The U.N. concluded that “the assignment of radiation as the cause of death has become less clear.”
Accidental deaths are always tragic, but it’s worth putting them in perspective. The worst energy disaster, the collapse of a hydroelectric dam in China, killed between 170,000 and 230,000 people. The Bhopal chemical disaster killed15,000.
Even other fires are much worse. When Britain’s Grenfell tower caught fire in 2017, 71 people died. During the Twin Towers fires caused by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 343 firefighters died.
What about cancers? There have been 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident, and the UN’s most recent white paper from 2017 concludes that only 25%, i.e. 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (see paragraphs A – C in the Executive Summary).
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, with the vast majority of them occurring in the elderly.
That’s it. There is no reliable evidence that radiation from Chernobyl caused an increase in any other disease or malady including birth defects.
There is a natural human tendency to look for someone or something to blame when disaster strikes. Many parents with autistic children blamed vaccines that were given shortly before they detected the autism. The same was true among parents with children born with birth defects after Chernobyl
But a 2017 review of the science by Oxford University found “no convincing evidence of increased risk of birth defects from exposure to radiation in contaminated areas.”
Research showing increases in birth defects “lacked data about confounding risk factors such as maternal alcohol intake and diet,” note the Oxford researchers.
Even the lead author of a paper showing higher birth defects from Chernobyl radiation later admitted, “We did not prove with this study that radiation causes birth defects.”
The radiation from Chernobyl may have caused more harm than was measured but, if it did, it didn’t cause enough to be detected against all of the other things that cause harm.
“There were huge social changes taking place in the former Soviet Union that affected the disease landscape,” Dr. Thomas told me, “and that is a significant confounder.”
Anxiety and stress were major factors. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls the “psycho-social impacts” of Chernobyl the “main public health impact.”
“Chernobyl-affected populations had anxiety levels that were twice as high than non-exposed population,” WHO reports, “and were more likely to report multiple unexplained physical symptoms and subjective poor health.”
Local doctors were partly to blame. “To some extent, these symptoms were driven by the belief that their health was adversely affected by the disaster,” wrote WHO scientists, “and the fact that they were diagnosed by a physician with a ‘Chernobyl-related health problem.’”
So too, I believe, is the entertainment industry. For decades it has exaggerated nuclear accidents and fed public fears, anxieties, and stress over radiation.
Mazin says he took seriously his responsibility to stick to the facts, but as the episode progressed, my fears grew.
The wife of one of the main characters, a firefighter, is pregnant, as are other women. We see several ominous scenes of parents pushing their newborn babies in strollers.
It’s hard to believe HBO would put all of those pregnant women and babies in Act I if it weren’t going to show widespread birth defects, and suggest a causal connection, in Act III.
Why Are We So Afraid?
If its death toll is so low, why does Chernobyl continue to arouse our fascination and fears, and garner tens of millions of dollars in HBO funding?
Part of the answer, I believe, is because nuclear accidents remind us of nuclear bombs and our vulnerability to them. Early in “Chernobyl,” one plant worker asks another, “Is it war? Are they bombing?” The conversation is repeated later by other workers. The plant manager and Communist Party bureaucrats meet in a special room designed “to withstand a nuclear attack by the Americans.”
In that way, and several others, “Chernobyl” felt familiar. A reviewer for The New York Times called it a “creaky and conventional, if longer than usual, disaster movie.” And that’s what worries me.
“The biggest and most artificial contrivance is the creation of a fictional character, a Belarusian scientist played by Emily Watson,” according to The Times.
The Times reviewer criticizes “Chernobyl’s “propensity toward Hollywood inflation — to show us things that didn’t happen” and for taking “fictional license over the line into contrivance and melodrama.”
But the mini-series itself doesn’t have to be the end of the story. HBO and Mazin have created a podcast and “inside the episode” videos to accompany the show. There, or elsewhere, Mazin and HBO might reveal to viewers the scientific consensus that the fear of radiation from nuclear disasters causes far more harm than the radiation itself.
And that’s without considering the role fear has played in halting the spread of nuclear power, which has already saved nearly two million lives to date by simply preventing the burning of fossil fuels, and could save many more.
They might also find a way to reveal the most extraordinary fact I discovered while researching this piece: the young man, Alexander Yuvchenko, who propped open the door, bled profusely, and somehow managed to survive, remains pro-nuclear.
“I’m fine about it,” Yuvchenko told a journalist in 2004. “If you keep safety as your number one priority at all stages of planning and running a plant, it should be OK.”
Upon tweeting out some numbers comparing Chernobyl’s death toll (~200/total) to more banal ways of dying, like walking (270,000/year), driving (1,350,000/year), and working (2,300,000/year), several people who claimed to be from the region accused me of being insensitive to the real hardships people suffered as a result of the evacuation.
But the real insensitivity is to either exaggerate, or lead the public to exaggerate, the death toll of Chernobyl, and the potency of radiation, since doing so results in panics, like the one in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, which killed about 2,000 people. While some amount of temporary evacuation might have been justified, there was simply never any reason for such large, and long-term, displacement.
“With hindsight, we can say the evacuation was a mistake,” said Philip Thomas, a professor of risk management who led a recent research project on nuclear accidents. “We would have recommended that nobody be evacuated.”
In the end, HBO’s “Chernobyl” suggests that whatever the intentions of its producers, it is difficult to make an exciting movie about nuclear disasters without leading viewers to believe that they were much worse than they actually were.
Anti-nuclear ideology aside, the entertainment industry has to fictionalize nuclear disasters for the simple reason that they kill so few people.
UPDATE: HBO “Chernobyl” producer Craig Mazin responded to my review to say “Our show is NOT going to show birth defects.”