The lingering ghost of Chernobyl

9 July 2019

Thirty-three years on as the tales of Chernobyl are being told to a new, younger audience, John Lindberg calls on the nuclear sector to start talking about radiation.

ANOTHER YEAR HAS GONE BY, and with it, another anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. Its story has been told countless times — of how a botched safety experiment resulted in a steam explosion and multi-day fire. This, in turn, led to the largest uncontrolled emission of radioactive elements from a nuclear power station of all times.

Chernobyl dealt a serious blow to the nuclear cause and the effects on nuclear energy globally were marked and long-lasting. The anti-nuclear movement quickly capitalised on it to tell the world that what they had always proclaimed — nuclear power as an inherently dangerous technology, barely controllable by humanity and a killer of hundreds of thousands — had come true.

Retrospectively, however, Chernobyl cemented an already declining trend for nuclear, as the increased controversy over radiation in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Three Mile Island accident, had already ended nuclear power’s honeymoon with the public (Figure 1).

This year the Chernobyl accident has repeatedly made its way into the media. In May HBO released a miniseries chronicling the accident and the trailer clearly hints at a continuation of the radiophobic narrative that envelops Chernobyl. The trailer would not feel out of place in a horror film festival, with dying birds falling from the sky, firefighters buried in lead coffins covered in concrete, accompanied by the constant crackling of Geiger counters and the evacuation broadcast blaring in the background. It points to the socio-cultural and historical background that nourishes radiophobia. For instance, there is a scene where members of the public gaze towards the clearly burning reactor, with dust originating from the fire silently falling around them. This is clearly a nod to the fallout crisis of the early 1960s, where the public anxiety about ‘death dust’ became widespread.

The notion of radiation as a ruthless, indiscriminate and invisible killer is ever-present, and lines such as ‘every atom of uranium is like a bullet, penetrating everything in its path...Chernobyl has three trillion of these bullets’ reinforces it. However, humans ingest millions of these bullets every year, which begs the question if every atom is like a bullet, why are we still here? The bullet analogy is quite useful, however, as it does betray a fundamental problem of most portrayals of nuclear accidents: that of ignoring the actual impacts.

Another example of making sensationalist claims whilst ignoring scientific consensus regarding Chernobyl is the recent publication ‘Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’ by Kate Brown, a history professor at MIT.[1] She tells a story of cover-ups and suppression of evidence, and she challenges the scientific consensus around the impacts of Chernobyl. She alleges that this is about fallout from nuclear weapons tests, saying: ‘[m]inimizing both the number of deaths so far and the on-going health consequences of the Chernobyl disaster provided cover for nuclear powers to dodge lawsuits and uncomfortable investigations in the 1990s’. A review by Professor Jim Smith, a noted expert of Chernobyl's impact, says the book ‘... ignores the thousands of scientific studies on Chernobyl...’ and ‘...presents a biased and misleading account of the health and environmental effects of the accident...’ and ‘...only perpetuates the many myths about the accident effects and has very little basis in sound science’[2].

The directly attributable radiological impacts of the Chernobyl accident will probably never be discernible, so controversy will linger on, offering the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories. The book’s suggestion of a cover-up have been given space in the media, in part thanks to what Becky Alexis-Martin eloquently describes as ‘a modern mythology surround[ing] the consequences of ionising radiation exposure...’[3].

Radiation from Chernobyl did not result in the deaths of many thousands of people. The latest report from the UN’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) puts the total attributable deaths resulting
from Chernobyl at fewer than 50, alongside approximately 6800 thyroid cancer cases that were mostly successfully treated[4]. Soon after the accident, the mainstream scientific community concluded that the outcomes were far from as bad as originally anticipated and that the worst outcome of the accident was not radiological in nature.

The accident serves as a reminder of the perils of radiophobia. Association with Chernobyl meant victimisation, social stigma and fatalism for evacuees and liquidators alike, leading to significantly increased rates of mental health problems, suicides and alcoholism.

It is impossible with certainty to pinpoint the exact number of abortions that took place due radiation anxiety across Europe, but there is evidence that Chernobyl did lead to an increase in elective abortions[5]. These abortions could not be justified medically, as the doses were insignificant — but it serves to highlight one of the radiophobic responses commonly seen when nuclear accidents take place.

These portrayals by Kate Brown and HBO highlight the risks of not having normalised radiation, as it brings the story to new and younger audience without first-hand experiences of Chernobyl, and enhances the radiophobic narrative. How does one challenge such narratives?

The truth speaks for itself, right?

Since the dawn of the civilian atomic age and as a response to early opposition, many proponents of nuclear energy have adhered to a mantra to gain (or increasingly, retain) public acceptance:

First, the public is ignorant, sceptical and uncertain about issues of science, due to a lack of scientific knowledge.

Second, providing the public with knowledge to address the deficit, and ‘correct’ misunderstandings, will sway public opinion.

This is called the ‘deficit model’ of science communication. It focuses solely on the public’s level of scientific knowledge in regard to a certain issue, and identifies lacking knowledge as the reason for low support on scientific issues. Its simplicity is not without appeal. The problem is that this model of communications has been shown to have a very limited impact as it grossly simplifies — and therefore, neglects — the complexity that is inevitable when dealing with issues relating to perceptions and emotions. This approach, which has been practiced by many in the nuclear industry for a long time, has had — at best — a very limited effect. Nevertheless, it is evident that thinking derived from the deficit model remains entrenched within the pro-nuclear environment. This entrenchment is very evident in the way Chernobyl is spoken about, and this is part of the issue.

