Amongst calls for decarbonization and a world-wide energy transition, HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ is one of the highest rated series on IMDb. But is our fascination with the gritty and dark realities of this nuclear disaster obscuring our understanding of nuclear power – both its realities and its future potential? This author investigates the operational safety and overall merit of nuclear fission and examines what this type of energy generation could mean for the energy transition.
The Radioactive Record
The sound hits you first. Like a shock wave, it blares out suddenly – drums beating in the background – before fading to a quiet hum. The sound lingers. It becomes a low drone. Ominous. Sinister. With every note it seeps through the characters’ dialogue. The drone grows more insistent, with ricochets and sudden explosions booming in the background, until a warning siren rings out. The bleak and grey images complete the dystopic spectacle with dying wildlife, physical human suffering, and ashen faced clinical workers.
Indeed, the nuclear age looks bleak in the trailer for the HBO hit series, Chernobyl (“HBO Official Trailer”). There is no ambiguity here. An apocalyptic nuclear world saturates the viewer’s senses.
Yet one question remains: where does the line between nuclear fantasy and nuclear reality end?
Critics seemed to have handled this question superficially. A video on Chernobyl’s IMDb page merely outlines how accurately the series depicts the nuclear disaster in 1986 (“Atomic Facts”). BBC Ukrainian followed suit by interviewing a Chernobyl survivor (“Chernobyl Survivors”), while news outlets from the Express (“Chernobyl True Story”) to The New Yorker (“What HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Got Right”) churned out content in a similar vein.
Indeed, it seems that the series’ apocalyptic perspective on nuclear energy seeps through into real-world journalism, no matter how highbrow the publication. Not once do these journalists address the current state of nuclear energy, nor the technology and regulation that comes with it. A review of the series by the BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, demonstrates the problem best:
“By the end of the third episode I was craving something a little lighter . . . . Anything actually, that wasn’t real. Because when the reality of the dangers that lurk in our nuclear age are played back in such forensic, chilling detail as they are here it is just too frightening to bear.”Review of Chernobyl
For Gompertz, the danger posed by nuclear energy is not a thing of the past, rather it seems to define the modern age itself. Forget the collapse of the Soviet Union. Forget huge technological advancements. Forget the increased speed and ease of communication. He feels the dangers of 1986 around him… But this is just the short-term aftershock of really gripping TV, right?
I, for one, am not convinced.
The problem, it seems, is one of perspective. All parties involved – Hollywood, the media, and the general public – seem drawn to nuclear energy’s dirty past. Even accomplished pieces of journalism find themselves locked into a narrative about “what really happened then”.
Forbes magazine, for example, tries to dispel the bad press by openly damning (and later correcting) the series’ sensationalist depiction of radiation sickness (“Gets Nuclear So Wrong”). Yet sadly, the author’s preoccupation with inaccuracies leaves little space to discuss nuclear energy’s realities today.
So, if nuclear energy’s realities remain a mystery in the media, then how does this affect our political reality? Let’s look to one of the most prominent anti-nuclear advocates for some answers.
Germany’s stance on nuclear power has been clear for a while now. Back in June 2011, the Bundestag passed a bill to phase-out nuclear energy entirely by 31 December 2022 (Kramm 255). However, it’s not Germany’s anti-nuclear stance that’s interesting, rather how they decided upon it. Just before passing the 2011 legislation, the prospect of “a nuclear renaissance” (Kramm 251) was being considered across the world, including in Germany. In 2010, a motion had been put forward in German parliament to extend some nuclear plants’ operating licenses (Kramm 254). Fukushima and, more importantly, media coverage of the accident changed all of this. The traditionally neutral publication Deutsche Welle reported, “. . . radiation levels have soared in seawater near Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant . . .” (“Hundreds of Thousands”), meanwhile it and other newspapers focused heavily on the anti-nuclear protests that sprang up (“Hundreds of Thousands”; “Anti-nuclear Protests”). Under what seemed to be mounting pressure in the public sphere, the German government entrenched its anti-nuclear stance.
Back then environmentalists scratched their heads at the decision. The New Scientist predicted that it would lead to an increase in CO2 emissions (“Fear after Fukushima”) – a sure blow to both the environment and human health.
