Will The Truth About Chernobyl Ever Come Out?

By James Conca

Yes, it already has, but the truth is so much more boring than the assertions of megadeath, that it generally gets ignored.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident (today April 26th) and the 5thanniversary of the Fukushima accident (March 11th). These two events constitute the only serious accidents in the nuclear power industry in history. People died as a result of Chernobyl, but no one has yet died from Fukushima. There were some less severe accidents, mostly at weapons sites, but the nuclear power industry is still the safest industry in the world by any measure.

So how serious was Chernobyl? How many people were actually killed by radiation and subsequent cancers?

340,000 people were evacuated or resettled after the accident. Five million people live in what many consider contaminated areas in northern Europe, but no radiation-induced health effects have been observed in these groups and their resettlement is now considered a grave mistake that destroyed the lives of an entire generation.

The media continues to wrongly assert that experts still debate whether the Chernobyl deaths number in the hundreds or in the millions, but there is actually no such debate among the experts. The number is less than a hundred. While this is horrible, it does not rise to the level of the millions of deaths that the public now believes resulted from this accident and that has so incorrectly colored the worldview on nuclear energy.

Several organizations have reported on the impacts of the Chernobyl accident, but all have had problems assessing the significance of their observations because of the lack of reliable public health information in this region before 1986. The inability to establish a control group led to wild assertions of health effects that were little more than made up.

The World Health Organization first raised concerns in 1989 that local medical personnel hadincorrectly attributed various biological and health effects to radiation exposure. Following this, the Soviet Government requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to coordinate an international expert assessment of the Chernobyl accident’s radiological, environmental and health consequences in selected towns of the most heavily contaminated areas in Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine.

Between March 1990 and June 1991, a total of 50 field missions were conducted by 200 experts from 25 countries, seven organizations, and 11 laboratories. In the absence of pre-1986 data, it compared a control population known to not have been affected by the disaster with those exposed to radiation. Significant health disorders were evident in both control and exposed groups, but none were related to radiation.

The health effects, including deaths, were thoroughly documented by the Chernobyl Forum September 6-7, 2005 in Vienna in their resultant report.  The Chernobyl Forum was established by the IAEA in 2003 to provide an authoritative consensus on the impact of the accident.  Forum members included the IAEA, the United Nations Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Environment Program, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank.  The governments of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine were also members of the Forum.

As summarized by Dr. William Burchill, former President of the American Nuclear Society, the actual fatalities were

  • 2 immediate, non-radiation deaths
  • 28 early fatalities from radiation within 4 months,
  • 19 late adult fatalities from radiation over the next 20 years, and
  • 9 late child fatalities from radiation resulting in thyroid cancer.

These last nine are an inexcusable tragedy since they were totally avoidable with a warning from the Soviet government (which they intentionally failed to do in time), and appropriate administration of potassium iodide prior to I-131 reaching that area and getting into the food chain, also failed by the Soviets.

Almost a thousand emergency workers were thrown into the fire in the first days of the accident by the Soviets, and this led to the approximately 50 deaths from cancer and other health issues.

According to Mikhail Balonov, Secretary of Science at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the 600,000 recovery and operations workers that have worked at Chernobyl since the accident, and the five million residents of the contaminated areas in the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, received minor doses similar to natural background radiation levels. There have been no observable radiation-induced health effects in these people. And certainly none have occurred in areas outside these regions which received even less dose.

Those who selflessly worked to fight the Chernobyl fire and to clean-up the contaminated environment after the accident were called liquidators. As a U.S. Government coordinator of Chernobyl water and soil environments. Dr. Yasuo Onishi, Emeritus at PNNL, worked with many liquidators who were also radiation scientists, and made an important observation:

“Fully knowingly, these scientists risked their lives by measuring Chernobyl environmental radiation levels and remediating contaminated environments. For example, to be safe from radiation, they could stay for only a month in the contaminated area.  But they stayed in the Chernobyl area for a month, and then went back to their home towns.  After a month in their home towns, they went back again to Chernobyl for a month.  They repeated this cycle multiple times. When I asked them why they did such dangerous actions, they told me that it was their job to protect people.  They truly love their people.”

As concluded in the 2008 report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation: “There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.”

