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Pro-nuclear environmentalists and the Chernobyl death toll

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

With few if any exceptions, self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists peddle misinformation regarding the Chernobyl death toll.

Before considering their propaganda, a brief summary of credible positions regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll (see Nuclear Monitor #785 for a detailed discussion).1

Epidemiological studies are not much use: the Chernobyl death toll is lost in the statistical noise of widespread cancer incidence.

Estimates of collective radiation exposure are available ‒ for example the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates a total collective dose of 600,000 person-Sieverts over 50 years from Chernobyl fallout.2 And the collective radiation dose can be used to arrive at a death toll using the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model.

If we use the IAEA's collective radiation dose estimate, and a risk estimate derived from LNT (0.1 cancer deaths per person-Sievert), we get an estimate of 60,000 cancer deaths. Sometimes a risk estimate of 0.05 is used to account for the possibility of decreased risks at low doses and/or low dose rates (in other words, 0.05 is the risk estimate when applying a 'dose and dose rate effectiveness factor' or DDREF of two). That gives an estimate of 30,000 deaths.

Any number of scientific studies use LNT ‒ or LNT with a DDREF ‒ to estimate the Chernobyl death toll. These studies produce estimates of the Chernobyl cancer death toll varying from 9,000 (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 deaths (across Europe).1,3

Moreover, LNT may underestimate risks. The 2006 report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) states: "The committee recognizes that its risk estimates become more uncertain when applied to very low doses. Departures from a linear model at low doses, however, could either increase or decrease the risk per unit dose."4 Likewise the BEIR report states that "combined analyses are compatible with a range of possibilities, from a reduction of risk at low doses to risks twice those upon which current radiation protection recommendations are based."

So the true Chernobyl cancer death toll could be lower or higher than the LNT-derived estimate of 60,000 deaths.

Those are the credible estimates of the cancer death toll from Chernobyl. None of them are conclusive but that's the nature of the problem we're dealing with.

Another defensible position (or non-position) is that the death toll is unknown and unknowable because of the uncertainties associated with the science. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) states:5

"The Committee has decided not to use models to project absolute numbers of effects in populations exposed to low radiation doses from the Chernobyl accident, because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions. It should be stressed that the approach outlined in no way contradicts the application of the LNT model for the purposes of radiation protection, where a cautious approach is conventionally and consciously applied."

Pro-nuclear environmentalists

So there are two defensible positions regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll ‒ estimates based on collective dose estimates (with or without a DDREF or a margin of error in either direction), and UNSCEAR's position that the death toll is uncertain because of "unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions".

The third of the two defensible positions ‒ unqualified claims that the Chernobyl death toll was just 50 or so ‒ should be rejected as dishonest or uninformed spin from the nuclear industry and some of its scientifically-illiterate supporters. Those illiterate supporters include every last one of the self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists (PNEs). (We should note in passing that some PNE's have genuine environmental credentials while others ‒ such as Patrick Moore6 and Ben Heard7 ‒ are in the pay of the nuclear industry.)

James Hansen8 and George Monbiot9 cite UNSCEAR to justify a Chernobyl death toll of 43, without noting that the UNSCEAR report5 did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths. James Lovelock asserts that "in fact, only 42 people died" from the Chernobyl disaster.10

Patrick Moore, citing the UN Chernobyl Forum (which included UN agencies such as the IAEA, UNSCEAR, and WHO), states that Chernobyl resulted in 56 deaths.11 In fact, the UN Chernobyl Forum's 2005 report12 estimated up to 4,000 long-term cancer deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, and a follow-up study13 by the World Health Organization in 2006 estimated an additional 5,000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

Australian 'ecomodernist' Barry Brook says the "credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60."14 Ben Heard, another Australian 'ecomodernist' (in fact a uranium and nuclear industry consultant ‒ a fact that, like Patrick Moore, he rarely discloses) gives a Chernobyl death toll of 43.15

In 2010, Mark Lynas said the Chernobyl death toll "has likely been only around 65."16 Two years earlier, Lynas cited a WHO estimate of "a few thousand deaths" (actually 9,000 deaths) but attempted to trivialize the death toll by saying that Chernobyl had an "indiscernible" impact on overall deaths.17 The WHO uses the term indiscernible in a technical sense: the Chernobyl death toll can't be picked up by epidemiological studies. When the nuclear industry and its PNE apologists use the term, they're usually trying to leave you with the impression that there is no long-term death toll from exposure to Chernobyl fallout.