A reconsideration seemed prudent back then. Yet now, it’s vital.
Data shows that Germany remains dependent on fossil fuels: Mineral oil, natural gas, hard coal, and lignite made up 79.3% of Germany’s primary energy consumption in 2018 (AG Energiebilanzen reprod. in Appunn et al. [Graph 12]). And given the opening declaration at the UN Climate Action Summit 2019 – “[g]etting out of coal is [now] a priority” (“Opening Press Release”) – it’s paramount we critically reassess ALL our energy options. Yes, even traditional villains like nuclear fission. Now is not the time for dated doomsday narratives; it’s time for a radioactive reality check.
Radioactive Reality Check
So, what can we learn from such a re-assessment? Data collected by Dr. Stefan Hirschberg and Dr. Peter Burgherr of the Laboratory for Energy Systems Analysis – and reproduced in Sornette et al. – tells the following story:
- Modern nuclear energy produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy generated than current technologies for solar energy, onshore and offshore wind energy, and biogas energy (Hirschberg and Burgherr reprod. in Sornette et al. 31 [Fig. 1.9]).1 That’s right – in its current form, nuclear energy trumps all energy technologies except hydropower when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
- The same study predicts that by 2050, developments in nuclear energy technology could make it the single cleanest technology with regards to greenhouse gas emissions, thereby overtaking hydropower technology in both its current and predicted future state (Hirschberg and Burgherr reprod. in Sornette et al. 31 [Fig. 1.9]).
- Modern nuclear technology comes second only to hydropower for the technology with the lowest ecological impact in its everyday operation (Hirschberg and Burgherr reprod. in Sornette et al. 32 [Fig. 1.10]). That’s when you consider the loss of flora and fauna due to land use, acidification and eutrophication, and the ecotoxic substances released to air, water, and soil (Hirschberg and Burgherr qtd. in Sornette et al. 32).
And there’s more. Didier Sornette, Wolfgang Kröger, and Spencer Wheatley argue that nuclear energy is both highly reliable and highly concentrated as an energy source and that therefore, it is in a prime position to satisfy modern energy demands (27, 45). In contrast, the group highlight the multiple problems that come with renewables (in-spite of their squeaky-clean reputation):
- Many widely-used renewable energy technologies have very intermittent energy generation (20, 21, 39).
- Adequate energy storage technology, which mitigates renewables’ intermittency and which proves cost effective, has yet to be developed (37, 39).
- There are high costs associated with integrating renewables’ distributed, intermittent output into our nationwide power grids (36-37, 39).
- Many renewables require disproportionately vast quantities of land for a meagre energy output (19, 45).2
Of course, there is the issue of risk. Thankfully, the experts have looked into this as well:
- When calculating the number of “expected fatalities” per GWa, severe accidents in current nuclear fission plants are predicted to result in fewer deaths than severe accidents in natural gas and hard coal plants, and with onshore wind, biogas and PV roof installations (Hirschberg and Burgherr reprod. in Sornette et al. 32 [Fig. 1.11]).3
- And it’s only supposed to get better – that is, the number of “expected fatalities” resulting from severe accidents in nuclear plants is predicted to decrease significantly (Hirschberg and Burgherr reprod. in Sornette et al. 32 [Fig. 1.11]).4
- Probability Safety Assessments (PSAs) are now standard practice in most nuclear plants worldwide (Sornette et al. 124); these regulation assessments serve to determine nuclear plants’ safety and aid the development of further safety measures (Sornette et al. 123, 126-127).
It’s also worth putting fatalities in context:
- Official reports recorded 28 immediate fatalities due to acute radiation sickness (ARS) and a further 19 fatalities amongst ARS survivors between 1987 and 2004 after the Chernobyl disaster (Bennett et al. 99).
- However, it’s worth remembering that for all of hydropower’s merits, the failure of multiple hydro-electric dams – including the Banqiao hydroelectric dam – resulted in the immediate deaths of 26,000 people in 1975 (Yang et al. 451).
