Don’t Let HBO’s Chernobyl Scare You Away from Nuclear Power

 In Energy

By Andrew Rummens

Photo credit: Home Box Office, 2019

HBO’s new historical drama mini-series Chernobyl is a stunning and masterful production that portrays the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. Critics have lauded the show, claiming “No piece of dramatized non-fiction has ever felt this authentic”1 and that saying the show is thought-provoking “would be like describing Usain Bolt as quite a fast runner.”2 The show is also popular with viewers, with 756,000 homes tuned in to the series premiere on May 6.3 Although Americans should feel free to enjoy this show, they should be careful to not let it warp their opinions on nuclear power.

The Three Mile Island accident, one of the origins of much American anxiety toward nuclear power, did not result in any deaths or injuries. In fact, the accident only released the equivalent radiation of a standard X-ray scan to people within a 10-mile radius of the plant,4 and comprehensive investigations determined that the release itself had negligible effects on the environment.5

The Fukushima accident, the most recent nuclear reactor incident, was caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunamis in 2011. The radiation emitted from the meltdown forced the government to issue a 12.5-mile radius evacuation order, displacing more than 100,000 people.6 Although about 1000 people died during the evacuation, these were mostly elderly or sick individuals who were moved from hospitals or care. No individuals died from radiation leaks.7 In fact, it was estimated in 2011 that only 570-770 PBq of radioactivity had been released, with the 770 figure representing 15% of what was released during the Chernobyl disaster.8

The Chernobyl disaster, likely the main source of anxiety toward nuclear power, resulted in the immediate deaths of 30 people. The cause of the disaster determined by extensive investigations was a result of faulty Soviet reactor design, ill-trained and ill-prepared employees, and a communist government that refused to address the design flaws of its nuclear reactors.9 The Soviet RBMK reactor differed from those employed by the West, which was what enabled the radioactivity from the Three Mile Island accident to be contained, and RBMK reactors have since been upgraded to prevent Chernobyl-like disasters from repeating.10 While the Chernobyl disaster was a tragic accident, the people killed in the disaster account for all of the deaths related to nuclear power in the world.

Studies have shown that although the popular image of nuclear power as a dangerous, intimidating source of energy while other “green” sources like solar, wind, and hydro offer clean, safe means of energy production may be prevalent in American culture, the opposite is more often true.11 Not only are occupational-related deaths lower among nuclear power production than green sources, but the large quantity of materials required to make green sources viable require mining and extraction methods that run high risks.12

Nuclear power is not only one of the safest forms of energy production, but it has less direct and indirect CO2 emissions than other sources of energy.13 It even has less CO2 emissions than biomass, hydro, wind, or solar.14 The radioactivity emitted from nuclear power plants is even less than that of coal power plants.15

Because nuclear power accidents and deaths are so rare, the ones that do occur are covered with much greater media coverage than accidents and deaths from other conventional energy sources. American public opinion on nuclear power has tended to fluctuate in correlation with the relevance of high-profile accidents, from an approval high of 69% in 1977, falling to 46% after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 and falling again to 34% after the Chernobyl disaster.16 Public approval began to steadily climb in 2001 from 46% to 62% in 2010, although approval took another hit after the Fukushima accident in 2011.17 Today, US public opinion is evenly split on the use of nuclear power, with 49% in favor and 49% opposed,18 but fear and misinformation about the safety of nuclear power increase whenever there are proposals to increase the number of plants in the US. In reality, nuclear power is the safest and most reliable source of energy available.

Nuclear power is not a perfect source of energy. Storing nuclear waste is a challenge authorities must be capable of addressing, and proper steps should be taken to ensure accidents do not occur. However it is important for Americans to recognize that nuclear power is not a source of energy that should be feared, but one that should be welcomed and embraced, especially when compared to the risks involved with alternative sources.


  1. Stacey, Pat. 2019. “Chernobyl Review: ‘Devastatingly Powerful – No Piece of Dramatised Non-Fiction Has Ever Felt This Authentic.’” Independent.Ie. May 8, 2019.  

  2. Gompertz, Will. 2019. “Will Gompertz Reviews Chernobyl Starring Emily Watson & Jared Harris on Sky Atlantic.” BBC News, May 4, 2019.  

  3. Metcalf, Mitch. 2019. “UPDATED: SHOWBUZZDAILY’s Top 150 Monday Cable Originals & Network Finals: 5.6.2019 | Showbuzz Daily.” Showbuzzdaily.Com. May 6, 2019.  

  4. “What Happened and What Didn’t in the TMI-2 Accident.” 2012. Ans.Org. July 11, 2012.  

  5. “NRC: Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident.” 2018. Nrc.Gov. June 21, 2018.  

  6. “Fukushima Daiichi Accident – World Nuclear Association.” 2018. World-Nuclear.Org. 2018.  

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  9. “Chernobyl Accident 1986.” 2018. World-Nuclear.Org. April 2018.  

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  11. Conca, James. 2012. “How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt? We Rank The Killer Energy Sources.” Forbes, June 10, 2012.; Inhaber, Herbert. 1979. “Is Solar Power More Dangerous Than Nuclear?”; Wang, Brian. 2008. “Deaths per TWh for All Energy Sources: Rooftop Solar Power Is Actually More Dangerous than Chernobyl.” Nextbigfuture.Com. March 14, 2008.  

  12. Inhaber, Herbert. n.d. “Is Solar Power More Dangerous Than Nuclear?”  

  13. Markandya, Anil, and Paul Wilkinson. 2007. “Electricity Generation and Health.” The Lancet 370 (9591): 979–90. Pg 982 

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  15. Hvistendahl, Mara. 2007. “Coal Ash Is More Radioactive Than Nuclear Waste.” Scientific American. December 13, 2007.  

  16. Cooper, Michael, and Dalia Sussman. 2011. “Nuclear Power Loses Public Support in New Poll.” The New York Times, March 22, 2011.  

  17. Reinhart, RJ. 2019. “40 Years After Three Mile Island, Americans Split on Nuclear Power.” Gallup.Com. March 27, 2019.  

  18. IBID