On Saturday 25 March, 2006, The Guardian published a front page story by John Vidal, its environment editor. Headlined, “Chernobyl ‘may have killed 500,000‘”, it cited a forthcoming report by Greenpeace International and various scientists and institutions in Ukraine and Belarus.
Claim: 500,000 people may have died already in Ukraine as a consequence of the accident.
Answer: 500,000 deaths in Ukraine (whether resulting from Chernobyl or not) would equate to more than one percent of the entire nation’s population of less than 50m (including the majority who received hardly any fallout from Chernobyl).
Given that the affected regions of Ukraine had a population of 2m people the percentage of additional deaths there would be self-evidently enormous, particularly when added to the normal death rate one would expect in such a large population in the twenty years following the accident.
In fact, the Ukraine health ministry reported in 1995 that 125,000 people had died from all causes in the Chernobyl-affected parts of Ukraine in the nine years that had followed the accident. Most of the deaths were from natural causes and predominantly among elderly people. Chernobyl had no measurable impact.
Claim: At least 30,000 people are expected to die of cancers linked directly to severe radiation exposure in 1986 (link to Guardian story).
Answer: This claim is an airing of yet-to-be published material. We’ll have to see the material properly before it can be judged against the United Nation’s Chernobyl Forum work which asserts quite otherwise. It depends on assessing what population of people got “severe radiation exposure”; what counts as that exposure; and what assumptions are made as to the hazard posed by severe radiation exposure.
Claim: 34,499 people who took part in the clean-up of Chernobyl have died in the years since the catastrophe (Guardian link)
Answer: More than 600,000 thousand people took part in the “liquidation” of the consequences of the accident in the years 1986-90. In the twenty years that have followed the accident it does not seem unreasonable to expect that around 34,000 of them would have died from natural causes. However, no credible record was kept of the subsequent health of all the 600,000 liquidators who were dispersed around all the countries making up the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991.
Nevertheless there are some credible research results of a two-fold increase in non-CLL leukaemia cases among Russian emergency workers and recovery operation workers exposed to high does of radiation. More research on this matter has been urged by the UN investigators behind the Chernobyl Forum. They point out, however, that over time the rate of new radiation-induced leukaemia cases will fall, so its overall impact will not be significant in the future.
The UN investigators were emphatic in their conclusion that there is no convincing evidence that the incidence of leukaemia has increased in children or adult residents of the exposed populations in Russia and Ukraine.
Claim: Chernobyl Interinform comes to the sobering conclusion that of the approximately 3 million people who received increased doses of radiation, 84 per cent have since become ill. Among the liquidators this rate is as high as 92 per cent.
Answer: These would be colossal numbers, if true.
One of the difficulties of investigating the impact of the Chernobyl disaster is to understand the difference between the numbers of people registered as sick and disabled as a result of the accident and the actual number of people who were really harmed by it.
The UN investigators found that the number of people in Ukraine, including children, registered as permanently disabled by the Chernobyl accident was 91,219 in 2001. In Belarus, almost 500,000 people, including 400,000 children and adolescents, have the right to take free health holidays. Belarus and Russian legislation provided more than seventy different privileges and benefits for Chernobyl victims (defined as anybody living in designated affected regions).
Local doctors acted humanely by registering people as disabled, or made sick, by the accident. They did so to help their patients get better access to medicine, health services and other state benefits. Given the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and the uncertainty created by the accident such additional help made sense in the early days – whatever the health problems radiation actually caused. Indeed, when the Soviet Union collapsed, hospitals, education and other basic infrastructure services collapsed or went into disrepair. In the affected regions, the access to a legal claim to victim-hood became invaluable. These were years of economic and social decline in which more than 300,000 people made homeless by Chernobyl tried to rebuild their lives in new locations amidst the complete collapse of the old social order.
In 2005, the Chernobyl Forum, backed by the governments of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, found that the long-term impact of such benefits was to create fear, anxiety and a dependency culture among the local population that was now doing more harm than the accident itself. It contributed to a sense of fatalism among the millions of people labelled victims that prevents social and economic recovery today, and which causes anxiety that is indeed connected to their health condition.
