Categories: Energy issues / History of PR

26 April 2010

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Chernobyl and the media: case studies

Dateline 1995: As the world prepared for the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the world’s media began a memorial feast of disaster stories. Here I review three classic examples.

Story #1: “125,000 Death-toll”
The BBC, news agencies and other media reported in April and May 1995 that 125 000 people had already died as a direct consequence of the accident in Ukraine alone, according to the Ukrainian health ministry.  This was a lead item on BBC TV news and radio and the story was carried prominently in newspapers across the globe. It was a case of sloppy reporting with no verification of the facts.

The health ministry had actually said that 125,000 deaths in Ukraine represented the normal rate of loss one would expect in the nine years that had followed the accident among the millions of people defined as living in affected territories. Most of the deaths were from natural causes and among predominantly elderly people.

The World Health Organisation issued a special briefing report at that time to squash the reports. WHO clarified that the official toll from the accident remained 28 dead from acute radiation syndrome and 200 or so people (sick, not dead) with radiation burns from fighting the fires in April 1986; and 500 cases of thyroid cancer among potentially 3 million children living in the most affected regions.

The thyroid story was very important, because it seemed to play to the argument that Chernolbyl’s radiation had indeed been a huge horror story. Indeed, the figure for the thyroid cancer toll has now risen to 4,000, almost all of which were non-fatal.  It is true that incidence of thyroid cancers in children were higher than had been expected. One of the most interesting (and mostly rather reassuring) experts on Chernobyl’s cancer legacy, Keith Baverstock, has noted (1998) that Chernobyl had taught us that radioactive iodine was more carcinogenic than had been supposed. He added that the US and European atomic weapons programmes had put more of the stuff – and more danger – into the atmosphere than Chernobyl did. In 1995, he was perhaps the first Western expert to consider the thyroid issues.

One of their main points was that hysterical reports were causing real health problems among people living in affected territories by unnecessarily increasing anxiety and stress levels. (The IAEA produced also produced a useful little booklet.)

The then chairman of the BBC Marmaduke Hussey apologised to the British nuclear industry trade association for the publicising the story. He blamed the mistake on inaccurate wire reports from a journalist who misunderstood a quote from the Ukrainian Health Minister at a one-day seminar in Kiev. In fact, the Ukraine Health Minister issued statements to the media at that event in English and in Russian saying that deaths and cancers, such as leukaemia, resulting from the accident were not then detectable, beyond some already known thyroid cancers among children.

Hussey emphasised that: “it is not practicable to check every detail of dispatches sent by correspondents of reputable agencies”. (1, 2)

Story #2:  Remember Igor Pavlovets?
In May 1995, Igor, Child of Chernobyl, a highly promoted documentary made by Carlton for the Network First strand on the UK’s ITV reported the tale of Igor Pavlovets, born after the 1986 accident in Belarus with stumped legs and a missing arm. Publicity for the programme highlighted that over one million children were either deformed like Igor or harmed as a result of the accident. It quoted a survey of 500 children in Minsk which found only one healthy child – which may have been the case given the parlous state of the Belarus economy and health service in 1995. Actually, there was no evidence linking his problems to Chernobyl.

After the barrage of TV and newspaper coverage about Igor, the World Health Organisation pointed out that the average rate of deformities among children in Belarus was 2, 000 per year. WHO clarified that given the number of children born there each year, that was inline with rates found elsewhere in the world. (3, 4)

Story #3: The tale of the collapsing building

In March 1995, The Observer newspaper led with a story that was supposedly based on a leaked industry report that had been suppressed by the European Commission. The substance of the report, whose origins were never revealed, was that the supporting pillars of the then working Reactor 3 could collapse onto the Sarcophagus built over Reactor 4, because they shared common weakened foundations and supporting walls. The Observer quoted an unnamed expert saying “supporting pillars could burst at any time”, meaning that a working reactor would effectively crash into the remains of the 1986 accident. A new international-scale disaster threatened, The Observer said.

Following the March 26 report, many ambassadors from Kiev’s embassies made for the offices of Mikhail Umanets, the then Ukraine minister for nuclear facilities, demanding an urgent explanation. He told them that The Observer’s case that Reactor 3 shared common foundations or supporting walls with the stricken Reactor 4 was nonsense. Each reactor building was built at different times; each had its own foundations independent of the adjacent reactor. It was only a cosmetic façade that made the two buildings look from the outside like they were one building. In fact, there was still an operational railway line in the gap between the two reactors; and the service block situated between the two reactors was no more than the access route linking the two buildings together, above the railway line.

The Observer ran a follow up report. It claimed that as a result of its coverage the US Vice president Al Gore and Norway’s Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland had placed the issue of western funding for Chernobyl high on the next G7 summit; held in Canada in June, 1995. Whether The Observer was a victim of industry or environmentalist lobbying remains a mystery. (5, 6)

1. Letter to Roger Hayes, the then director general of the British Nuclear Industry Forum, from Marmaduke Hussey, then chairman of the BBC, dated 20 June 1995
2. NucNet News No. 196/95, 10 May, 1995, reporting on a briefing document issued by the World Health Organisation’s Dr. Keith Baverstock.
3. The Times 1 June, 1995, by Nigel Hawkes, science editor,  Born under the cloud of Chernobyl
4. Sunday Times, 17 March 1996 by Steve Connor, Chernobyl: the fallout myth
5. The Observer 26 March, 1995, by Polly Ghazi (substantiated by the nuclear industry PR who accompanied her: me)
6. The Observer 30 April, 1995, by Polly Ghazi (substantiated by the nuclear industry PR who accompanied her: me)

One response to “Chernobyl and the media: case studies”

  1. […] As I have reported extensively on this online review, while Chernobyl was an horrific disaster, it was no where near as bad as the doom-mongers claimed – see here here and here. […]