The English newspaper The Guardian is one of the most respected newspapers of the western world. I check it online every day and wouldn’t want to miss it. The Guardian is a left-leaning publication. And therefore, unfortunately, it’s journalists and editors obviously lose their composure and professionalism when it comes to the nuclear issue.
When The Guardian reports about the fire that broke out Saturday 4th of April in the forest close to the nuclear power plant (NPP) of Chernobyl in Ukraine, its bias on the nuclear issue is clearly expressed: “Bad news: Radiation 16 times above normal … .”
The picture illustrating the article shows a Geiger counter against a background of the fire. The display shows 0.34 micro-sievert per hour (µSv/h). As experienced news readers and because we trust the Guardian, we interpret the picture as the proof of the message of the title: Danger, highly excessive radiation (“16-times”).
However, this picture and the whole story are misleading – I guess that is what we call “fake news”.
No ordinary reader can classify this number 0.34 µSv/h. It would be the simple professional duty of a journalist to make this classification. The Guardian doesn’t do it. I’ll try:
Yes, the forests in the vicinity of the Chernobyl NPP are still affected by elevated levels of radioactivity. And a fire in these forests always implies the risk, that some of the radioactivity is carried by the wind.
This is why in the whole region you find boards on th side of the road displaying informations about this danger and call on people, who discover fire or even only see some smoke, to call the alarm center.
0.34 µSv/h seems to be an increased radiation level for the Chernobyl region. As we learn from our research, the radioactivity measured “normally” in the region of the NPP is 0.14 µSv/h.
0.34 µSv/h is not really a high dose at all. It corresponds to a projected annual dose of 3 milli-sievert (mSv).
3 mSv is pretty exactly the global “Average annual human exposure to ionizing radiation in millisieverts (mSv) per year”. “Average dose” = without the legacy of a nuclear accident in the vicinity or a fire from a contaminated forest.
There are places in the world, where the normal annual dose is much higher (up to 100 mSv) or much lower.
In my homecountry Switzerland, every person is exposed to a dose of 5.8 mSv per year, in average (see official graph). It varies in Switzerland from place to place as well.
If the exposure from medical applications is subtracted, we have a value of 4.3 mSv.
In the Black Forest, some 45 km from my place in the village Menzenschwand, people live with 18 mSv/year = 2.0 µSv/h and tourists are attracted by the “Radon Revital Bath”.
The true story
A short further research in the internet lets us discover the true story:
Obviously, the story goes back to an “alarm” on Facebook by Ukraine’s head of Ecological Inspection Services Yegor Firsov on Sunday morning 5th of April.
In his post on Facebook Firsov showed a short video of his Geiger counter displaying 2,3 µSv/h and later even 2.6 µSv/h. This corresponds to about 20 mSv/year, about 4 times the normal dose in Switzerland or about the dose in Menzenschwand/Black Forest.
It is a dose that radiation safety authorities try to avoid, but still far away from the dose of 100 mSv, above which effects on the health of people can reasonably be attributed.
Firsov’s 2,3 µSv/h seem to be the base of the calcualtion of the Guardian of the “16-times above normal” radiation.
However, Firsov does not make this calculation. Rather, in the very next sentence of his FB-post, he makes the relativizing explanation: “But this situation is only found directly at the fire.”
The motivation for Firsov’s FB-post was most obviously to alarm the public (and his superiors?) about the reason of the repeated fires in the exclusion zone: Arson. Arsonists set the forest on fire to hide their theft of wood.
The question remains, why the Guardian illustrates its article with an image showing a (much smaller) value of 0.34 µSv/h.
Maybe it’s because neither the author of the article nor his editor have a clue about radiation and have been too lazy to check in wikipedia – what is a professional disqualification in itself – or, even worse, maybe they know, but are intentionally missleading the reader. I fear, both is true.
As indicated correctly by the Guardian in the caption of the picture, it was taken by Yaroslav Yemelianenko.
From a post by Raphael Telis on Facebook we learn, that Yaroslav Yemelianenko is the head of a tour operator guiding a growing number of tourist to the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. He took this photo “precisely to refute the claim, that radiation levels risen” to a dangerous level. Yemelianenko disqualified the Guardian article as what it is: “ridiculuous”.
I don’t know, if the Guardian was the first newspaper to run this “story” distorting the facts to give it the intended anti-nuclear thrill. It was published at 00.06 on Monday 6th of April. In any case, the same story was copied by many other media and the fake news is still multiplied today actively supported by the “experts” from Greenpeace.
However, the authors not only translated the alarm of the Chief of the Ukrainian Ecological Services to an anti-nuclear feramongering story probably in the hope of managing the anti-nuclear outrage of their customers.
They also abused the photo of Yaroslav Yemelianenko, reversing the intended message of the photographer, but also taking their readers for fools, who wouldn’t be able to dectect the fraud.
Worse still, this embarrassing example of bad journalism goes much deeper: The endless fearmongering of the western media about the dangers of nuclear energy comes at an expensive price: It contributes to the general fear of radiation, which has poved a major killer in the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
And, not surprisingly, this latest media story about the fires in the Chernobyl forest unnecessarily fosters and increases the fear of the people in the Ukraine, who are still traumatized by the experience of the catastrophe more than 30 years ago: Yegor Firsov had to calm down the frightened people in Kiev, that “it is safe to go outside and open windows in the city of Kiev.”