Every time Chernobyl is brought up in a conversation the instinctive response is to quote the facts. In many cases, the reaction is surprise at the low death toll, or at the fact wildlife is thriving in Chernobyl. The difficult question the industry needs to ask is whether stating the facts changes people’s instinctive reactions to Chernobyl or nuclear accidents. What if the very notion of truth is eroded?

In 2016 the Oxford Dictionaries announced ‘post-truth’ as the Word of the Year. Few will have managed to escape the complete abdication of absolute or scientific truths in political discourse. Truth is under fire but it goes further. The complete erosion of trust in the authorities, and a political discourse marked by significant truth decay, makes it evident that the centrality of science to policymaking is under fire. It presents a challenge to policymakers, scientists and advocates of change but the nuclear industry is particularly unprepared to address this new world for as long as it retains the notion that facts alone will change the public view.

Presenting viewpoints backed by skewed or zero evidence is obviously not new. The use of propaganda is as old as civilisation itself. There is a clear trail through history of obfuscating facts — be it health effects of smoking, GMOs or vaccines — with the effect of failing to prevent tobacco-related deaths, starvation or the re-emergence of preventable diseases.

Anthropological climate change is the most high- stake scientific and policy problem that has become the victim of this practice. Climate sceptics have managed to instil confusion into the public mind about its existence. Confusion protects the status quo, regardless of whether the issue is preventing climate change mitigation or the normalisation of radiation. It is easy to get lost in debate around whether low-dose radiation is dangerous, has no real impact or is beneficial to life and human health. As a result, it becomes easy to blame the uncertainty and postpone any decisions required around radiation risks.

We need to talk about radiation

More than 450 years ago, the Swiss physician Paracelsus coined the phrase ‘all things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison’. This has become a foundation of toxicology, but more generally ingrained into everyday life. We are taught that there are safe and unsafe exposures to the many risks we face. It is well established that we can safely ingest small amounts of mercury and lead — both known toxins. Human bodies contain small amounts of uranium as a result of ingestion. Similarly, no one would ever argue against the fact that small doses of sunshine are healthy for you, while large doses can be dangerous.

Few carcinogenic processes are as well understood as that of radiation exposure, with billions of dollars spent on exploring the effects. When life emerged billions of years ago, our planet was a radioactive hotspot, and if no repair mechanism had developed it is unlikely that life would have survived. If very low doses of radiation were as dangerous as proponents of linearity claim, then it is likely that life would have developed a warning system. From an evolutionary standpoint, it would be very unlikely that radiation would be the only environmental carcinogen against which life would not have developed repair mechanisms. There is evidence that bacterial species have highly developed DNA repair mechanisms and other strategies to enable them to live in radioactive hotspots. Radiation surrounds us constantly: the earth we tread, the air we breathe, and our very bones bombard us with radiation. It takes significant exposure to even slightly increase the risk of developing cancer, let alone the levels required for the vomiting or burns commonly associated with Acute Radiation Syndrome. It is evident that we need to normalise our relationship with radiation.

The nuclear industry has for too long avoided the subject of radiation, often out of fear of the repercussions. Yes, radiation has a tremendous image problem and changing the perception of it will take time, but failing to normalise radiation will inevitably lead to the loss of life, the uprooting of communities and stigmatisation of those affected. These are the dangerous effects of the politics of (unfounded) fear, which have engulfed nuclear for decades. It unfairly demonises nuclear power and undermines efforts to combat climate change and energy inequality.

The value proposition of atomic energy has been lost as its enemies promote radiophobia, resulting in immense and unnecessary human suffering. The current global energy debate, shows their success, as nuclear has for decades been confined to the fringes.

The public and political discourse around renewables is often one of hope for a better, cleaner and fairer tomorrow. Against these emotive arguments the proponents of nuclear power, industry included, must not just be more vocal, but must also appeal to emotional narratives.

In the early days of atomic energy, a different world was being offered, one where humankind was truly unshackled and able to realise its true potential. It was a world where all corners of the globe could flourish in a sustainable fashion. This vision must be resuscitated. Atomic energy can not only give humanity an effective tool to address climate change and halt the ongoing global mass extinction of species, but also ensure that people around the world can lead a modern life in a sustainable fashion, with access to electricity, healthcare and education.

While the journey towards normalising radiation will take time, it is imperative that the nuclear industry finds ways to challenge the narratives of death, so that humanity's future prosperity is not held hostage by propaganda-fuelled fears.  

DISCLAIMER: This article represents the individual views of the author and might not reflect any of the organisations he is affiliated with 

Cited literature:

1. Brown, K. (2019). ‘Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’, Penguin Books Ltd, London.

2. Smith, J. (2019). ‘Book Review: Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’, Journal of Radiological Protection.

3. Alexis-Martin, B. (2015). ‘The Chernobyl necklace: The psychosocial experiences of female radiation emergency survivors’, Belgeo, 2(1).

4. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (2008). UNSCEAR 2008 Report to the General Assembly (Volume II), Scientific Annex D: Health effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident

5. Little, J. (1993). ‘The Chernobyl accident, congenital anomalies and other reproductive outcomes’. Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology. 7 (2): 121–51. 

Author information: John Lindberg, Doctoral candidate at King's College London & Imperial College 

Figure 1: Nuclear reactor construction starts 1955 to 2018 Source: IAEA Power Reactor Information System (PRIS)

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