- What’s more, despite the 1.35 million fatalities estimated to occur worldwide each year from traffic collisions (“Road Traffic Injuries”), millions of people still drive a car.
Finally, let’s consider the potential impact of the Chernobyl disaster on health:
- A study conducted by Cardis et al. estimates that almost 16,000 instances of thyroid cancer will be attributable to Chernobyl radiation by 2065 (1224).
- Put differently, out of the 572.2 million Europeans alive in 1986, 1 in 35,750 is expected to get thyroid cancer by 2065 as a result of the Chernobyl disaster (Cardis et al. 1228 [Table 2A]).5
Now the academics themselves admit that this estimate and others “are subject to considerable uncertainty . . .” (Cardis et al. 1224) – no matter how thorough their investigation. Yet pessimistic or otherwise, this figure is still dwarfed by the 2.1 million instances of cancer in 2018 attributable to tobacco (“Cancer”).6
With radioactive reality now firmly in view, it’s time we started asking ourselves an important question: Is it time for a radioactive rewrite – conceptually, politically, and ecologically? What role should nuclear energy take in the unfolding political dialogue? The stock villain, as it has done for years? Or the unassuming hero in a modern plot twist? Will it play a starring role in our energy future? Or will it live in the shadow of renewables?
While the answers to those question are not certain, one thing is: It’s time we stopped relying on old motifs and wrote our own nuclear story – one for a sustainable age.
“Anti-nuclear Protests in Germany and France.” BBC, 25 Apr. 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13188507. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
Appunn, Kerstine, et al. “Germany’s Energy Consumption and Power Mix in Charts.” 26 Jun. 2019, http://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/germanys-energy-consumption-and-power-mix-charts. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.
Bennett, Burton, et al., editors. Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes: Report of the UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group “Health”. World Health Organization, 2006, apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/43447. Accessed 14 Oct. 2019.
“Cancer – Fact Sheet.” World Health Organization, 12 Sep. 2018, http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cancer. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.
Cardis, Elisabeth, et al. “Estimates of the Cancer Burden in Europe from Radioactive Fallout from the Chernobyl Accident.” International Journal of Cancer, vol. 119, no. 6, 2006, pp. 1224-1235. Academic.edu, http://www.academia.edu/16949145/Estimates_of_the_cancer_burden_in_Europe_from_radioactive_fallout_from_the_Chernobyl_accident. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.
Chernobyl. Created by Craig Mazin, Sister Pictures, 2019.
“Chernobyl (2019): HBO Official Trailer.” YouTube, uploaded by HBO, 28 Mar. 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9APLXM9Ei8. Accessed 14 Oct. 2019.
Davis, Alex. “Chernobyl True Story: How Much of Chernobyl is True? Fact and Fiction Explained.” Express Online, 20 Jun. 2019, http://www.express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/1141662/Chernobyl-true-story-is-Sky-HBO-Chernobyl-TV-series-accuracy-fact-fiction. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
“Dr. Peter Burgherr – Academic Profile.” Paul Scherrer Institut, http://www.psi.ch/en/ta/people/peter-burgherr. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.
“Dr. Stefan Hirschberg – Academic Profile.” Paul Scherrer Institut, http://www.psi.ch/en/lea/people/stefan-hirschberg. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.
Gessen, Masha. “What HBO’s Chernobyl Got Right and What it Got Terribly Wrong.” The New Yorker Online, 4 Jun. 2019, http://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/what-hbos-chernobyl-got-right-and-what-it-got-terribly-wrong. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
Goebel, Nicole. “Hundreds of Thousands Protest against Nuclear Energy across Germany.” DW, 26 Mar. 2011, http://www.dw.com/en/hundreds-of-thousands-protest-against-nuclear-energy-across-germany/a-14945340. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
Gompertz, Will. Review of Chernobyl, created by Craig Mazin. BBC Online, 4 May 2019, http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-48152005. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
Guterres, Antonio, convener. “Opening Press Release.” UN Climate Action Summit, 23 Sep. 2019 in New York. UN.org, http://www.un.org/en/climatechange/assets/pdf/CAS_main_release.pdf. Accessed 1 Oct. 2019.