There doesn't appear to be a single example of a PNE ‒ or a comparable organisation ‒ providing a credible account of the Chernobyl death toll. The Breakthrough Institute comes closest, stating that "UN officials say that the death toll could be as high as 4,000".18 However the Breakthrough Institute ignores: the follow-up UN/WHO study13 that estimated an additional 5,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states; scientific estimates of the death toll beyond ex-Soviet countries1; scientific literature regarding diseases other than cancer linked to radiation exposure3; and indirect deaths associated with the permanent relocation of over 350,000 people after the Chernobyl disaster.

Ignorance or deceit?

How to explain the misinformation of the PNEs: ignorance or deceit, cock-up or conspiracy? Dishonest cherry-picking certainly seems to be at work. In a review of Robert Stone's 'Pandora's Promise' propaganda film19,20, physicist Dr Ed Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists writes:21

"One after another, the film's interviewees talk about how shocked they were to read the 2005 report of the Chernobyl Forum − a group under of U.N. agencies under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine − and discover that "the health effects of Chernobyl were nothing like what was expected." The film shows pages from that report with certain reassuring sentences underlined.

"But there is no mention of the fact that the Chernobyl Forum only estimated the number of cancer deaths expected among the most highly exposed populations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and not the many thousands more predicted by published studies to occur in other parts of Europe that received high levels of fallout. Nor is there mention of the actual health consequences from Chernobyl, including the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers that had occurred by 2005 in individuals who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. And the film is silent on the results of more recent published studies that report evidence of excesses in other cancers, as well as cardiovascular diseases, are beginning to emerge.22

"Insult is then added to injury when Lynas then accuses the anti-nuclear movement of "cherry-picking of scientific data" to support their claims. Yet the film had just engaged in some pretty deceptive cherry-picking of its own. Lynas then goes on to assert that the Fukushima accident will probably never kill anyone from radiation, also ignoring studies estimating cancer death tolls ranging from several hundred to several thousand."

Perhaps some PNEs are deceitful ‒ there's no way of knowing without getting inside their heads. On the other hand, evidence of their ignorance abounds. For the most part, PNEs had a shaky understanding of the radiation/health debates (and other nuclear issues) before they joined the pro-nuclear club, and they have a shaky understanding now. Ed Lyman writes:21

"When Lynas says that in his previous life as an anti-nuclear environmentalist he didn't know that there was such a thing as natural background radiation, or Michael Shellenberger [Breakthrough Institute] admitted to once taking on faith the claim that Chernobyl caused a million casualties, the audience may reasonably wonder why it should accept what they believe now that they are pro-nuclear."

George Monbiot23 berates anti-nuclear campaigners for citing a Russian study that used a flawed methodology to reach a flawed estimate of around one million deaths. But most don't cite the study and some have explicitly rejected it. By contrast, every last one of the PNEs peddles misinformation regarding the Chernobyl death toll.

James Hansen's understanding of the radiation/health debates is shaky, to say the least. He falsely claims there is a "generally accepted 100 millisievert threshold for fatal disease development."8 But the accepted scientific position is that there is no threshold. Thus a 2010 UNSCEAR report states that "the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates."24

And Hansen claims that his estimate "for global deaths caused by historical nuclear power (~4,900) could be a major overestimate relative to the empirical value (by 2 orders of magnitude)."8 In fact, his figure is comparable to the very lowest of the estimates of the Chernobyl death toll alone ‒ the UN Chernobyl Forum's estimate of 4,000 deaths amongst those most heavily exposed.12

