The 1986 reactor accident at Chernobyl in the then U.S.S.R. was the worst in the history of nuclear energy; and too many people have died and been injured as a result. The myth is that the deaths have run into the tens of thousands: even as high as 125,000 has been quoted. In 1991 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was quoting 10,000 to 15,000 immediate deaths, without qualification. The facts are that 31 people died as an immediate result of the accident and fighting the resulting fire (28 from radiation injuries, two from non-radiation blast injuries and one due to a coronary thrombosis), and 134 were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome. Of the latter, 14 people have since died, but their deaths were not necessarily attributable to radiation exposure. In addition, about 800 cases of thyroid cancers have been reported in children, of whom three have died. The total of 48 deaths, tragic as it is, has to be compared with the hundreds that die in other natural and man-caused disasters.
Much of the scare-mongering about Chernobyl concerns allegations of widespread occurrences of cancer in the surrounding population due to the radiation, already observed or predicted. It is true that the incidence of cancer there had been rising in the 1980s, but it continued to rise at the same rate after the accident. Specifically, there has been no significant increase in the incidence of leukemia, the radiation-induced cancer that shows up soonest. In considering the thyroid cancers among children, it should be recognized that these are treatable and not usually fatal. Also, they have occurred in a region of Belarus where iodine deficiencies in thyroid glands are already endemic, rendering the population abnormally susceptible to absorption of any radioactive iodine.
We have to face up to the fact that further deaths attributable to the accident are predicted: the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 3500. However, of the 116,000 people that were evacuated, fewer than ten per cent received doses of more than 50 mSv, a dose that can be incurred in a few years of living in regions of high natural radiation, without any observations of an anomalous incidence of cancer. Depending on whether or not the linear non-threshold hypothesis is valid, additional deaths worldwide over the next 70 years can be predicted, somewhere in the range from a high of 24,000 down to a possible zero. This value has to be compared with the 350 deaths that would have been expected to have occurred in the former U.S.S.R. each year, if it had foregone nuclear energy in favour of coal-fired electricity.
The basis for my claims of what are facts is an international conference that was held in Vienna in April of 1996. It was organized by the WHO, the IAEA (both agencies of the United Nations) and the European Community, in cooperation with three other UN agencies and the Organization for European Cooperation and Development: it was attended by 845 scientists from 71 countries and 20 organizations. Can anyone seriously suggest a worldwide conspiracy among all these people to conceal the truth?
Also attending the conference were 280 journalists but the media are still talking of thousands already dead from Chernobyl. In some instances the source of the myth can be identified. For instance, the figure of 125,000 said to be those already dead from Chernobyl was in fact the number of deaths during the period 1988-94 from all causes in the area affected by the accident. A figure of 10,000 deaths in the 600,000 people who helped in the clean-up represents the normal death rate over five years in any comparable population. The most likely explanation of the media's irresponsible propagation of mythology is laziness, simple repetition from other media, combined with a relish for disasters and conspiracy theories that sell "news". Thanks to the media, and according to Mark Twain:
A more recent, 2000, report, "Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation", by the United Nations' Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation increased to 1,800 the number of thyroid cancers in individuals exposed in childhood to releases from the Chernobyl accident. It noted that the high incidence and relatively short induction period are unusual and suggested that other factors may be influencing the incidence. The report confirmed that, except for the thyroid cancers, no increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality that could be attributed to ionizing radiation have been observed.
The report also provided average doses during the first decade after the accident:
and an estimated 20 - 50 mSv lifetime dose for Europeans outside the former U.S.S.R.. It noted that these doses, even for the first group, are comparable to an annual dose from natural, ambient radiation and are, therefore, of little radiological significance. Yet another U.N. report, in 2007, put the total deaths attributable to the accident at only 50.
|Return to Chapter or Contents of Book|