Animal Planet’s Bogus Account of Chernobyl Wildlife

Fission for Scare Tactics

As someone who has spent the past four years making and distributing a documentary film about nuclear energy, Pandora’s Promise, it’s nice once in a while to spend a relaxing weekend at home with my kids thinking of more pedestrian things, like doing the laundry. But the battle over nuclear energy refuses to leave me alone despite my best efforts.

Recently, my 10-year old son, Luc, has become enamored with a highly popular fishing show on Animal Planet called River Monsters. To those of you unfamiliar with it, River Monsters is a British reality show that follows a dashing expert fisherman named Jeremy Wade around the world in search of dangerous freshwater predators. Last weekend, my son and his best friend were hanging out on a rainy day watching their favorite show when suddenly I hear shrieks from the TV room, “Dad, you gotta come and see this!”

I reluctantly saunter in to be confronted with an episode of River Monsters called "Atomic Assassin," in which Jeremy Wade goes to Chernobyl in search of giant mutant fish swimming in the cooling pond of the doomed reactor. Enviable production values, dramatic editing, pulse pounding music, and ominous narration leads the viewer to believe Wade is putting his life in radioactive peril to bring us a glimpse of this monster, mutant, never-before-seen fish. It’s all quite dramatic, no single shot lasting more than a few seconds and a musical score reminiscent of Jaws! There’s no escape. I’m hooked.

I spent three days filming in the same exact locations two years ago, and seeing Wade misrepresent and overhype just about every possible aspect of the experience is starting to make my blood boil. The kids are fixated. Luc is busy debunking the whole thing for his friend, a chip off the old block, but they’re both sitting there wide-eyed.

Our intrepid fisherman sports a dosimeter on his belt (similar to the one I used that features prominently in my film), but we’re never shown the readings he’s getting, though he frets all the time about the alarm going off (which happens at 0.3uSv/hr). It should be noted that I got the alarm to go off on my dosimeter at the top of Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire. It doesn’t take much, but in the right setting (Chernobyl or Fukushima) that alarm provides an acoustically haunting effect that’s easily exploited by journalists the world over.

Fishing in the shadow of the Chernobyl reactor, Wade lands fish after fish, though not the giant mutant monster he’s looking for – at least not before the last commercial break. He pulls out these creatures from the black lagoon one after another, astonished at how “normal” they look. He then speculates that their radiological mutations must be happening “on the cellular level” – presumably meaning that they may look healthy on the outside, but deep inside they’re really monsters.

At one point he interviews an American scientist from a nearby forest who informs him (and us) that the animal population is declining due to the lingering radiation, and that horrible mutations abound, albeit unseen. That’s strange. Didn’t we just watch an episode of NOVA that said exactly the opposite? One of the bizarre ironies about Chernobyl is that because there are far fewer humans in the area, the animal population is thriving to the point that the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now actually Europe’s largest game reserve. No matter.

At the dramatic conclusion of the show, Wade, having thus far failed to land the giant mutant we’re all desperately waiting to see, finally decides to try his luck fishing in the canal near the reactor, saying that he could only stay there for a few hours due to the enormous radiation he is receiving. I was able pause the video to read his dosimeter on one of the lighting quick edits. It reads 0.39uSv/hr, which is within the range of normal background radiation in many parts of the world. Hmm…

At last, a monster fish is on the line. He reels it in. It turns out to be a rather large catfish. This too looks perfectly normal. His narration tells us that the fish is later examined and deemed to be “16 times more radioactive than normal.” I’d say that’s not too bad, given that it’s lived in the Chernobyl cooling pond its entire life! Had Wade pulled his dosimeter out on the plane ride back to London, he would have discovered that he was receiving more than 20 times the radiation he normally receives at home, and more than 4 times what he received fishing in the shadow of Chernobyl. But to show that would be to defeat the entire purpose of the show, which is to scare the crap out of its young and impressionable audience. Which just goes to show you: never let facts get in the way of a good story, particularly when there are ratings to be had.

When this kind of irresponsible fear mongering enters the realm of children's television, you know we're in trouble. Not every kid is going to have son like mine to set him straight. This ain't The Simpsons.

Robert Stone is a multi-award-winning, Oscar-nominated, and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker whose most recent film, Pandora's Promise, documents how lifelong environmentalists have reversed their opposition to nuclear power.