It is true that it now suits the regional governments to change their tune: they can’t afford to continue on their own the “largesse” which the West once helped pay for. But their present line is probably a much sounder assessment of the situation.
Medical monitoring and social assistance are still required, says the Forum, for about 200,000 early emergency workers and 400,000 people living on lands with significant contamination in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Claim: There is mathematical uncertainty involved in the Chernobyl Forum’s prediction of 4,000 potential fatalities resulting from the 1986 accident.
Answer: The only certainty, according to the Chernobyl Forum, is that less than fifty people have so far died as a direct and verifiable result of the accident, including nine children from thyroid cancer.
There has to be a distinction made between real deaths of actual people and theoretical deaths that may or may not occur.
The Chernobyl Forum’s estimate of a maximum of 4,000 deaths resulting form Chernobyl was indeed controversial. The figure relates to people living in the most contaminated areas, including those already dead, 200,000 emergency and recovery operation workers (1986/7), 116,000 evacuees, and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas. The estimate does not include anybody affected outside of those parameters. However given that the fallout was much lower in other areas and that the early emergency workers were the most exposed, it would seem that the major population at threat has been covered.
The estimate of 4,000 potential deaths is also controversial because, while the Chernobyl Forum was confident that not more than 4,000 would die as a result of the accident, the actual number of fatalities may not even come close to that level. Moreover, we will never know for sure one way or the other, because among such a large group of people 4,000 additional cancer deaths is no more than a statistical blip – that means it cannot be verified precisely, if at all.
Claim: International radiation protection principles developed in the wake of the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors do not provide an appropriate model for estimating the effects of chronic, low-level radiation exposure resulting from the Chernobyl disaster.
Answer: But the UN investigators applied a very gloomy assessment of the likelihood of damage from low-level, chronic radiation. They used the linear no-threshold model that assumes that any radiation dose – right down to anything above zero – has an effect on human health.
It is indeed true that the atomic bomb survivors received a one-off high dose of radiation as opposed to being exposed to the long-term low-levels of exposure that resulted from the Chernobyl accident. It is wrong to state, however, that we know little about the impact of low-level radiation on human health. This issue has been extensively studied in areas of high natural background radiation, and in the vicinity of nuclear power facilities, for almost sixty years.
Two anomalies of particular importance were uncovered by the Chernobyl studies. One was thyroid cancer and the other was cataracts: there were many more thyroid cancers than previous models predicted and workers were shown to be vulnerable to cataracts from lower radiation doses than previously thought possible. It is important to note that children living in the neighbourhood of Chernobyl were already deficient in non-radioactive iodine and therefore their bodies were more responsive to iodine 131 than would normally be the case. Research on cataracts is continuing so that we can better predict future risks.
Claim: The Forum report acknowledges only hard-and-fast scientific findings, and it has been severely criticised by independent Chernobyl experts, environmental organisations and Chernobyl relief organisations, who claim that it plays down the impact of the disaster and goes in the face of earlier studies (www.chernobyl.info/index.php?userhash=12481545&navID=21&lID=2).
Answer: The Forum report was the work of scientists from eight major respected international bodies, and the governments of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It was their job to review the facts and the science and to distinguish between myths, hearsay and verifiable facts based on sound scientific reasoning. It is just not credible to argue that hundreds of scientists from many different organisations and backgrounds conspired to downplay the disaster and its impact on human health.
Claim: There has been a modest recorded increase in congenital malformations in Belarus since 1986.
Answer: That is the case and the increase has been noted in both contaminated and non-contaminated regions, suggesting that the recorded increase may well be the result of better record keeping and better monitoring. The Chernobyl Forum believes that the increase has nothing to do with radiation.
Claim: More research is required before we will know the full truth.
Answer: This is always true, anywhere in the world. The Chernobyl Forum’s report marks a massive step forward in our understanding of the affects of the Chernobyl disaster on human health – it brings us closer than ever to a realistic understanding of the havoc it wreaked on human health, which was a lot less than originally predicted. It does not mark, however, the end of research or answer all of the issues arising from the accident.
In particular, ongoing monitoring among at-risk groups continues. Monitoring of the liquidators in Russia and elsewhere must also improve. The environment in the neighbourhood of Chernobyl will remain controlled and the subject of monitoring and concern for a very long time to come.