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.
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