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August 1, 1986

Political and Medical Lessons of Chernobyl

Author Affiliations

From the University of Chicago Medical Center. Dr Cassel is a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Faculty Scholar in General Internal Medicine.

JAMA. 1986;256(5):630-631. doi:10.1001/jama.1986.03380050098030

THE ACCIDENT at Chernobyl can be seen in many different perspectives—all of them lessons in some way. One major lesson relevant to every citizen of the world, but especially physicians, is the error of politicizing disaster. Instead of recognizing the sobering fact that a tragedy in the Soviet Union could have happened here, it was often too easy for us in the United States to distance ourselves from the disaster by calling up dehumanizing stereotypes and fallacious assumptions.

When the Chernobyl reactor accident was first announced, the American press and media reacted with anti-Soviet sensationalism, not always based on verified information. Americans reassured themselves that the Soviets had less technological sophistication than we. The public and the press repeated the technical phrase that the graphite-core reactor did not have a containment vessel, with the implication that this unacceptable risk showed the Soviet lack of concern for human life. There was