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Film & TV

What Separates Chernobyl from Three Mile Island and Fukushima

Jared Harris in HBO’s Chernobyl (Liam Daniel/HBO)

One of the dumber responses to HBO’s just-completed Chernobyl miniseries — discussed by Kyle Smith on the homepage today – is that somehow it’s unfairly picking on the Soviet Union. “Where’s the miniseries about Three Mile Island? Where’s the miniseries about Fukushima?”

This argument amounts to, “I’ve heard about two other nuclear power plant disasters, thus all three must be the same.”

As I wrote back in February, even a cursory study shows the three situations were all different. The partial meltdown and radiation leak at Three Mile Island in 1979 was serious — but the public was informed quickly, if not terribly clearly. Three Mile Island forever tainted the image of nuclear power in the United States; no new plants were opened for 30 years after the accident. The effects of the radiation leak were, thankfully, mild. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission summarized:

In the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal, and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident. Thousands of environmental samples of air, water, milk, vegetation, soil, and foodstuffs were collected by various government agencies monitoring the area. Very low levels of radionuclides could be attributed to releases from the accident. However, comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well-respected organizations, such as Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh, have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.

No one died at the plant or in the surrounding area from the radiation leak during the incident; for many years conservatives offered the dark joke, “more people died because of Ted Kennedy’s car than because of Three Mile Island.” But that is probably understating the effect of the disaster. In 2017, a Penn State study contended that there was a correlation between subsequent thyroid cancer rates in the surrounding area and the radiation leak. The research of 44 thyroid cancer patients born in counties around the plant, and present in the area during the leak, “developed thyroid cancer on average five to 30 years after exposure and about 11 years earlier than the average thyroid cancer case.”

Fukushima was built to handle earthquakes and tsunamis, but not one as powerful as the March 2011 9.1 magnitude earthquake, the fourth-most powerful earthquake ever recorded, and powerful enough to alter the earth’s axis. The resulting tsunami was 43 to 49 feet high; the plant had a 19-foot seawall. The earthquake’s epicenter was astonishingly close to the plant, about 30 miles away from the nuclear reactors. The people who designed, built, managed and operated Fukushima were prepared for a disaster — just not a disaster of this scale, hitting so close to the plant. The Japanese public and the world were aware of potential danger almost immediately, although the company that operated it understated the damage and avoided using the accurate term “meltdown.”

Back when I first wrote about the HBO series, I noted, “it’s worth keeping in mind that shameless dishonesty in order to avoid embarrassment is a human trait, not just a socialist one. In almost any governmental system on earth, those running the system can blur their sense of their personal interest and the national interest.” (Not that the ninnies on Twitter responding to the headline bothered to read that far into the article.)

But Chernobyl was on a whole other scale of disaster, for the denial of the risks, the sheer amount of radiation released, damage to the surrounding environment and how authorities responded. If anything, you could argue that the HBO series left out some of the Soviet government’s worst decisions and policies.

One detail not mentioned in the miniseries:

As part of the Kremlin’s intense Russification program designed to destroy Ukraine’s unique culture and history, the Ukrainian language was marginalized, pushed mostly into the shadows; and (b) because of this marginalization, in February 1986, an article in a Ukrainian-language literary magazine published in Kyiv just a few months before the disaster specifically pointed to all of the problems at Chornobyl, but because this clear warning was in Ukrainian, it was not noted at the time either in Russian-speaking Moscow or by any of the operators of the power plant, who were all ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Even in the repressive Soviet society of the time, there were brave souls who warned that Chornobyl was a disaster waiting to happen — but because the warnings appeared in forbidden Ukrainian, they were denigrated and ignored.

What happened at the plant was a disaster, but the Soviet government’s response was an even bigger disaster. Moscow refused to publicly acknowledge anything happened at the plant for three days. Perhaps most inexcusably, they refused offers of assistance:

There were offers of assistance and aid from, among others, the United States and American volunteer organizations. The offers were rebuffed by Moscow, with one exception. #more#Through his longtime cozy relationship with the Kremlin, Armand Hammer was able to get American bone-marrow specialist Dr. Robert Gale invited to help the injured — in Moscow, 470 miles from Kyiv. Gale was not allowed into Ukraine.

It gets even worse; I was surprised that the miniseries skipped over May 1, May Day:

While this radiation continued to drop over the Ukrainian countryside, the Soviets staged their annual extravagant May Day parade in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev, whose leadership guided the Kremlin response, smiled and waved to the crowd in Red Square. To the south, just 90 miles from where the fires of Chornobyl were still burning out of control, the Soviets staged another massive parade in Kyiv that included children dancing down Kyiv’s broad central avenue, Khreshchatyk. Perhaps the only noticeable difference from previous May Day celebrations in Kyiv was the fact that as the marchers and dancers reached the reviewing stands where Communist Party bosses traditionally watched the festivities, they found the stands empty. Some members of the “classless” Soviet society had been given enough information to know to evacuate the republic’s capital. There was also a May Day bicycle race. Exercise and deep breathing — all the better to inhale radiation.

What HBO’s miniseries depicts so vividly is the pervasive instinct to believe that the fact that the reactor had exploded wasn’t that bad. Chernobyl can best be summarized as the extraordinarily steep price for the Soviet system of cronyism, ignorant and incompetent management, inadequate funding, fanatical secrecy, and cheap and flawed designs to nuclear power.

Could someone make a great miniseries about Three Mile Island or Fukushima? Certainly. But just because the general public has heard of all three — out of about 450 nuclear power reactors operating around the world, operating more than 17,000 reactor years of experience — doesn’t mean the stories or lessons are interchangeable. Chernobyl was the worst because of how the Soviet government operated – and if you missed that lesson from the miniseries . . . did you pay any attention at all?

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