Radiation, Chernobyl And The ‘Scientific’ Mumbo-Jumbo Inexorably Attached To It



Amid growing calls for a debate about the use of nuclear energy in Australia, a recent smash-hit show on HBO, Chernobyl, has put nuclear power – and the risks associated with it – squarely back in the minds of Australians. Not to mention the usual slew of mis-information, writes Geoff Russell.

Everybody watching a ‘docu-drama’ understands that historical accuracy requires that the characters reflect whatever mumbo-jumbo beliefs were in vogue at the time.

By way of example, everybody living through the black death had wrong ideas about its cause. Likewise, torturers during the Spanish Inquisition would genuinely have believed that they were working in the service of the souls of their victims, however hard that may be to understand.

But what about the recent HBO Chernobyl docu-drama?


The people dealing with the accident thought that radiation was far more dangerous than it is; constantly talking about suicide missions which weren’t; while glossing over the more mundane but really dangerous stuff which has always been dangerous, like fighting big fires. And this particular telling of the story put physicists at the core of events; totally ignoring or even poking fun at doctors and medical scientists.

Physicist are just that, physicists; they aren’t oncologists or epidemiologists. Even modern physicists usually have no idea about the relevant cancer and DNA biology; it isn’t part of their normal study. But they are used to being the smartest people in the room, so they can have a special arrogance that HBO’s Chernobyl captured remarkably well.

A ‘documentary’ by contrast, is very different from a ‘docu-drama’; it’s expected to explain where claims are false and not perpetuate them by getting facts wrong. And documentaries trying to bust myths face a dilemma because the first rule of mythbusting is: Don’t repeat the myth! But if you do have to repeat it, then signal very clearly that what you are saying is wrong.

The reason is simple: people are apt to think that a phrase or sentence they can remember is true. A memorable line from a powerful film carries considerable responsibility. It can delude an audience for a generation or more.

HBO’s Chernobyl (HBOC) therefore needs big bold opening frames before and after each episode which read:

“This film is a work of historical analysis. The claims of its characters about radiation and its impacts were sincerely believed, but false. Many were known to be false by cancer experts at the time, none of whom appear in the film; others have more recently been shown to be false. Most or all predictions made in the film have been proven false by subsequent analysis of the outcome of the Chernobyl accident.

It is true, for example, that vast areas of Ukraine were and are exposed to radioactive material from the Chernobyl accident. Nevertheless, the (age standardised) rate of new cancers in Ukraine is just 220 per 100,000 people per annum, compared to, for example, 468 per 100,000 people per annum in Australia (which is the highest of any country on earth). This is because radiation is a very weak carcinogen compared to lifestyle factors. This wasn’t known at the time.”

Whether HBO’s Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin set out to be a mythbuster isn’t clear, but ironically he is a supporter of nuclear power and has already expressed concern about misinterpretations of the film: “It’s anti–Soviet government, and it is anti-lie, and it is pro–human being. But anyone who thinks the point of this is that nuclear power is bad, is just, they’ve just missed it.”

But without the clear signalling about the radiation misinformation in the film, it may well end up being very potently pro-lie rather than anti.

The leading scientific characters, all physicists, displayed exactly the kind of ignorance about radiation and cancer that you’d expect of Soviet scientists of that era. Soviet physicists were brilliant at the physics but knew very little about DNA biology or cancer. Nothing they say about radiation and its health impacts should be taken at face value. They might as well be talking about witches and black cats.

Fact checking the tragedy of the baby

The entire Soviet Union at the time of the Chernobyl accident was still recovering from decades of Lysenkoism… a non-scientific belief system that opposed genetic theory and saw successive generations of Soviet scientists cut off from the profound revolution in life sciences knowledge that exploded after the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953.

Named after Trofim Lysenko, the one-time head of the USSR’s Academy of Sciences and an agronomist and biologist, scientists either fell into line and believed in mumbo jumbo or were purged. Lysenko’s influence persisted long after his removal from power in 1965. According to Laurie Garrett:

“… the belief system also created a legacy of death that would continue to affect public health policies regionally well into the 1990s and early twenty-first century.”

When Emily Watson’s character in Chernobyl tells the story of the baby that absorbed radiation which killed it, rather than the mother who bore it, she clearly believed something that didn’t happen, something that was impossible. Something that is part of the rich folk-lore of Chernobyl; on par with the belief, also mentioned in the film, that vodka protected people against radiation.

