Many parts of a recent five-part miniseries on HBO about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster got under Dan Sowers’ skin.
None more than watching the skin melt off the body of a victim exposed to radiation.
“This is not quite what we would expect to see,” Sowers says.
He would know.
Sowers* is a certified health physicist (CHP) and the current radiation safety officer at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The Agency, headquartered in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense.
“Chernobyl was a truly terrible disaster. There were a lot of horrific health effects caused by it,” Sowers says. “And I think critics and scientists agree that the series was well-researched in terms of what led to the incident, when, where and all the major events before and after,” Sowers said.
“There were a couple of scenes, particularly those with victims in the hospital, where creative liberties were clearly taken,” he adds.
Sowers isn’t alone in his assessment.
Various news outlets, including Forbes and The New York Times, questioned the pinpoint accuracy of the series during and after its run, with the latter boldly saying in an editorial: “The first thing to understand about the HBO mini-series ‘Chernobyl’ is that a lot of it is made up.” Examples include radiation victims being covered in blood (rare, if ever) and how radiation exposure was depicted as potentially contagious (it’s not).
CHPs know that when it comes to radiation, the poisoned don’t become poisonous.
It’s why CHPs should be on the set—or at least in the writer’s room.
“As my pilot friends tell me, piloting requires much more than the fancy flying you see in ‘Top Gun.’ As a result, they get frustrated with some of the scenes they see in those kinds of movies,” Sowers says. “Health physicists and nuclear engineers get equally frustrated with the dramatization of the Chernobyl miniseries.”
And it’s not the only program that sensationalizes the truth.
How the New Three Mile Island Docuseries Omits Important Facts
The fish, Sowers recalls vividly. The floating, dead fish.
A recent four-part miniseries about another historic nuclear incident, the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island (TMI) reactor near Middletown, Pennsylvania, shows various images of lifeless fish along the Susquehanna River adjacent to the now-retired facility.
The cause, according to the documentary? The 1979 accident, which was caused by a relief valve failure and further complicated by incorrect operator intervention. The good news: No injuries or noticeable health concerns surfaced from the nuclear incident, the worst of its kind on American soil.
But the fish?
“No idea where that came from,” Sowers says. “There was not enough radioactivity discharged to kill thousands of fish in the river.”
Media reports confirm this estimation.
“So, no,” he adds. “The Susquehanna River did not fill with dead fish from the accident.”
But concerns linger, and the series—which weighs heavily on whistleblower testimony—made a disproportionate number of residents on the east coast Google “is it safe to live here?” and other what-if scenarios.
“You have to value the whistleblower commentary, especially from someone in the government sector like this series did,” Sowers said. “But you must value the counterargument too. Otherwise, you’re just telling a one-sided narrative.”
Like, he says, the one the Netflix special talks about regarding vented krypton gas from the damaged nuclear reactor.
“Krypton is a noble gas, unreactive chemically,” Sowers says. “It doesn’t burn, mate or bond with anything. That’s important because if you or I breathe in radioactive krypton, we breathe it right back out—unlike radioactive hydrogen or radioactive oxygen, which gets immediately absorbed by the body.”
In other words, there are no cancer clusters from the accident, Sowers says, and the venting of radioactive krypton gas is “not a big deal from a health physics standpoint.”
“While for the most part, the key personnel, timelines and major events were researched and generally accurate, many liberties were taken to make certain the viewer lived through a dramatic experience,” Sowers says. “But the health physics implications of TMI were and are negligible for the population of central Pennsylvania and the east coast.”
Why Fear, Hysteria Linger from Erroneous Hollywood Enactments
Experts argue there’s a psychological cost to these dramatized Hollywood misrepresentations of radiation exposure.
Take one sports reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, who tweeted the following after watching one episode of the Chernobyl series: “Now I’m in a full-blown panic, and I need someone to explain to me how it is at all OK to live on the east coast when this is the situation.”
It’s OK, many assured the reporter, who, to her credit, added this: “I’m completely aware that my lack of knowledge could be contributing to what might be an irrational fear. This is what the Internet does.”
“I think in these types of situations—when you see something or hear something about radiation exposure that you’re not sure of—CHPs are the best resources you can have,” Sowers says.
During the Three Mile Island fallout, the early confusion and colossal communication failures compounded the accident and promoted frustration and fear in the public that, in terms of health physics, may not have been needed.
As a result, the psychological aspect of the accident has become very real and traumatic.
“In fighter jet movies, they like to say, ‘’It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot,’” Sowers says. “That’s true, and it applies to life too, especially health physics. But, unfortunately, there’s a line between truth and drama that is often overstepped in each miniseries, and to be inclusive, I suppose in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ as well.”
The answer, again, is to become a CHP and help clarify the fuzzy big screen details for those not sure of what’s fact or fiction.
How You Can Learn More About Chernobyl and TMI
For a more thorough and less dramatic representation of the Chernobyl accident, Sowers recommends reading or listening to the books Chernobyl by S. Plohky and Midnight in Chernobyl by A. Higginbotham.
For a more thorough, factual and less dramatic representation of the TMI accident, Sowers recommends the book Three Mile Island by JS Walker. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also has an excellent factsheet available.
“The nuclear energy industry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission learned valuable lessons from accidents like these. Some 40 years later, nuclear power remains a safe, clean and reliable energy source,” Sowers says.
*The opinions expressed by Daniel Sowers are his own personal views, not those of DoD or DTRA