Hirschberg, Stefan, and Peter Burgherr. “Sustainability Assessment for Energy Technologies.” Sustainability of Energy Systems, edited by S. K. Chou, et al., Wiley, 2015, pp. 2985-3006. Wiley Online Library, doi: 10.1002/9781118991978.hces070.
“How Chernobyl splits Atomic Facts from Fiction.” IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/videoplayer/vi1506589721. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
Huggler, Justin. “Germany Faces Growing Calls to Delay Phase-out of Nuclear-energy.” The Telegraph Online, 6 Jun. 2019, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/06/06/germany-faces-growing-calls-delay-phase-out-nuclear-energy/. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
Kramm, Lars. “The German Nuclear Phase-Out After Fukushima: A Peculiar Path or an Example for Others?.” Renewable Energy Law and Policy Review, vol. 3, no. 4, 2012, pp. 251-262. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24324663. Accessed 24 Sep. 2019.
Pearce, Fred, and Sara Reardon. “Fear after Fukushima to Push up Carbon Emissions.” New Scientist, 7 Mar. 2012, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328553-300-fear-after-fukushima-to-push-up-carbon-emissions/. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
“Road Traffic Injuries – Fact Sheet.” World Health Organization, 7 Dec. 2018, http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/road-traffic-injuries. Accessed 2 Oct. 2019.
Shellenberger, Michael. “Why HBO’s Chernobyl Gets Nuclear So Wrong.” Forbes Online, 6 Jun. 2019, http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/06/06/why-hbos-chernobyl-gets-nuclear-so-wrong/#13278716632f. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
Shramovych, Viacheslav, and Hanna Chornous. “Chernobyl Survivors Assess Fact and Fiction in TV Series.” BBC Online, 12 Jun. 2019, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48580177. Accessed 27 Sep. 2019.
Sornette, Didier, et al. New Ways and Needs for Exploiting Nuclear Energy. Springer, 2019. Springer Link, 10.1007/978-3-319-97652-5. Accessed 13 Sep. 2019.
Yang, Long, et al. “Typhoon Nina and the August 1975 Flood over Central China.” Journal of Hydrometeorology, vol. 18, no. 2, 2017, pp. 451-472. American Meteorological Society Online, doi: 10.1175/JHM-D-16-0152.1. Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.
- The data cited here was taken from graphs reproduced in Sornette et al., as I was unable to access the original graphscompiled by Dr. Stefan Hirschberg and Dr. Peter Burgherr. For those with greater reading rights than I, the link to Hirschberg and Burgherr’s original work is here:
Nevertheless, the institute to which Hirschberg and Burgherr belong appears to have a track record of high-quality research, relatively high levels of transparency and accountability, is funded by the Swiss Government, and works in partnership with a variety of similarly reputable institutions across the world. Therefore, in the absence of Hirschberg and Burgherr’s original work, a reproduction of their findings was sourced in Sornette et al. and the rigour of Hirschberg and Burgherr’s methodology was assumed to be sufficiently robust on the weight of evidence. For further information on Hirschberg and Burgherr please consult the following:
- See the scenario given for solar energy in Singapore on page 19 and the scenario given for wind energy in the UK on page 45 of Sornette et al. for further detail.
- Here, GWa stands for “the energy that a one GW power plant delivers over one year” (Hirschberg and Burgherr qtd. in Sornette et al. 32).
- For a comparison of nuclear power against other energy technologies, please consult Figure 1.11 in full (Hirschberg and Burgherr reprod. in Sornette et al. 32 [Fig. 1.11]).
- Figure calculated using data from Cardis et al.’s study. See Table 2A in Cardis et al. for more information, especially the bottom row (1228).
- This figure is calculated using data on the WHO’s “Cancer” webpage. The WHO states that tobacco is responsible for approximately 22% of cancer deaths (GBD 2015 Risk Factors Collaborators qtd. in “Cancer”) and that approximately 9.6 million deaths were caused by cancer in 2018 (“Cancer”). Calculating 22% of the 9.6 million cancer-related deaths in 2018 yields approximately 2.1 million – i.e. the number of cancer-related deaths attributable to tobacco in 2018.