On November 23, 2014, 60 minutes, the venerable CBS News Sunday evening program that has been on the air since its launch in 1968, aired a segment titled Chernobyl: The Catastrophe That Never Ended. The show is full of fascinating contrasts between what the cameras show to the audience and what the narrator tells the audience that they should believe.
Watched with the sound off, viewers see a landscape that has been largely abandoned by humans and taken over by lush greenery. There are a few people living and working in the area who seem quite content. They gesture to interesting icons, statues, empty buildings, and the relics of an old amusement park. There are camera wielding tourists casually walking around and putting themselves in a variety of position seeking an unusual photo or camera angle.
There is a large construction project with swarms of workers wearing the high visibility vests that are typical for a busy work site with numerous moving vehicles. That busy site is quite close to the site of the reactor that was severely damaged 28 years ago in what is perhaps one of the most widely discussed explosions and fires in recorded history.
There are photos of solidified material taken by remote cameras from inside the reactor building. The material looks like it will remain in place for a very long time.
The narrator appears to be well past the standard retirement age of 65.
In fact, the segment narrator, Bob Simon is a television journalist with a long and distinguished history that includes a substantial body of reporting work from Vietnam in the early 1970s. He was born in May 1941. At 73, he is about 5 years older than the first baby boomers. Simon is a member of the “duck and cover” generation who was at a very impressionable age of just 4 when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If you turn the sound on and watch the segment again, you will hear the narrator telling viewers that radiation “virtually never dies”, that the Chernobyl “crisis” is still with us, that the damaged plant is a danger to the world, that he disbelieves anything that the government or nuclear trained scientists and engineers have told us about the current situation and that he trembles when his dosimeter makes an audible sound designed to let a wearer know that he should take a look at it and understand his current exposure.
He cannot understand why his construction project tour guide — a man who has worked every day at the site for years — seems unconcerned. He is surprised to find a musician who has chosen to live near the reactor instead of someplace more distant. He seems shocked when that musician uses the word “sacred” to describe his surroundings.
He talks to an old couple who returned to their evacuated village more than 25 years ago. That couple tells him that they were constantly sick in the apartment where the government placed them during the evacuation but have been healthy ever since they moved back into their home. Simon asks if no one ever told them that their home was a dangerous place to live; the man tells Simon that he would have died long ago if he had remained in the city.
Finally Simon finds someone else who will reinforce his fears and help him spread the word that radioactivity in the Chernobyl area is not so low after all. Timothy Mousseau, a University of South Carolina biologists who has been the subject of several posts on Atomic Insights — including Critical Analysis of Mousseau Fukushima Presentation — tells Simon that mice found in “The Zone” can be 10,000 times as radioactive as a mouse from a clean area. Not surprisingly, that scary sounding fact is allowed to stand on its own, with no context provided about the health effect to the mouse or the actual level of contamination found. What is 10,000 times virtually zero?
Based on the professional position he has attained, I’d guess that Bob Simon was a good student when he was growing up. I assume that he was skilled at learning his lessons well enough to repeat the information that his teachers wanted to hear on tests, in essays, and during class presentations.
He apparently listened carefully to the lessons that frequently reminded him to be very afraid of radiation, but he seems to have avoided enrolling in any courses that might have provided useful information about how radiation is measured, what effects it has at various levels of intensity and why there is absolutely no reason for a 73 year old man to worry about radiation health effects unless he happens to somehow find an area with levels hundreds of times higher than the ones that can be measured near Chernobyl.
He probably didn’t spend much time wondering why the information he memorized did not match reality, possibly because he never met anyone who worked with radiation on a professional basis.
He also seems to have avoided noticing that lumps of metal cannot move or become airborne without some kind of driving force or that materials inside buildings — even poorly maintained buildings — do not harm people who are outside of the buildings. When trained people can comfortably work within a few hundred feet of the damaged reactor building, it should be obvious to a professional investigator there is no need for anyone living several miles away to worry and absolutely no need for anyone living dozens to hundreds of miles away to spend any time fretting about potential health effects.
Of course, Bob Simon probably did not write, produce or approve the segment, so there are numerous culpable people involved in the production and distribution of the misinformation contained in Chernobyl: The Catastrophe That Never Ended.
I correspond with a number of experts in fields related to radiation, radioactive waste management, site restoration, and the health effects of low level radiation. There has been quite a bit of discussion about the misinformation propagated by this particular 60 Minutes segment.
Here is a quote from Dr. Leo Gomez, who had a long and distinguished career in radiation science, including serving as the editor of the journal Radioactive Waste Management and Environmental Restoration.
I don’t know if you saw the 60 Minutes program, but it was really bad. If their stories about topics I know little about are as off the mark as the Chernobyl story was, I don’t see how the 60 Minutes folks ca be believed. I’ll be more attentive to what they say about anything doing with science.
That comment reminded me of a time when I participated in a survey at my local Rotary Club. About 90% of us believed that the media did a very poor job of accurately providing information about the fields that we knew the most about. About the same number of us generally trusted the media as a source of information for those fields that we knew little about. Think about that for a moment.
After watching the segment several times, I found myself wondering why it was produced and why CBS chose to air it now. With all of the major events happening in the world today, why did CBS choose to focus the attention of its large and still influential audience on a site that was made famous by an industrial accident that took place nearly three decades ago.
I picked up several clues. Not only does the segment reinforce the drumbeat of radiation fear that has been repeated for the past 55 years, but it also reminds people that the Soviet empire failed a long time ago as a result of mistakes like Chernobyl. The abandoned city of Pripyat is described as a “model of Soviet modernity.” Simon emphasizes the Soviet era iconography around the city with at least a half a dozen lengthy camera shots and several paragraphs of commentary.
Near the end he makes the following comment:
He spends most of his time writing music for his base guitar, music as desolate as the landscape surrounding him (footage of abandoned apartments — surrounded by lush greenery). As desolate as the remains of this empire which has long since disappeared (camera focuses on a statue of Lenin).
I might be reading too much into those words, but I suspect that Simon and his producers are subtly saying that Chernobyl should be viewed as a symbolic expression of the Soviet Union and that the real danger it represents is that the empire that created the catastrophe seems to be trying to rise again.
It is also possible that the segment is designed to garner sympathy and resources for Ukraine as it struggles for continued independence against a rising Russian influence. The message in this well-times propaganda piece is not only antinuclear, but anti-Russian.
Note: I recommend a visit to the CBS page about the segment, where there are several additional related videos that were not aired as part of the televised segment. Those clips helped to form the basis for my interpretation. I considered embedding or or two of them here, but some of the programmed pre-roll ads are rather offensive “blue pill” commercials.