In 2006 I exposed the myth-making of an important, Swiss state-funded, UN sponsored website Chernobyl.info. As part of my work for the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster I’ve revisited the issue and discovered things have got worse.
I found that nearly a year ago the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) handed administrative control of the site to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Despite the UNDP claiming that the site’s material is “under review” it has yet to make any real changes.
The site’s claim to be impartial remains useless. Its own UN sponsors say the Chernobyl myth is the biggest hazard resulting from the disaster – yet Chernobyl.info does much to reinforce it. Indeed, the entire site produces the opposite effect to the myth-busting its own UN sponsors say is now crucial.
It matters because Chernobyl.info ranks high in Google searches and because it appears to be an authoritative source backed by credible institutions.
The myths and the facts
In the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster there was understandable uncertainty and controversy regarding the accident’s impact on the health of people living in the neighbourhood. But within months, let alone years, of the Chernobyl accident it was possible to produce sensible accounts of the real hazard it posed. (Here’s one area where the fairly optimistic experts admit they got it wrong at first: predictions of thyroid cancer, which implies they take the evidence where it leads.) Twenty five years on, there is no excuse for not helping people to understand the carefully-researched facts as we now have them.
It is a scandal that the whole world, let alone the five million people living in contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are still receiving alarmist messages about the threat that haunts them.
Take Ukraine. Chernobyl.info cites official sources as saying that 84 per cent of the three million Ukrainians exposed to radiation from Chernobyl are registered as sick. It is often said that these include one million children. This is bound to generate huge anxiety amongst children and their parents.
Indeed, in the Gomel region of Belarus people were told that there was an increase in leukaemia cases of about 50 per cent in both children and adults compared to the period before the disaster. Additionally, they were repeatedly informed that, as Chernobyl.info says, clusters of breast cancer had been increasing for ten years in the region, and that there was “a recognised and internationally collaborated” causal link to the accident.
Residents in affected territories were told that “internationally recognised epidemiological studies” showed major negative health consequences of the accident. They cited, for instance, the findings of bodies such as the Clinical Institute of Radiation Medicine and Endocrinology Research, in Minsk, Belarus, that discovered a 40% increase in cancer between 1990 and 2000 attributable to Chernobyl. Reports often hinted of much worse to come in later years.
The sources for such claims were seemingly respectable, and secured a mention in a European Union executive summary to an international conference in Kiev in 2001 (that’s not to be confused with an official endorsement, but understood as a report on another report’s findings).
Campaigners, aid groups, even bodies associated with UN agencies, all seemed to support, and perhaps initially believed, the claims.
It is true that Ukraine and Belarus registered many hundreds of thousands of unharmed people as victims of Chernobyl after 1986. This certainly seemed to reinforce the fears. However, in the early days, there was disaster relief money to be had. People classified as sick as a consequence of Chernobyl secured additional funding, winter fuel allowances, access to scarce health care, housing and other resources. Such benefits were invaluable after the Soviet Union collapsed. It was understandable opportunism. It wasn’t then in any local person’s interest to ask too many questions. Moreover, doctors felt obliged to help their impoverished patients by ticking the “right” boxes.
Since 2001 onwards, most of the local benefits have been withdrawn. That is partly because the apparent health issues were not real. It is also partly because the overheads became an unsustainable burdenon the national budgets of Ukraine and Belarus. The people were stuck with a flawed understanding of what was happening to them, but without the compensation.
No wonder that scientists found that the single worst consequence of the accident was a “paralyzing fatalism” among residents of affected areas caused by persistent myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation.
As Louisa Vinton, Chernobyl focal point at the UNDP, said in 2005:
“Two decades after the Chernobyl accident, residents in the affected areas still lack the information they need to lead the healthy and productive lives that are possible. We are advising our partner governments that they must reach people with accurate information, not only about how to live safely in regions of low-level contamination, but also about leading healthy lifestyles and creating new livelihoods.”
The nonsense endures. Anyone visiting Chernobyl.info today will be told what Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, said in 2004:
“At least three million children in Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation require physical treatment (due to the Chernobyl accident). Not until 2016, at the earliest, will we know the full number of those likely to develop serious medical conditions.”