Immediately after the accident, the ultra-conservative regulatory Linear No-Threshold (LNT) dose hypothesis was used to guesstimate that about 4,000 deaths could eventually occur by radiation from Chernobyl, but these still have not been observed. The United Nations has since warned that using the LNT model to calculate such deaths is an incorrect use of this model, and should be avoided.

The irony is that this number of 4,000 deaths was taken by the media as being conservative, when it was truly liberal, and was doubled and tripled over and over, until some people started putting out numbers closer to a million, a favorite number of anti-nuclear ideologues. Today, on the 30th anniversary, these ridiculous numbers will be rampant throughout the news media and blogosphere.

However, as with Fukushima, the most significant health and economic problems came from the perceived severity of the accident and the fear spread through misunderstanding of radiation effects and the sometimes unethical exploitation of the refugees.

The Chernobyl Forum reported that people in the area suffered a paralyzing fatalism resulting from the myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation, which has contributed to a culture of chronic dependency. Mental health coupled with smoking and alcohol abuse has been an overwhelmingly greater problem than radiation in all of the contaminated zones, but worst of all was the underlying poor level of health and nutrition which gave rise to many health problems unrelated to radiation, although many were attributed to radiation. Unfortunately, relocation of this many people was extremely traumatic and did little to reduce radiation exposure, which was low anyway.

In fact, the fear-mongering and inflated death-toll of Chernobyl over the years led directly to the public and government over-reaction to Fukushima and the unnecessary harm to tens of thousands of Japanese citizens.

A 30-km exclusion zone still exists around the Chernobyl reactor, and has been maintained as a precaution, even though the radiation levels in this zone are far below any that would cause health effects. Unmolested by human hands, the Chernobyl exclusion zone has become an amazing natural wildlife habit, as well as a growing tourist attraction. In fact, about a thousand people never left Chernobyl and have survived just fine for 30 years. Another 3,000 people still work at the reactor complex.

So the truth is boring, but it’s essential that the truth is recognized and used as part of a rational discussion on global nuclear safety and nuclear power, and folded into how we choose a diverse mix of low-carbon energy that we need to adopt for the long-term survival of humanity and the planet on which we live.

This article was originally posted on the Forbes/Energy website, and has been reprinted with Dr. Conca’s full permission.

James Conca

Dr. James Conca is a geochemist, an RDD expert, a planetary geologist and professional speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jimconca and see his book at Amazon.com

12 thoughts on “Will The Truth About Chernobyl Ever Come Out?

  1. Mitch

    Funny how it was Chernobyl that inspired the core driver of the plot of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country!

  2. Engineer-Poet

    In all honesty, Li, the search is easy if you can dump to a flat file and use Unix tools.  If you want drum 23451, with an unknown number of zeroes in front, you do this:

    grep ‘[0]*23451′ drumlist.txt

    This returns all strings with 23451 prefixed by any number of leading zeroes.

    The technical illiteracy of the managers, and hostility to questions, is of course inexcusable.  Such people need to be retrained, transferred or fired.  It’s obvious that the use of flammable kitty litter which led to the WIPP fire was caused by such technically illiterate people, who intimidated the scientifically competent from questioning and correcting them.

