(March 25, 2011) Energy Probe executive director Lawrence Solomon argues that the biggest tragedy of Chernobyl was the reaction, rather than the meltdown itself. The lesson for Japan is that panicking will only make things worse for those affected by the Fukushima meltdown.
Next to Chernobyl, the Fukushima accident is the worst nuclear power calamity in history. To minimize damage in Fukushima’s aftermath, the Japanese — and all of us — need first learn the lessons of Chernobyl, whose casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Chernobyl’s great calamity in 1986 — a total meltdown in a reactor designed with no containment that ejected astounding amounts of radiation over a 10-day period — came not from the radiation it spewed but from fear of radiation.
Because the air, water and food supplies downwind of Chernobyl were contaminated with radiation, the press reported that hundreds of thousands would die of cancer and babies would be born with deformities. These projections came largely from the scientific community, which based its views on the prevailing wisdom of the day and of today — the theory that radiation in any dose, no matter how small, entails risk. “The primary source of information” for this theory, as explained by the United Nations, which has been its chief proponent for more than 50 years — “remains the Life Span Study of the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
The theory is simple enough. High levels of radiation kill, as demonstrated all too convincingly by the atomic bombs that took so many Japanese lives. But low levels of radiation have effects too small to measure, and can’t even be proved statistically because a large enough sample size could never be assembled. Should scientists assume that there’s a threshold dose, below which radiation is held to be harmless? Or is it more prudent to assume that any dose of radiation could be harmful?
Since the scientists who pondered these questions were working in the dark, able to arrive only at reasonable guesstimates, they decided it would be safest to assume that the dose was linearly proportional to the danger — the lower the dose, the lower the danger — with no dose so low as to eliminate danger. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation acknowledged its puzzlement in a 1958 report: “There may or may not be a threshold dose,” it wrote, explaining: “Linearity has been assumed primarily for purposes of simplicity.”
Over time, the committee became less ambiguous and more dogmatic in affirming the linearity theory. The upshot: Almost everyone now accepts the dogma that all radiation poses a health risk, despite all absence of proof. On the basis of this dogma, for example, Greenpeace on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, in 2006, released a highly publicized study authored by 52 scientists claiming that the accident had already claimed 200,000 lives in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and would claim another 100,000 before the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl had run its course.
One problem with the Greenpeace study, as with so many others asserting a high Chernobyl death toll: All those bodies were nowhere to be found. To its credit, the UN committee, which over the decades has been scaling back its projections of damage from low levels of radiation, in 2000 produced a major report on the Chernobyl accident that turned down the dial on hysteria.
“There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure,” the UN reported after examining the actual mortality and morbidity statistics. “The risk of leukemia, one of the main concerns owing to its short latency time, does not appear to be elevated, not even among the recovery operation workers. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population are not likely to experience serious health consequences from radiation from the Chernobyl accident.”
The committee did find an increase in thyroid cancer cases in children who had been exposed to radiation at the time of the accident, but, thankfully, these led to few deaths — in the thyroid cancer cases diagnosed among children in Belarus during 1986-2002 and treated, for example, the survival rate was 98.8%, according to the Chernobyl Forum, a body created by eight UN agencies and the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. In good part as a result of this forum, which lamented the irrational fears of radiation and recommended that the evacuated areas be again declared hospitable, Belarus is now being repopulated and Chernobyl is becoming a tourist destination.
The incalculable harm that came of the panic that accompanied Chernobyl cannot be undone. Some 336,000 people in the vicinity of Chernobyl were evacuated from their homes and workplaces, most of them becoming impoverished as a result. The damage extended to their psyches, with an epidemic of afflictions among the evacuees that included depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, terminations of wanted pregnancies, and suicides. As the UN summed up the human fallout, the accident “caused serious social and psychological disruption in the lives of those affected and vast economic penalties over the entire region.”
Although the UN scaled back the extreme projections associated with its radiation linearity theory, it still endorses the theory itself. A wealth of scientific data indicates it should not: Although linearity cannot be proven, it can be, and has been, disproven by numerous studies that show low levels of radiation to actually promote human health.
One example involves 34,000 Swedes downwind of Chernobyl whose thyroids absorbed large doses of radioactive iodine-131. Instead of being afflicted with excess thyroid cancers, as would have been expected, they experienced a 38% decline. Another example: Epidemiological studies in Russia demonstrated that the population of the most contaminated region near Chernobyl contracted fewer cancers than Russia’s general population.
The areas near Chernobyl — a quarter of a century later — are slowly returning to normalcy. The areas around Fukushima, meanwhile, are slowly being evacuated. Before hundreds of thousands of Japanese become doomed to a Chernobyl-style fate, it would behoove us all to learn our history.
Second in a series.
Next: Electricity stations more dangerous than nuclear.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe, an anti-nuclear organization, and the author of The Deniers.
For a superb article on the Chernobyl accident and the beneficial health effects of low level radiation, written by a former chair of the UN’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, click here.