Barry Brook is another example of someone whose understanding was shaky before and after he joined the PNE club. Brook says that before 2009 he hadn't given much thought to nuclear power because of the 'peak uranium' argument.25 By 2010, Brook was in full flight, asserting that the LNT model is "discredited" and has "no relevance to the real world", and that the "health physics community is preponderantly in agreement that LNT has no valid empirical foundation".26

In fact, LNT enjoys heavy-hitting scientific support. For example the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' BEIR report states that "the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans."4 Likewise, a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states: "Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology."27

On Chernobyl, Brook said: "The credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60. The 'conspiracy theories' drummed up against these authoritative organisations rings a disturbingly similar bell in my mind to the crank attacks on the IPCC, NASA and WMO in climate science."26 But the UN agencies estimated 9,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states in their 2005/06 reports, and more recently UNSCEAR has declined to provide an estimate.

Brook promotes the work of Ted Rockwell from 'Radiation, Science, and Health', a crank organisation that promotes bizarre ‒ and dangerous ‒ conspiracy theories such as this: "Government agencies suppress data, including radiation hormesis, and foster radiation fear. They support extreme, costly, radiation protection policies; and preclude using low-dose radiation for health and medical benefits that apply hormesis, in favor of using (more profitable) drug therapies."28

Brook promotes29 the discredited30 'hormesis' theory that low doses of radiation are beneficial to human health. Mark Lynas lends support to the hormesis theory and uncritically quotes a dangerous quack scientist who argues that annual public radiation dose limits should be increased from 1 mSv to 1,200 mSv!31

Good for wildlife?

If Brook, Lynas and contrarian quack scientists are right, Chernobyl (and Fukushima) have been beneficial by spreading health-giving, life-affirming radiation far and wide. And according to some PNEs, Chernobyl has been a boon for wildlife and biodiversity. The region surrounding Chernobyl is one of Europe's "finest natural preserves" according to Stewart Brand.32 Lynas says the Chernobyl "explosion has even been good for wildlife, which has thrived in the 30km exclusion zone"17 (and that restrictions on fishing around the Fukushima plant "will improve the marine environment there"33). James Lovelock says the land around Chernobyl "is now rich in wildlife" and he follows this bizarre argument to its logical conclusion: "We call the ash from nuclear power nuclear waste and worry about its safe disposal. I wonder if instead we should use it as an incorruptible guardian of the beautiful places on Earth. Who would dare cut down a forest which was a storage place of nuclear ash?"34

According to most PNE's, radiation exposure from Chernobyl has been harmless (except for those exposed to extremely high doses in the immediate aftermath of the disaster), and according to some it has been beneficial to human health. And Chernobyl has been good for wildlife and biodiversity (mutations aside). Follow the PNEs down these rabbit-holes and you come up with Hansen's conclusion that the nuclear industry's safety record is "superior to any other major industry"35, or Lynas' claim that nuclear power is "extraordinarily safe"36, or Brook's claim that "nuclear power is the safest energy option".37

Nuclear power the safest energy option? Safer than wind and solar? To arrive at that conclusion, Brook and other propagandists understate the death toll from Chernobyl (and Fukushima) by orders of magnitude. They trivialize or ignore the greatest hazard associated with nuclear power ‒ its repeatedly-demonstrated connection to WMD proliferation.38 And they trivialize or ignore related proliferation/security problems such as conventional military strikes against nuclear plants, nuclear terrorism and sabotage, and nuclear theft and smuggling.

Finally, PNEs also trivialize Chernobyl by peddling the furphy that the psychological distress was greater than the biological impacts. There's no dispute that, as the WHO states, the relocation of more than 350,000 people in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster "proved a deeply traumatic experience because of disruption to social networks and having no possibility to return to their homes."39

How to compare that psychological trauma to estimates of the cancer death toll, such as the UN/WHO estimate of 9,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states? Does the psychological trauma outweigh 9,000 deaths? It does for PNE propagandists. Lynas, for example, asserts that "as Chernobyl showed, fear of radiation is a far greater risk than radiation itself in the low doses experienced by the affected populations" and he goes on to blame anti-nuclear campaigners for contributing to the fear.40

But the trauma isn't simply a result of a fear of radiation ‒ it arises from a myriad of factors, particularly for the 350,000 displaced people. Nor is the fear of radiation necessarily misplaced given that the mainstream scientific view is that there is no threshold below which radiation exposure is risk-free.

