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Sunday, October 1, 2006

Chernobyl in Perspective

When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986 the world held its breath. In the aftermath, we were told that a catastrophe had taken place. Ten years later Greenpeace said the accident was “blamed for the deaths of some 2,500 people, has affected millions and displaced hundreds of thousands, many of whom have still not been able to return to their homes.” Greenpeace called nuclear power “the most dangerous energy source yet devised by humankind.”

Since those claims were made another long ten years have passed. But now the United Nations has released a report showing that, first, the accident has not been nearly as deadly as originally projected, and second, that although the accident was horrific, the official response made things worse for large numbers of people. Chernobyl also has some lessons on the detrimental effects of welfare. Moreover, even after hundreds of scientists have produced an exhaustive report on the matter, the environmental ideologues refuse to change their tune, but instead denounce the scientists.

The myth-busting report, “ Chernobyl ‘s Legacy,” was published in two versions by the Chernobyl Forum, a collection of international organizations formed in 2002, including the World Health Organization, the UN Development Program, and the World Bank, along with the governments of Russia , Belarus , and Ukraine . (The second version of “ Chernobyl ‘s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine ” is online at Quotes in this article appear in both versions, except one, which is taken from the second version.)

When Unit 4 of the Chernobyl reactor exploded it was predicted that tens of thousands would die. The report notes that “Claims have been made that tens or even hundreds of thousands of persons have died as a result of the accident. These claims are highly exaggerated.”

This doesn’t mean no one died. But the numbers directly attributed to the accident are much lower than most would assume. The year of the accident 28 people died from exposure to acute radiation syndrome (ARS), all of them emergency workers at the reactor. From 1987 until 2004 19 more emergency workers died from a variety of causes, “however their deaths are not necessarily—and in some cases are certainly not—directly attributable to radiation exposure,” the second version reported.

The main problem found in the general population was for young children who drank milk that was produced by cows that ate contaminated grass. For them there was a clear increase in thyroid cancer. But this cancer is highly treatable. The report noted: “

For the 1152 thyroid cancer cases diagnosed among children in Belarus during 1986–2002 and treated, the survival rate was 98.8%.”

Except for these two groups, the direct medical impact of Chernobyl was minimal. According to the report, “Among the general population affected by the Chernobyl radioactive fallout, however, the radiation doses were quite low, and ARS and associated fatalities did not occur.”

Chernobyl took place in 1986. The Soviet Union ‘s socialist system finally collapsed in 1991. In the years immediately following the collapse living standards dropped. The economy was a disaster, and medical care had become almost nonexistent. People all across the region saw life expectancy decline. Chernobyl ‘s effects were tiny in comparison to the larger picture.

The 50-some deaths are firm numbers. But the projections of possible other deaths are estimates. The Chernobyl Forum reported: “[T]he number of deaths over the past 20 years that may have been attributable to the accident are only estimates with a moderately large range of uncertainty. The reason for this uncertainty is that people who received additional doses of low-level radiation have been dying from the same causes as unaffected people. Moreover, in all the groups studied, of both emergency workers and resident populations, any increase in mortality as compared to control groups was statistically insignificant or very low. Estimates related to projected deaths in the future are even less certain, as they are subject to other major confounding factors. In reality, the actual number of deaths caused by the accident is unlikely ever to be known with precision.”

A year ago the New York Times reported that “for the millions who were subjected to low levels of radioactive particles spread by the wind, health effects have proved generally minimal.” It added that there was no rise in leukemia rates except for a small number of plant workers. Nor has any increase in birth defects been noticed nor decrease in fertility rates.

The reason for this is simple. Only people in the immediate vicinity of the accident were exposed to sufficient radiation to cause problems. As the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission explains in its “Fact Sheet on Biological Effects of Radiation,” “Radiation is all around us. It is naturally present in our environment and has been since the birth of this planet.”

Most people seem unaware of this. The average American is exposed to 300 millirems of radiation per year, and over 80 percent of that is from natural sources. Residents of Denver receive about 1,000 millirems because of the altitude. A person working in a nuclear power plant is exposed to about 300 additional millirems per year, while regulations limit annual occupational exposure to 5,000 millirems. However, pilots, airline crew members, and frequent flyers can be exposed to an additional 500 to 600 millirems. That’s quite a bit when you consider that living next door to a nuclear power plant only increases exposure by 1 millirem per year. If that worries you, remember that the human body produces about 40 millirems per year entirely on its own.

For most people affected by the reactor accident, levels of exposure were not extraordinary. “ Chernobyl ‘s Legacy” states that “the average doses received by residents of the territories contaminated by Chernobyl fallout are generally lower than those received by people who live in well known areas of high natural background radiation in India , Iran , Brazil and China .”