This quoted opinion remains in play on the website – without any explanation – despite official members of Kofi Annan’s specialist agencies having reached diametrically opposed conclusions.
The role of charities
It is perfectly understandable that charities sprang up and attracted international aid and assistance to help alleviate the consequences of the accident. Their original sympathy for the children, women and communities whose land was blighted by contamination cannot be doubted.
But, sometimes, good intentions can do more harm than good. This can particularly be the case when their sell-by date has passed.
Once in motion, however, it is difficult to halt an industry. This is particularly the case when the defining reason for its existence is good works and, perhaps, a narcissistic statement about the values of the people who conduct such work.
Caring about Chernobyl’s victims has become, for some, the personification of who they are and what they stand for. In these circumstances, it seems, people will cling to their world-view regardless of the evidence. More on that later; first let’s review the latest facts.
A better class of work
For more than two years (2003 – 2005), eight specialized agencies of the UN family studied all the evidence relating to the health affects of the disaster in the designated affected areas of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. This was an unprecedented study by hundreds of scientific experts in the fields of oncology, radiation and environmental protection.
The bodies doing the research were among the most respected in the world. They included the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), and the World Bank. The governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine also participated and endorsed the report.
The Chernobyl Forum
The scientists, after reviewing all the existing evidence from all credible sources, came to what was for some a startling set of conclusions in their landmark Chernobyl Forum Report 2005. Though most of the report’s conclusions were already apparent to experts – working together as part of the IAEA’s International Chernobyl Project – as early as 1991 and more so by 2001. The 2005 report found:
* Fewer than 50 deaths directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004.
* No profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas.
* No widespread radiation contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with the exception of a few restricted areas.
* About 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, of which at least nine children died; however the survival rate among such cancer victims, judging from experience in Belarus, has been almost 99%.
* No evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility among the affected population has been found, nor has there been any evidence of increases in congenital malformations that can be attributed to radiation exposure.
* Other than thyroid cancer there were no other increases in cancer rates attributable to the accident in the directly affected regions.
In conclusion, the three-volume, 600-page Chernobyl Forum report said that up to 4,000 people may eventually die (note: Chernobyl.info reports this as “will die”) as a long-term consequence of the 1986 accident from radiation induced diseases. However, the authors were at pains to state this is an upper limit. They said we will never know for sure if the death toll gets any where near that mark because statistically it is insignificant when set against the normal background levels of cancer. The report stated:
“Apart from the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer incidence among those exposed at a young age, there is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of solid cancers or leukaemia due to radiation in the most affected populations. There was, however, an increase in psychological problems among the affected population, compounded economic depression that followed the break up of the Soviet Union.“
The report’s Chairman, Dr. Burton Bennett, added:
“… we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas [Ukraine, Belarus and Russia], nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, within a few exceptional, restricted areas.”
It is also worth noting that the restricted zones are increasingly being de-restricted by the Ukrainian and Belarusian authorities. Farming has officially resumed in areas it was once thought would be abandoned for centuries. Chernobyl itself is becoming a bit of a theme park and tourist destination. Moreover, the Chernobyl Forum reported:
“… because the doses were so low, there was no evidence of any effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes, delivery complications or overall health of children. A modest but steady increase in reported congenital malformations in both contaminated and uncontaminated areas of Belarus appears related to better reporting, not radiation.”
There are huge disagreements
The discrepancy between the myths and what the Chernobyl Forum described could hardly be greater.
The Chernobyl Forum says, for instance, that most of the land in the affected regions is returnable to normal use and the biggest single health impact is psychological. Much of the material on Chernobyl.info implies or says that these areas remain hazardous and people are suffering severe medical effects.
So this can’t be brushed aside – the “refuseniks” need challenging. There is a case (the Chernobyl Forum’s) that the biggest problem is anxiety brought on misinformation. There is another case (equally aired on Chernobyl.info) that there is a cover-up of the human health effects of Chernobyl and that to deny these real effects is misinformation.
Though, admittedly, for all sort of contradictory reasons, it initially suited many stakeholders – governments, journalists, and campaigners – to inflate the consequences of Chernobyl, as Richard D North’s useful briefing highlights.