  3. Li

    TRUTH ?
    This is Anti-American, anti-Russian, anti any democratic or not nation, who has secrets, most of them hiding criminals, not good science.
    Take for example Valentine’s day 2014 at WIPP Carlsbad, happened under this paper author watch.
    Does anyone dare to tell the real truth ?
    OK, were a series of cover-up reports, blaming kitty-litter than people using it under forceful management.
    By 2002, working for LANL TRU-Waste group, I had difficulties automatically finding the desired drum data, and I had to do it by repetitive searches, because in front of a 5 figures real drum no less than 30,000, a random number of zeros were added, with the intention to make-up for a 13 figures number, and some people were typing 5, some 6, up to 9 zeros…when I asked the question: Why do we need to type 8 zeros in front of ant Id. Number, all the group seemed revolted from the little boss (supervisor) to the big-boss, and when I protested I was explained that they took it like that because of bar code, and no “invention” is allowed, have to be done by hand by each operator…
    When I requested depleted Uranium, few Kg, for an X-Ray calibration wedge, all the “waste” division was talking in my back that I want to make an IED and took about 2 weeks, asking why I do not get the material, until I was invited by the division deputy leader, to learn about bombs, and my intentions, and I have explained him, that my uranium is not good for bombs, the other kind “enriched” is what needed.
    Finally, after half an hour, explaining how the bombs are made, and the difference of what I’m doing, he finally get it, but both concluded to drop my request due to bureaucratic complications due to the “magic” word.
    Finally, after protesting against “forceful management”, and “programmatic work”, where people are not allowed to think and ask questions on what they are doing, I was subject of progressive discipline. After I calculated that if I do what I am psychologically forced to do, based on verbal orders,- almost any important action in DOE is done on verbal words, and on paper is put only what is showing good and is “politically fair”,- calculating a loss of about $50M based on the system WIPP bragged to have in place operational, I have lost my funding. Fortunately “Nature loved them” on Valentine’s day, 10 years earlier than I have predicted them (up to division leaders, may be retired by now), and the real damage was by 1 order of magnitude bigger a half of Billion and counting, because they bragged only in the web pages, that look by 1-2 orders of magnitude better than reality. If one wants to check that, take one from DOE complex randomly, and then see the real stuff on the ground…
    And now, we point the finger to Russians ?
    What about our own yard ? and we wonder why public has such a bad attitude on nuclear power, a technology that delivers by 2-3 orders of magnitude less causalities than regular industry?
    The answer to this question in spite is obvious is also complex and almost nothing can be done to correct that, so we probably will witness the extinction of nuclear power, in the favor of nuclear weaponry..
    Same happened to the Japan guy who warned the TEPCO leadership on the sea protective (tsunami) walls too low, 70% of Japanese nuclear fleet are in this situation, so is good that they shut them down, who was promoted to Tokyo and out, for “professional under-performance” reasons.
    Russian’s relations are even more complicated, in fact all that mad test was triggered by some military bombarding a Syrian Russian design reactor, where they intended to avoid spending on battery banks, similar to TEPCO that saved some money not preparing for basement flooding, or US that saved some money not having in place all systems at WIPP, and some other places that continuously is polluting underground water with Tritium at old power plants, with no sign to understand and change the course, by implementing Gen 4 reactors…and accelerating research in nuclear materials for implementing gen 5-8 reactors.
    For the old boys in power, learning is painful, so they want to retire doing more of the same, covered by a ton of inflated words. Do you really love the Truth?

  4. James Greenidge

    Re: “As far as total damage is concerned I suppose it was not a very “serious” accident but the men killed there should not be forgotten”

    Granted that. How many people are laying flowers for, much less even remember or even KNOW of the deaths at Deepwater Horizon just for non-nuke starters? Why are nuclear victims always so sacredly martyred over any others as though theirs was a uniquely unnatural evil way to die?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  5. Engineer-Poet

    1.  The SL-1 accident was in 1961, not 1951.
    2.  SL-1 was a very early military program, without the protections and procedures used by civilian power stations.
    3.  The cause was fully determined, and of course it was something like “why didn’t anyone think of that?!”  Well, now people DO think of that.  That’s why there hasn’t been anything like the SL-1 incident in 55 years and counting.

  6. Albert E. Wilson, PhD, PE (Nuclear)

    No one seems to remember the SL-1 accident at The National Reactor Testing Station (now INL) in Idaho in 1951. True, it was a power reactor prototype, not a power reactor and it was built for the Army and not for a power company but the accident destroyed the reactor and killed the three operators on duty that night.

    The cause of the accident was never actually determined but the root cause was probably as stupid as imaginable. There is a complete description of the accident in an issue of Nuclear News of 1951. (I forget which month.)

    As far as total damage is concerned I suppose it was not a very “serious” accident but the men killed there should not be forgotten.

  7. Brian Mays

    Bob – How about ANS sticking with its own position statement on the matter (Position Statement #41 – PDF), which states:

    … the ANS concurs with the Position Statement on “Radiation Risk in Perspective” issued by the Health Physics Society in January 1996, which states as follows:”In accordance with the current knowledge of radiation health risks, the Health Physics Society recommends against quantitative estimation of health risks below an individual dose of 5 rem 1 in one year or a lifetime dose of 10 rem in addition to background radiation. Risk estimation in this dose range should be strictly qualitative accentuating a range of hypothetical health outcomes with an emphasis on the likely possibility of zero adverse health effects. The current philosophy of radiation protection is based on the assumption that any radiation dose, no matter how small, may result in human effects, such as cancer and hereditary genetic damage. There is substantial and convincing scientifi c evidence for health risks at high dose. Below 10 rem (which includes occupational and environmental exposures) risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are non-existent.”

