(October 10, 2003) Imagine waking up to read in a major newspaper that the Chernobyl tragedy really wasn't as serious as we all had imagined, and that the numbers of deaths and cancers were much lower than thought - and that people can begin moving back into the region surrounding the former power plant and continue farming and living normal lives. The reality of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster is not so bright. Still, scientists disagree about the amount of people that (will) suffer health effects due to radiation. In this article, NIRS/WISE Ukraine compares the different estimates that are made (which will be summarized in the table).
(594.5550) WISE Ukraine - Tens of thousands of people who were involuntarily relocated after the accident in 1986 would move back to their homes. The governments of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia could continue reducing the amount they are spending on the effects of Chernobyl, which have been decreasing due to budgetary constraints since 1997 anyway. Ukraine alone spent nearly US$333 million in the year 2000 on providing social, health, and environmental funding to mitigation of the effects of Chernobyl.(1)
Furthermore, millions of people living downwind and in the so-called affected areas could breathe a sigh of relief. They could live their lives without being in the virtual shadow that Chernobyl casts over entire countries. People would no longer suffer from radiophobia, a Soviet-era name for fear of nuclear power. Symptoms of the present-day Chernobyl Victims Syndrome would soon disappear.(2)
Internationally, nuclear power would seem like not such a bad idea anymore, especially in light of recent blackouts that have thrown vast areas into darkness and chaos. Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia could continue with their nuclear power exporting ambitions without fearing stigmatization as disasters-in-waiting by western lenders.
Antinuclear environmentalists could be pleased with the fact that successive generations would not be further damaged by radioactive pollution from Chernobyl.
It would be a good story, if it were true. But it is only a partial picture that appeared as an article in the Financial Times entitled "Calculating the Chernobyl Toll", on 15 August 2003.(3) The article, which was reprinted from the pro-nuclear journal Nuclear Energy, said that based on statistics from the 2000 UNSCEAR report, only one-thousand deaths can be expected from the Chernobyl disaster over time - almost all caused by between 3,300 and 7,600 thyroid cancers, which peaked in the late 1990s. (UNSCEAR = United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation)
Why do I say a partial picture? Among other reasons, there is insufficient research on the long-term effects of low-dose ionizing radiation, evidence from of local authorities has been overlooked, and there is a wide disagreement over the relationship between Chernobyl and other health issues, such as leukemia.
Researchers such as Dr. John Goffman, a respected professor of molecular cell biology at the University of California - Berkeley, have written extensively on the dangers of underestimating the risks of low-dose ionizing radiation. Writing in an article titled "Beware the Data Diddlers", he argues that, "evidence and logic suggest[s] that low-dose ionizing radiation may well be the most important single cause of cancer, birth defects, and genetic disorders."(4)
If you want to believe the IAEA, the UN, and the nuclear power lobby, only thirty people have died as a direct result of the accident, and as many as 1,800 thyroid cancers have occurred from about 18 million people who were children in 1986.(5) While they admit that this number may rise to 8,000, they disagree that any deaths from other cancers can be linked to radiation.(6)
But among others, Vladimir Shevchenko of the Ukrainian environmental movement Green World, believes there is verifiable proof that other cancers have been caused by Chernobyl. In a paper presented at the 9th Congress of the World Federation of Ukrainian Physicians' Societies, which was held in Luhansk, Ukraine, in 2002, Shevchenko reported that, "in 1997, the Ministry of Health Protection in Ukraine and Belarus officially and statistically confirmed an increase of leukemia in liquidators (those that helped clean up the accident) from 1986 to 1987."(7)
This is supported by the findings of the 3rd International Conference on the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident, held in Kiev in June of 2001. Although they admit that leukemia was not found in adults or children living in contaminated areas, conference materials state, "There is a tendency of an increase of leukemia among liquidators who worked on the site in 1986 and 1987 and who received significant doses."(8)
A 1996 article by Dr. David Marples in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists claims that lung cancer rates were up to four times higher than normal for Chernobyl evacuees who were treated by doctors in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.(9) The "Chernobyl No More" (Chernobyl +10) website also cites a twofold increase in throat cancers in Ukraine between 1986 and 1996.(10) Dr. Marples also said recently that according to the Chernobyl Union of liquidators, twelve thousand members of the clean-up teams have died up till now, although they do not differentiate how many of them have died between radiation and other causes.(11)
While there is too little information studied over too short a period of time, it is disingenuous to simply rule out further health problems due to radiation - as the IAEA is eager to do. Make no mistake, the IAEA is a pro-nuclear, intergovernmental agency. They have a vested interest in promoting nuclear electricity the world over, as their statutes clearly state: "The Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world."(12)
Dr. Goffman cites the IAEA's inaccuracy in studying the effects of Chernobyl, writing in the same article above, "In May 1991, [Dr.] Shigematsu announced that the IAEA's international experts had found no relationship between illnesses in Belarus and Ukraine and the release of radiation from Chernobyl. The IAEA study received a great deal of attention in the public press, but it was sharply criticized in scientific journals - as it should have been. It was flawed in a number of ways."(13)
Dr. Rosalie Bertell, the chair of International Institute of Concern for Public Health (IICPH), takes a similar position about Chernobyl, stating that, "the first [IAEA] evaluation used a different epidemiological protocol in each geographical area and with different age groups, eliminated all concern for cancers as not having sufficient latency periods and failed to note the extraordinary epidemic of thyroid diseases and cancers. From the point of view of Medical Epidemiology they failed miserably to deal with the reality. The director of this 1991 Epidemiological study, Dr. Fred Mettler, is a Medical Radiologist. There were no Epidemiologists, Public Health professionals or Toxicologists on the IAEA Team."(14)
Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian researchers have meanwhile been intimidated and silenced for trying to provide research data on Chernobyl. In Belarus, Dr. Yury Bandazhevsky was imprisoned after accusing the Belarusian government of inaction related to Chernobyl. He discovered a life-threatening heart disorder called cesium cardiomyopathy in people from Chernobyl-affected areas. Bandazhevsky is currently being held in poor conditions, although Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience and is leading a campaign for his immediate release.(15)
Rosalie Bertell wrote in the aforementioned article that at a conference in Kiev in 2001, "Alexey Yablokov, President of the Centre for Political Ecology of the Russian Federation, pointed out that the data used by UNSCEAR had been falsified by the State Committee for Statistics, and the officials were arrested in 1999 for this crime. He charged that UNSCEAR continued to use this falsified data to support its minimization of harm."