The problem is one of evidence-handling
It hasn’t required creative thinking to keep the Chernobyl horror story alive. All it has required is that people throw away ordinary rules of editing and publishing.
Chernobyl.info treats all claims about the affects of the Chernobyl accident as having equal weight. Moreover it uses old and discredited claims about the accident to dispute the findings of new scientific investigation. It does so even when, as in the case of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and UN bodies, the makers of the original claims have moved on.
Hence Chernobyl.info says:
“Some facts about Chernobyl are uncertain or disputed. In such cases we follow our principles by presenting the different interpretations, and citing the sources. Chernobyl.info thus lives up to its stated goal of providing independent and impartial information.
“It is vital that aid and cooperation projects for Chernobyl should not depend on whether everyone is in agreement on a particular fact.”
But impartiality isn’t quite enough….
The difficulty here is that a normally-busy, normally-informed person taking an interest in Chernobyl and going to this site has no way of establishing where the truth – or where the merits of argument and evidence – lies between the opposing claims.
An information project needs to offer some way for its users to navigate between alternative viewpoints. It is not good enough to lay out the competing claims, and their sources, and think people can devote the kind of time involved to checking it all out from first principles.
But Chernobyl.info studiously avoids being useful. Note the site’s citations of two main kinds of scepticism about the Chernobyl Forum’s conclusions:
“The report, which acknowledges only hard-and-fast scientific findings, 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. Some of its statements, moreover, are provably false.”
Its examples of these supposed falsities were examined in the Chernobyl Forum’s report and found wanting.
In passing, one wonders what other than “hard and fast scientific findings” are of real interest, and who Chernobyl.info – or its editors at SDC and now UNDP – consider to be “independent Chernobyl experts”. I assume they mean: partisan anti-nuclear, environmental and Chernobyl relief organisations.
Does Chernobyl.info mean that such people were independent of international bodies such as the eight UN organisations, the World Bank and leading scientific experts from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia? Does “severely criticised” mean the same as “seriously criticised”, or merely mean “strongly”, or “ardently” criticised?
The scandal of Swiss government and UN involvement
It was at least very odd that the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), an arm of the Swiss Foreign Ministry, appeared to still dispute the evidence compiled by the international community as late as 2010. This sort of material might not matter if Chernobyl.info was an independent site run by activists; but it isn’t.
The difficulty seems likely to be that Chernobyl.info’s editors believe that their duty is to the passion, commitment and anxiety of people who are affected or worried by Chernobyl.
The problem seems to be a sort of multiculturalism. Chernobyl.info’s view seems to be that the UN and all its experts, including UNDP’s own scientific advisers, have an opinion based on rigorous investigation, but it is no more valuable than those of people who dispute it. Indeed, it seems fair to give special weight to “local” or “regional” “communities” and non-governmental organisations who may be under-resourced.
It is worth noting that the UN bodies themselves seem schizophrenic. On the one hand they seem to want to be honest to the facts in the Chernobyl Forum report. On the other, they want to appear friendly toward the anti-nuclear campaigners and local groups who dispute it – even when their own governments don’t.
This anomaly is probably explained by the fact that UN bodies, such as UNDP, have traditionally welcomed any well-funded projects which can be thought to help people living in what are undisputedly deprived regions.
All that would be acceptable were it not for the fact that it is the myth itself which is doing so much more harm than the radiation.
In short, Chernobyl.info seems to have been hijacked by people who have a particular emotional response to the Chernobyl accident. They appear determined not to let go of their existing work no matter what evidence is produced to undermine their pre-judged conclusions.
If UNDP does in future follow the site’s mission statement, it is unlikely that Chernobyl.info will stay as it is. The site’s stated aims are perfectly legitimate:
“…[to] provide a sound basis for the evaluation of measures aimed at dealing with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
“The most important target audience worldwide comprises decision-makers, at all levels, who are concerned with the consequences of Chernobyl. The provision of information for decision-makers should help to promote the funding of targeted and useful measures.”
But Chernobyl.info does the opposite. Instead it impartially provides material whether it deserves the word “information” or not.