Emily Watson, playing the real-life character of Ulana Khomyuk in the HBO series Chernobyl.

Vodka, I should add, doesn’t protect against radiation but a regular habit will certainly increase your chances of cancer, and many other diseases.

Ulana Khomyuk, played by Watson, is a fictional physicist invented by Mazin to represent the many scientists who together performed the tasks performed by Watson’s character in the film. What did she say?

” … the radiation should have killed the mother but the baby absorbed it and died instead.”

Stop reading and think about how this could happen.

If you did physics at high school you can work most of it out. If you have forgotten, or didn’t do physics at high school then find a 16-year-old who just did and get them to explain it to you. Or you can find the background here.

Let’s work through it. It’s not hard. First there is alpha particle radiation. These heavy particles are stopped by a few centimetres of air or some tenths of a millimetre of skin. Alpha radiation emitters are in many smoke detectors in homes and offices all over the planet. They might, like many household items, become dangerous if you pull them apart and swallow them, but even then, they’d be safer than if you swallowed oven cleaner or button batteries.

So it wasn’t alpha-particles that killed the foetus.

Next we have beta particles. These are typically electrons, they will move maybe a metre through air, ricocheting off any molecules they hit as they lose energy. You’d need to hold a strong beta radiation source next to your baby bump for some time to have much of an effect.

Lastly, we have an actual possible culprit… gamma radiation. This is like light and very confusingly acts like both waves and particles; it has no mass. Having no mass, gamma rays have no brains, no eyes, no nose. They can’t see a foetus or target it in any way. But they can and do break DNA strands if they hit them. But since all our cells are mostly water, it’s far more likely the gammas will hit a water molecule in the cell and produce a free radical. That free radical will be just like all the other mass of free radicals produced by other bodily processes; and like the others, it can go on to damage DNA.

After producing the free radical, the gamma ray itself will just keep going… albeit with a little less energy. Mostly, gammas just pass straight through people and do nothing.

So the gamma hits whatever it hits, the tissue is damaged, the gamma keeps going. How exactly does the damage in that tissue move to the foetus so that the foetus will get it ‘instead’ of the woman? Obviously it doesn’t. A cell which has been hit isn’t radioactive; it’s damaged, or dead. It isn’t going anywhere.

As an aside, jumping ahead a couple of decades, way past anything Khomyuk would have known, DNA damage isn’t of itself a big deal. Your cells repair thousands of pieces of damage to your DNA in every cell, every day. All the horror stories about radiation had their origins during a time before DNA repair was even contemplated, let alone understood like it is today.

But getting back to the 1980s, the second possibility for foetal damage isn’t in the high school physics curriculum, it’s about what happens if you eat or breath radioactive materials. What do we know about this possibility? We need a little background to answer this question.

US medical help ignored

Mazin, throughout the five episodes of Chernobyl, conveniently ignores the US doctor called in by the Russians to treat the firefighters and all the other people with burns and acute radiation sickness.

His name was Robert Gale, and he worked with Alexandr Baranov and a large team of Soviet doctors. But Gale isn’t just any doctor. His scientific publications list runs to 1,111 scientific papers. He was first author on about 390 of them.

In comparison, Australian doctor Helen Caldicott, wheeled out recently on the ABC’s Media Watch to repeat her misinformation about Chernobyl, has none… zero… zip.

A recent ABC Media Watch, focussing on the coverage of nuclear power and Chernobyl.

Forbes has run a piece recently by Michael Shellenberger which is basically a long set of quotes of an article by Gale that you can read for yourself here. Gale calls Mazin’s series “dangerous” because it perpetuates misinformation.

You’d think that the first five minutes of the first lecture in Coverups-101 would contain a strong warning: “Don’t call in highly qualified foreign experts to deal with your disaster victims”. The Soviets not only called in experts at the time, they called in US experts (and an Israeli!) and have allowed academics from all over the planet to study the impacts of the Chernobyl accident for over 30 years.

Of course, since these experts tend to write big reports and scientific articles for journals, you might argue that that’s a pretty good way of keeping things away from the general public. Instead the public reads the likes of Caldicott and watches films like this one. No wonder they still don’t understand radiation.