    Those 4,000 cancer estimates is based, not on “our best scientific understanding,” but on the type of risk estimation that the ANS and the Health Physics Society specifically recommend against.

  8. Dan Meneley

    Education, yes. But there are many ways in which education can be received and accepted (or rejected). Perhaps the most efficient way to learn is via experience. This way takes time, especially when examples of fatality from overdose of ionizing radiation are so rare. Similar to aircraft crashes — but in our case the benefits of nuclear fission energy are not nearly so obvious. If we give it some more time, then perhaps the benefits will become more obvious; for example, when comparing with the benefit/cost ratio of fossil fuels.

    Nuclear energy is on the upswing now in several countries, with North America lagging behind. If pro-nuclear countries prosper then perhaps our deniers — especially those in power — will wake up to the truth.

    Best regards
    Dan

  9. Dr K S Parthasarathy

    People by and large fear radiation. The fuss about the reporters of Associated Press declining to drink farm-fresh milk offered by a farmer owning a dairy in Chernobyl is an instance in point. Besides declining to drink the milk, they managed get the radioactivity content assessed by a State Lab.They found that the milk contained 37.5Bq/kg, ten times the limit prescribed by Belarus State.The reporters’ observation was disputed by the company which collects milk from the dairy. I wondered what these reporters ate while on the visit, probably they carried, hamburgers, pizza and dried fruit from their home country.In their report they mentioned in passing that Sr-90 may cause cardiovascular diseases.Mass scale education is needed to win back public confidence in nuclear energy

  10. Engineer-Poet

    Rod Adams has often noted that Bob Applebaum makes his money via the ever-tightening control of radiation exposures, and anything resembling a standard based on a threshold or a daily dose below regulatory concern would hit him directly in the wallet.

    Just to bring this up on Bob’s alerts:  Jerry Cuttler.

  11. Ike Bottema

    LNT is a scientific consensus theory

    Hardly! It’s an unproven hypothesis. There is most certainly no scientific consensus that it’s a valid hypothesis, in fact many scientific studies have invalidated it. Even the original proponent, Muller, was proven to have fudged his results.

    Yet we are saddled with it. Why is that? You suggest that’s because most scientists believe it. I suggest that it’s a bunch of bureaucrats who display a noticeable CYA syndrome. Professor Wade Allison has this to say:

    The latest recommendations of the International Commission for Radiological Protection, ICRP103 [27], offer some major relaxations in estimated radiation risk, relative to the view taken in its 1990 Report. But this 2007 Report still clings to the language of LNT, although when pressed it concedes that this does not represent a belief in a linear mechanism so much as a way in which to parametrise the data. An example of its halfhearted adherence to LNT was referred to earlier in chapter 6. The Report is equally ambivalent when summarising its position on the existence of a damage threshold [27, p.210],

    Although the available data do not exclude the existence of a universal low-dose threshold, the evidence as a whole … does not favour this proposition.

    It goes on to comment on the contrary view, (A)

    recent low-dose report from the French Academies … emphasises evidence on the potential dose-dependence of post-irradiation cellular signalling, DNA repair, apoptosis and other adaptive anti-tumorigenic processes in order to argue for the existence of a practical lowdose threshold for radiation cancer risk. Overall, the long standing question on the true validity of the LNT model may well prove to be beyond definitive scientific resolution and that ‘weight of evidence’ arguments and practical judgements are likely to continue to apply in the foreseeable future.

    Such disdain by ICRP for meaningful scientific discussion of radiation safety suggests that they have now exhausted their lines of argument. Elsewhere the ICRP Report acknowledges the existence of a threshold for high doses, and also for some conditions at low dose [27, p.143-144], The dose responses for in utero radiation-induced tissue reactions, malformations and neurological effects are judged to show dose thresholds above a few tens of millisievert.

    Allison, Prof. Wade (2011-07-28). Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear (Kindle Locations 2555-2571). . Kindle Edition.

  12. Bob Applebaum

    Will the truth about Chernobyl ever come out? Not by reading this misinformation. Contrary to what’s written, LNT is a scientific consensus theory (like evolution or anthropogenic global warming) and the 4,000 cancer estimates are based upon our best scientific understanding.

    Does the ANS really want to promote science denial?

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