Putting Chernobyl in Perspective

By Josh Gilder

With the world gripped by fear that the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants may turn into “another Chernobyl,” perhaps it’s worth examining just how bad Chernobyl actually was.

There’s no doubt that the scale of the accident was unequalled, either before, or so far in Japan, since.  The Soviet-style nuclear reactor had been built without a containment structure, and when the graphite moderator components caught fire, they spewed more than 400 times more radioactivity into the environment than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

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Some 5 million people lived in the immediately affected area of the Ukraine, but all Europe became paralyzed by fear as hourly news reports tracked the radioactive cloud across the continent.  Estimates at the time were of “tens of thousands” of lives lost, and pregnant mothers from Sweden to Italy underwent abortions for fear that their babies would be born with radiation-induced abnormalities.

This, indeed, remains the persistent image of Chernobyl to this day, as newscasts warn that winds may carry the Fukushima radioactivity as far as the West Coast of the United States.  But before we start duct-tapping our windows again, we can get some perspective from those who have actually studied the effects of the Chernobyl fallout.

In 2006, 20 years after the accident, a group of eight UN agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, assessed the damage in a study incorporating the work of hundreds of scientists and health experts from around the world.

It turns out that two decades after the fact, the death toll had not reached the tens of thousands that were predicted.  In fact, fewer than 50 deaths could be directly attributable to radiation from the disaster, almost all of them among rescue workers who had been exposed to massive amounts of radiation on the disaster site at the time of the fire and its immediate aftermath.  In addition, nine children in the area died of thyroid cancer that is thought to have been caused by radioactive contamination, but even among the nearby population, there was neither evidence of decreased fertility nor of congenital malformations that could be attributed to radiation exposure.

Any loss of life, particularly among children, is tragic.  But clearly the mass causalities that were almost universally predicted – not just by the newshounds, but by the many “experts” who commented at the time – have not materialized.  “By and large,” the report concludes, “we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health…”

It is worth putting even the UN’s low casualty figures in perspective. As the report notes, over 1,000 onsite reactor staff and emergency workers received heavy exposure to high levels of radiation on the first day of the accident, and some 200,000 workers were exposed in recovery operations from 1986-1987.  But only 50 had died of cancer 20 years later.

Exposed children are more at risk from thyroid cancer, but the recovery rate – even in the Soviet Ukraine – was 99 percent. The health experts could find no evidence of increased rates of leukemia or other cancers among the affected residents.

All this encouraging news does come with one caveat.  Scientists are divided over how many increased cancer deaths might be expected over the following 20 years – that is, three to four decades after the accident.

Based on a statistical model that assumes all radiation exposure is cumulative and that there is no threshold under which radiation produces no adverse affects on the human body, the report concludes that an additional 4,000 people will die of cancer. As about 1,000 of these would have died from cancer anyway, this represents only a 3 percent increase which the report admits “will be difficult to observe.”

Many question whether it will happen at all.  The no-threshold hypothesis, while it forms the basis of U.S. regulatory law, is consistently refuted by real-world evidence. The residents of the Rocky Mountains receive some three times the natural background radiation as people living on the Gulf Coast, for instance, but the incidence of cancer is actually lower in the Rockies.

One might also expect that if the no-threshold theory were correct, at least some of the 200,000 workers exposed on-site at Chernobyl after the initial emergency would have developed cancers, but the UN scientists found none.  The no-threshold theory, in fact, seems to have an increasingly tenuous scientific rationale, which is why the French Academy of Science and National Academy of Medicine issued a report a few years ago blasting the theory as “not based on biological concepts of our current knowledge.”

None of this takes away from the heroism of the emergency workers at the Fukushima plants who are taking real risks to bring the reactors there under control, nor the need to take reasonable precautions for the surrounding population, especially children.  But it is worth keeping in mind the other startling conclusion of the UN study, which was that alongside the radiological effects, the crippling “mental health impact” caused by widespread misinformation was “the largest public health problem created by the accident.”  In other words, the most dangerous fallout form the accident is fear.  The way to prevent it is for the media to present more balance in the reporting and “expert” commentary the public is currently receiving in massive doses.

Josh Gilder is a Senior Director of the White House Writers Group.

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