When Gale and the crew received the injured firefighters (and other plant workers), the first job was to estimate the doses of radiation they’d received both internally (by eating and breathing) or externally through their skin. This wasn’t because they didn’t trust Soviet dosimeters, but because all kinds of variables influence your actual dose even if you are wearing a good dosimeter 24×7.

Measuring internal radiation from stuff you’ve eaten or inhaled is done using machines which can detect the gamma rays being emitted by any radioactive material inside a person. Of course, you have to subtract the normal radiation produced by a human body from whatever you find… some of the carbon and potassium atoms in our bodies are naturally radioactive to the tune of about 7,000 decays a second.

Measuring the external gamma dose received is somewhat harder, but it is possible to get an estimate good enough for decision-making purposes by taking blood and bone marrow samples and looking for particular changes in cells that are more common with significant radiation doses.

The bottom line is that the doses from internal material were about 3 percent of those from the external gammas. The team also checked for neutron radiation damage, something a 16-year-old school student may not know about but is certainly possible around a nuclear reactor.

So even the firefighters, working up close to the worst of the dust and debris had very little internal exposure. They posed no risk to hospital visitors. But they hadn’t just been exposed to radiation, they’d been fighting a fire. They were burn victims, and as such, were certainly at risk from infections so were kept in isolation.

The bottom line is that whatever killed the baby, it wasn’t radiation.

Radiation and burns

Here’s a simplified table of the burn injuries to the 13 firefighters chosen to get bone marrow transplants. This is a risky but potentially life-saving procedure. The burn score can range from 1 to 4; most people understand how serious a 3rd degree burn is.

ID Dose Burn Score Percent of body
1 6.6 2-3 50
2 9.2 2-3 95
3 12.1 2-3 60
4 11.9 2-3 100
5 4.4 0
6 5.2 1-3 40
9 9.6 2-3 50
11 5.6 1-2 20
16 10.2 2 25
17 13.4 2-3 50
27 8.3 3 20
28 6.4 1-2 40
29 8.7 1-2 30

Ten other firefighters were excluded from the treatment, mostly because their burns were too serious and their long-term prospects were poor.

The dose estimate is measured in Grays. Of the 13 in the table, only 2 survived. The burns and high radiation doses proved fatal in the rest, despite the best efforts of the 17 doctors and many nurses in this medical team.

There were various other treatments for the injuries the firefighters had, including blood products. The blood products were given a dose of radiation to reduce the chance of host vs graft disease. They were irradiated with 15 Grays. If you thought that giving radiation to a blood product and then injecting it would cause radiation to spread around the body, then you haven’t been paying attention.

As Gale said in the Forbes piece, “In doing haematopoietic cell transplant, we commonly expose people to much higher radiation doses than received by any of the Chernobyl victims”.

Mazin’s firefighters look like actors from a zombie film. Gale also says this is inaccurate. Certainly, serious burns victims can look horrific, but none of the radiation doses would have caused such an appearance.

The first responders to the Chernobyl disaster, as depicted in the HBO series.

Three years after Chernobyl at a place called Ufa, also in the Soviet Union of the time, and a couple of thousand kilometres to the East of Chernobyl, a natural gas explosion caught a couple of passing trains and killed over 500 people. As well as the dead, there were some 800 serious burns victims. It’s physically painful to even contemplate such horror. Again the Soviets bought in a US team of experts to help with the injured.

Have you heard of this particular gas disaster? I doubt it. Unlike Chernobyl, there has never been an army of anti-gas activists dedicated to making sure you don’t forget it. Just as there has never been a dedicated group of anti-coal activists dedicated to ensuring you don’t forget any of the many massive coal-related accidents over the years. Here’s list of the big ones.

In addition to a vast annual toll of coal mining accidents, coal has been killing for hundreds of years by way of lung and other diseases. It has been estimated that nuclear power has saved about 1.8 million lives over the past 40 years by displacing coal. It could have saved a lot more if it wasn’t for the success of anti-nuclear fear mongering.

Those naked miners

Speaking of miners… Mazin’s film made much of the miners working naked under the reactor because those in charge wouldn’t give them fans for fear of stirring up dust. They implied that this Chernobyl dust was far worse than coal mining dust; I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at that particular piece of ignorance. Where were the massive red subtitles informing people of how stupid this argument was?

The whole point of the tunnel they were digging was to get well below the reactor. At that level, the gamma risk was small and the dust in the mine would be just like dust in any other mine; meaning that, depending on the geology of the area, it could cause all manner of diseases depending on the nature of the dust and the length of the exposure.