It was only earlier this year, in 2003, that the state security service of Ukraine, or SBU (formerly the KGB), released confidential documents related to Chernobyl from 1971 to 1988.(16) This shows that a large amount of vital information was not included from the UNSCEAR report.
It is too early to say what the death toll will be from Chernobyl. We will never be sure as long as under-funded and biased research is allowed to dominate the agenda. Independent research should be given a place in the formulation of policy decisions, such as through the International Program on the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident (IPHECA), a WHO sponsored research project which was running out of funds barely after it was started.(17) Many independent researchers, including Dr. Goffman, support this project.
However many people died or are suffering from radiation, we must make something explicitly clear that the nuclear power industry and the IAEA do not want you to know: a nuclear power accident has the power to cost billions of dollars, to kill hundreds or thousands of people, to cause cancers in children, and to plunge nations into an economic and environmental nightmare unalike any other natural or man made disaster besides war. Better alternatives exist to meet our energy needs, and we need to vigorously pursue them - and that's something the promoters of nuclear power will not concede.
(1) The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident: A Strategy for Recovery, UNDP and UNICEF, 25 January 2002
(2) "Chernobyl Victims Syndrome" described at the 2001 Kiev conference on the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident
(3) Financial Times, Clive Cookson, et al., "Calculating the Chernobyl toll", 15 August 2003
(4) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, John Goffman, "Beware the Data Diddlers", May 1993
(5) IAEA website, 23 April 2001; at www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Features/Chernobyl-15/thyroid.shtml
(6) IAEA website, 11 September 2003; at www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Features/Chernobyl-15/liquidators.shtml
(7) Medical Consequences of Chernobyl Accident from the View of the United Nations and Harsh Reality, Vladimir Shevchenko and Oleg Musij, 9th Congress of the World Federation of Ukrainian Physicians' Societies, Luhansk, Ukraine, 2002
(8) 3rd International Conference on the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident, Kiev, Ukraine, June 2001
(9) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Marples, David R., May/June 1996
(10) Chernobyl Plus Ten website; at www.ecn.cz/private/c10/
(11) David Marples, personal correspondence, 12 September 2003
(12) International Atomic Energy Agency statutes, Article 2; at www.iaea.org/About/statute_text.html
(13) John Goffman, ibid. note: Dr. Itsuzo Shigematsu, former advisory committee chairman for the Chernobyl Project of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
(14) Avoidable Tragedy post-Chernobyl: A Critical Analysis Journal of Humanitarian Medicine, Vol. II, No. 3, Rosalie Bertell, Ph.D., G.N.S.H., pp 21 - 28, 2002
(15) Rosalie Bertell, ibid.
(16) BBC News, Secret Chernobyl archives released, 22 April 2003; at news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2965375.stm
(17) DHA News, "WHO health programme runs out of funds while challenges mount", Dr. Gennady Souchkevitch, September-October 1995, p.12-13; at www.un.org/ha/chernobyl/fund.htm
Contact: Dan Miner-Nordstrom at NIRS/WISE Ukraine (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Table: summarizing estimates of different studies
|Deaths||Thyroid cancer||Other diseases|
|Financial Times / Nuclear Energy (2003)||32 in accident 1,000 years after||3,300 - 7,600||no evidence|
|John Goffman (1993)||317,000 - 475,000||--||low dose radiation may well be the most important single cause of cancer, birth defects and genetic disorders.|
|IAEA/UN (2001/2003)||30 in accident||1,800 - 8,000||no evidence|
|Vlad. Shevchenko (2002)||mean death rate of victims grew from 6.5 to 15.3 cases per 1,000 citizens||ten to thirty fold increase in thyroid diseases||increase of leukemia in liquidators|
|3rd International Conference Health Effects (2001)||--||substantial increase in thyroid cancers among children||increase in leukemia in liquidators; statistically significant for Russian grp.|
|David Marples (1996)||31 in accident 125,000 undocumented 6,000 by extrapolation||1 in 10 children in affected areas||congenital diabetes; lung cancer 4 times higher for Chernobyl evacuees|
|Chernobyl No More Website (1996)||--||rate of children thyroid cancer rose from 1 per million (1984) to 100 per million (1991)|