Blowing up Chernobyl

Twenty years on from the explosion, the anti-nuclear lobby is still playing fast and loose with the facts about casualties.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

Two decades on from the explosion at Chernobyl nuclear power station on 26 April 1986, the anti-nuclear lobby plays fast and loose with the facts about suffering and death.

To the Science Museum, London, where the trendy Dana Centre held a discussion last night on ‘Chernobyl and the Nuclear Debate’ (1). As the audience waits for a speaker from the Ukraine to come on the phone line, I cast my mind back to when Chernobyl happened. At the time, the British media speculated about the reactor falling though the centre of the Earth and coming up the other side. Tonight, there might be a similar tendency to inflate the consequences of Chernobyl. This time, however, the focus is likely to be less on the possible collapse in the planet, and more on the mass of victims that have emerged, and have still to emerge, since the disaster.

Eventually, we hear the confident voice and the sighs of Dmitriy Bobro, head of Chernobyl issues at the Ministry of Emergencies, Kiev. According to Bobro, speaking through an interpreter, Ukraine spends between two and three per cent of its GDP just to maintain what’s left of Chernobyl. Ten per cent of the country’s land is contaminated. Above all, 67 million people in the area covered by the former Soviet Union have suffered because of the disaster, including two million Ukrainians.

From the floor, I ask for clarification on the numbers. Bobro’s voice now seems to be quieter and more hesitant. He replies that, in the Ukraine, hundreds of thousands were obliged to help in the clean-up after the accident, hundreds of thousands were resettled, similar numbers are still living on contaminated areas because there are no better places to live. Hundreds of thousands of children have suffered: they have been taken for treatment to places such as Cuba and France.

As an acting minister, Bobro should know the figures. Yet they seem to me extraordinarily high. To his credit, Bobro did add some points that we need to remember in debates like this. People, he said, are afraid of nuclear energy – they have what he called ‘radiophobia’. This term, which has also been used and supported by experts at the IAEA and others, refers to the fear of radiation, and the belief that such fears may have caused as much hardship as the accident at Chernobyl itself. Over the past 20 years, Bobro says, the ‘literacy’ of the public in nuclear and broader energy matters related to safety and energy ‘has not improved much’. Bobro is in fact optimistic that problems can be solved – over 100 years. Decommissioning, he hopes, can start in five years.

Radio broadcaster and scientist Dr Johnny Ball, a member of Supporters of Nuclear Energy (2), is passionately optimistic about nuclear power – too passionately, and not enough dispassionately, for my taste. But it is left to him to point out that, in 1986, the number of people who actually died of acute radiation sickness was 28. Ball also notes that the sinking of the Titanic, and the crashing of early versions of the Comet and the Concorde, did not lead to the end of these modes of transport. Lessons were learned from these disasters.

The presentations conclude with slides by Professor Keith Barnham, a specialist in photovoltaic panels at the Department of Physics, Imperial College London. Barnham begins with the potential for a kamikaze terrorist attack on a reactor: if Sellafield got it in the neck, the release of just one per cent of its plutonium in a smoke plume could require the evacuation of an area extending from the coast of Cumbria to Newcastle. Just five kilograms of plutonium, in the wrong hands, could devastate a city.

Barnham says that it will take 350,000 years for the plutonium in the UK’s civil nuclear stockpile to decay. No fewer than 10,000 future generations will have to be concerned because just two current generations have wanted to provide 20 per cent of their electricity through nuclear means. How, Barnham asked, can we even build a sign to warn such future generations of the positions of the 500 sites around Chernobyl in which nuclear waste has hastily been buried?

I’m surprised that a physicist like Barnham has so little confidence about the abilities of future generations. But I’m not surprised that, in his enthusiasm for renewable energy, he prefers to spend much more time eulogising offshore wind power than he does getting to grips with the real – and the imagined – scale of suffering that can be laid at the door of Chernobyl.

On 18 April, Greenpeace published ‘The Chernobyl catastrophe: consequences for human health’ (3). The 137-page report, mainly compiled by scientists in Kiev, attacks ‘Health effects of the Chernobyl accident and special care programmes’, an earlier report by the Chernobyl Forum, whose members include various UN bodies, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation (WHO) Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine (4).

The Chernobyl Forum noted that the number of deaths immediately attributable to fallout from the accident was 28 in 1986, and later another 19 – mostly firefighters and other workers near the site. It attributed 4,000 extra deaths, in the future, to Chernobyl. Yet the newer Greenpeace report challenges the claims of this expert report, and argues that there will be 93,000 extra deaths due to cancers originating with Chernobyl. Over the past 15 years, it argues, a further 60,000 Russians have died because of the accident, and the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.

At the same time, Greenpeace attacks the Chernobyl Forum by arguing against the whole concept of quantifying the number of deaths: ‘Any description which attempts to present the consequences [of Chernobyl] as a single, “easy to understand” estimation of excess cancer deaths…will inevitably provide a gross oversimplification of the breadth of human suffering experienced’. (5)

The ‘sheer range of health impacts’ – from thyroid cancer to psychiatric disorders – allows Greenpeace both to inflate death counts and to dismiss their significance. The numbers that Greenpeace drums up, however, are based on data in the official Belarusian health statistics, and estimates of radiation exposure in various regions of Belarus – estimates made by MV Malko, of the Joint Institute of Power and Nuclear Research, Belarus National Academy of Sciences. These estimates, made in 2006, are quoted in the Greenpeace report, but the source is not referenced.

Can these estimates be justified? It’s hard to see why. Nobody would now want to join the old Soviet authorities’ dismissal of the effects of Chernobyl. But the fact is that the collapse of the Soviet health system after the end of the Cold War undoubtedly made general health – especially in a weak Stalinist state like Belarus – deteriorate. To base future projections of deaths for the whole of Russia on the situation in Belarus today, and to lay them all on Chernobyl 20 years ago, is foolhardy.

The Ukrainian authorities seek international financial support for the plight of their country, and nobody can blame them – or Belarus – for that. But Greenpeace also wants to say that the ‘most vulnerable population groups’ in 2006 include ‘the people in the former USSR but also in Sweden, Norway, UK and a number of other countries in Europe – in order of [sic] several hundred thousands – who consumed and continue to consume foodstuffs contaminated as a result of the accident’ (6). Where will Chernobyl end? Apparently, its effects have reached British bellies.

In pursuit of international financial support, charities and non-governmental organisations in Ukraine play up the fallout from Chernobyl – enough to get general medical resources into the bargain. In pursuit of its anti-nuclear politics, it seems that Greenpeace will stretch any statistic as far as it sees fit. Chernobyl remains environmentalism’s clinching argument against nuclear power, and a Chernobyl-meets-911-hijackers scenario its imagined nuclear apocalypse. Why? Because it is the only serious fatal nuclear accident they can point to. They have taken the exception and made it the rule.

This inflation of the facts is rather dismissive of the memory of the firefighters and workers who did die as a result of acute radiation sickness from Chernobyl – 28 in 1986 and a further 19 thereafter, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) (7). Of course, the suffering caused by the Chernobyl disaster goes further than 47 deaths. But it does not extend infinitely, as false sentimentalism would have us believe.

(1) Dana Centre

(2) Supporters of Nuclear Energy

(3) The Chernobyl catastrophe: consequences for human health, Greenpeace, 18 April

(4) Health effects of the Chernobyl accident and special care programmes, WHO, Geneva, September 2005

(5) Greenpeace, op cit, p18.

(6) Ibid, pp20, 21.

(7) WHO, op cit, p99.

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Topics Politics


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