Most importantly, why on earth would anyone want to compare the biological effects of Chernobyl to the psychological trauma? Chernobyl resulted in both. One doesn't cancel out the other.


1. 24 April 2014, 'The Chernobyl Death Toll', Nuclear Monitor #785,

2. IAEA Bulletin #381, 'Annual Dose from Natural Radiation Sources in the Environment',

3. Ian Fairlie, March 2016, 'TORCH-2016: An independent scientific evaluation of the health-related effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster',

4. National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Board on Radiation Research Effects, 2006, "Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII – Phase 2)", or

5. United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, 2011, Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation, UNSCEAR 2008, Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes, Volume II, Scientific Annexes C, D and E, p.64,

6. 'Greenpeace Statement On Patrick Moore - Greenpeace USA',


8. P.A Kharecha and J.E. Hansen, 2013, 'Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power'. Environ. Sci. Technol., 47, pp.4889−4895,

9. George Monbiot, 16 March 2011, 'Atomised',

10. James Lovelock, April 2005, "Our Nuclear Lifeline", Reader's Digest,

11. Patrick Moore, 16 April 2006, 'Going Nuclear',

12. Chernobyl Forum: 2003–2005, 'Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts', p.16,

13. World Health Organization, 2006, 'Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes, p 108,

14. Barry Brook, 30 April 2010,

15. Ben Heard, 12 April 2011, 'Giving Green the red light',

16. Mark Lynas, 4 Nov 2010, 'What the Green Movement Got Wrong: A turncoat explains',

17. Mark Lynas, 18 Sept 2008, 'Why greens must learn to love nuclear power',

18. Breakthrough Institute, 1 April 2011, 'Fukushima in Context',

19. 'Pandora's Propaganda', Nuclear Monitor #773, 21 Nov 2013,

20. 'Pandora's Promise' Propaganda, Nuclear Monitor #764, 28 June 2013,

21. Ed Lyman, 12 June 2013, 'Movie Review: Put "Pandora's Promise" Back in the Box',


23. George Monbiot, 4 April 2011, 'Evidence Meltdown',

24. UNSCEAR, 2011, 'Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Ionising Radiation 2010',

25. Barry Brook, 27 Sep 2009, 'Thinking critically about sustainable energy (TCASE) 1: Prologue',

26. Barry Brook, 30 April 2010,

27. David Brenner et al., 2003, 'Cancer risks attributable to low doses of ionizing radiation: Assessing what we really know', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 25, 2003, vol.100, no.24, pp.13761–13766,


29. Barry Brook, 21 July 2011, 'Radiation Hormesis',

30. See for example Appendix D in the BEIR report,

31. Chris Goodall and Mark Lynas, March 2011, 'The dangers of nuclear power in light of Fukushima',

32. Stewart Brand, 'There will be a Chernobyl National Park by 2035',

33. Keith Kloor, 19 Oct 2011, 'Interview: Britain's Mark Lynas Riles His Green Movement Allies',

34. Quoted in Max Walsh, February 2005, "Nuclear parks", The Bulletin.

35. Peter Dykstra, 6 Feb 2015, 'Analysis: Atomic balm',

36. BBC 8 Oct 2013, 'Nuclear power support from former sceptic Mark Lynas',


38. 28 May 2015, 'The myth of the peaceful atom', Nuclear Monitor #804,

39. World Health Organization, 13 April 2016, 'World Health Organization report explains the health impacts of the world's worst-ever civil nuclear accident',

40. Mark Lynas, 18 July 2012, 'Why Fukushima death toll projections are based on junk science',