The Soviet Union was emerging from decades of repression. The contradictions of the KGB clinging to the old ways in the midst of considerable change were missing from the film. It entirely ignored the Perestroika movement within the Soviet Union actively working to reform the system. How could five episodes ignore the fact that the life sciences in the Soviet Union were only beginning to thaw from decades in cryogenic suspension?

I suspect most of the problem is that Mazin may be pro-nuclear, but really doesn’t understand radiation very well. Hence the lack of warnings about the misinformation in the films.

Robert Gale tells a chilling anecdote in his lay language radiation book about one of the firefighters who survived. Andrei Tarmosian was 25-years-old at the time of the accident and he and Gale stayed in touch. But popular myths trumped ready access to the judgement of one of the best radiation experts on the planet.

Tarmosian believed that his radiation exposure doomed him to cancer. He also believed the Russian urban legend that vodka was protective. This potent mix of fear and nonsense saw him die in 2010, aged 50, of cirrhosis of the liver. He was collateral damage, like all those aborted foetuses and the women who aborted them, of wide-spread radiation ignorance. This anecdote is just one aspect of the vast ice-berg of psychological and physical suffering that radiation ignorance has caused following the Chernobyl accident.

Mazin notes in his closing credits that the “suicide” squad of swimmers – [three men who entered a cooling pond exposed to radiation in order to drain it and prevent a further explosion – Ed]– didn’t die, despite widespread rumours to the contrary. By comparison, it took Helen Caldicott just one week after Fukushima to come out with claims that it was “orders of magnitude” worse than Chernobyl; desperate to send a few more people down Tarmosian’s road of debilitating despair in the face of trivial or zero risk.

This is the climate change ‘debate’ all over again. We have expert scientific opinion vs advocates with an agenda and a film-maker who may have got most of the history right, but the history is of science that was wrong. Mazin has become a powerful, if unwitting, ally of the anti-nuclear juggernaut that has powerfully amplified our climate emergency urgency.

The historical context

In 1959, Linus Pauling predicted cancers and foetal deformities from radioactive fallout. The Russian physicists would have been familiar with this work: it was pivotal in the ban on atmospheric testing.

By the 1980s, all of Pauling’s assumptions were known by western DNA biologists to be wrong, along with his predictions. Pauling’s assumptions about DNA as ordinarily pristine and unchanging was false. Instead, our DNA is known to suffer and repair thousands of pieces of damage every day, in every cell.

The Russian physicists wouldn’t have known this. They wouldn’t have known that cancer studies on survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan supported the new understanding of DNA and cancer that was emerging. So the Russian fears were reasonable, but wrong.

Subsequent studies by many scientists demonstrated that the major tragic outcomes of Chernobyl were induced by psychological trauma, rather than radiation. The response to the Fukushima meltdowns showed that that lesson hasn’t yet been learned outside of scientific circles. We saw the same fear and the same deadly panic. We saw a deadly, hurried evacuation in defiance of the best available scientific guidelines.

In the wake of the Chernobyl ‘doco-drama’, The Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece by Helen Caldicott. Caldicott’s relationship with radiation, DNA and cancer science is that of a climate denier to climate science.

Her fearsome pictures of deformations are certainly tragic, but have nothing to do with radiation. Actual experts know this.

It’s time to inject science back into this issue and banish Caldicott’s mumbo jumbo. She’s living in her own historical docu-drama.


Geoff Russell is a regular contributor to New Matilda. He has qualifications in mathematics and has written software all of his working life, but in the past decade has devoted increasing time to writing non-fiction with a simple goal... make the world a better place. A three-decade vegan and member of the Animal Justice Party, his first book in 2009 was 'CSIRO Perfidy', a critique of the high-red-meat CSIRO 'Total Wellbeing diet'; the most environmentally destructive diet on the planet. His concerns about climate change and the ineffectiveness of renewables led to a re-examination of his lifelong opposition to nuclear power. After considerable research he realised that the reasons people fear nuclear are built on obsolete knowledge about DNA and cancer. Geoff's second book 'GreenJacked! Derailing environmental action on climate change' is an e-book available on Amazon. He has been a regular contributor to BraveNewClimate.com since 2008 and has had pieces published in The Monthly, Australasian Science and a number of Australian newspapers.