Dr. Burton Bennett, chairman of the Chernobyl Forum, told the BBC last year: “This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer. By and large, however, 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, with a few exceptional, restricted areas.”

Mass Evacuations

At the time of the explosion entire regions were evacuated—due more to panic than anything else. Dr. Fred Mettler Jr. of the Chernobyl Forum, a Veterans Affairs hospital radiologist, said, “People were evacuated from areas that now have dose levels lower than where I live in New Mexico.” And the evacuation itself caused many problems and possibly harmed far more people than the accident.

At first the Soviet Union tried to hide the accident from the world. This unnecessarily exposed people in the immediate vicinity to risk, especially children who now suffer from thyroid cancer. As Bronwen Maddox of the Times of London wrote last year: “Better warnings in the first week could have averted this. But the Government’s desire at first to cover up the explosion meant that it delayed warning people or moving them to safety.”

Later, when the disaster became public knowledge, the Soviets exaggerated the health effects. Maddox wrote: “The underlying level of health and nutrition [in the region] was abominable; there was every interest in exaggerating the impact to get aid money; the Soviet culture had never been shy of using science for political ends.”

Of course environmental activists and antinuclear ideologues also had reasons to exaggerate the consequences, hence the predictions of hundreds of thousands of deaths as a result of the accident. Add to that the natural tendency of the media to prefer the sensational aspects of any story, and it is no wonder that people around the world were in an induced panic. Individuals who lived in the vicinity suddenly found themselves being relocated, often against their will. They lost their homes and were subjected to regular medical checkups, all of which had to raise their anxiety levels. Many of these people simply came to assume that they had been exposed and were doomed.

Fear of course is detrimental to health. “People have developed a paralyzing fatalism because they think they are at much higher risk than they are, so that leads to things like drugs and alcohol use, and unprotected sex and unemployment,” Dr. Mettler said. In an article about the Chernobyl report, the Washington Post noted “that lifestyle disease, such as alcoholism, among affected residents posed a much greater threat than radiation exposure.”

Tomihiro Taniguchi, a deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was quoted in the Guardian as saying, “[T]he situation was made even worse by conflicting information and vast exaggerations—in press coverage and pseudoscientific accounts of the accident—reporting for example, fatalities in the tens or hundreds of thousands.” Taniguchi added that “many of the 350,000 people evacuated and resettled by authorities would have been better off staying home.”

The Chernobyl report states that “individuals in the affected population were officially given the label ‘ Chernobyl victims,’ thus frequently taking on the role of invalids. It is known that if a situation is perceived as real, it is real in its consequences. Thus rather than perceiving themselves as ‘survivors,’ the affected individuals have been encouraged to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future.”

Predictably, people have taken advantage of the accident. Kalman Mizsei, a director of the UN Development Program, said “an industry has been built on this unfortunate event,” which has a “vast interest in creating a false picture.” The Russians and environmental ideologues have already been mentioned. Moreover, millions of people were paid benefits on the basis of being victims.

The negative consequences of welfare for Chernobyl “victims” are real. Seven million people received various benefits from the Russian government due to their exposure. Although the effects of radiation diminish with time, the number of people claiming to be disabled is climbing. In Ukraine in 1991, 200 people were considered permanently disabled from Chernobyl . In 1997 the number was 64,500, and by 2001 it was 91,219. The report is blunt: “The dependency culture that has developed over the past two decades is a major barrier to the region’s recovery. The extensive system of Chernobyl-related benefits has created expectations of long-term direct financial support and entitlement to privileges, and has undermined the capacity of the individuals and communities concerned to tackle their own economic and social problems.”

Furious Reaction

How has the UN report been received? The media found it a fascinating story because it has the element of sensationalism that sells papers and boosts ratings. But the beneficiaries of Chernobyl , and the ideological groups that use the accident for their own agendas, are furious. They refuse to accept the report and instead denounce the UN for producing it.

Greenpeace in particular was most upset. William Peden, a Greenpeace researcher, said that the projection of 4,000 deaths total “is ridiculous” and “many thousands more may die in the decades to come.” Jan van de Putte, another Greenpeace activist, says the UN was “denying the real implications” of Chernobyl and that is “insulting [to] the thousands of victims.” He also said the report is dangerous because it may lead to “relocating people in contaminated areas.”

Greenpeace also asserted that the low death projection omitted the harm to much of Europe. But this was omitted because there wasn’t any. Most of the radiation fell within a few dozen miles of Chernobyl. It’s yet another example of how environmental ideologues will bend science around politics.

  • Jim Peron is the author of Exploding Population Myths (Heartland Institute). He is executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values in Johannesburg, South Africa.