Chernobyl: Hardly the last word

The April 26, 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the most catastrophic nuclear accident in history, was not so bad after all–or so claims a recent report produced by an international team of scientists convened by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The team, called the “Chernobyl Forum,” included scientists and experts from eight U.N. agencies–including the World Health Organization (WHO), the IAEA, and the U.N. Development Program–as well as officials from Russia, Ukraine (where the accident occurred), and neighboring Belarus.

Released last September, the 450-page report, Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental, and Socio-Economic Impacts, claims that as of mid-2005, fewer than 50 people had died because of exposure to radiation from the accident, most of whom were emergency workers. Contrary to widespread fears that the eventual death toll would be tens of thousands, the report maintains the figure could be as low as 4,000. Emergency workers and nearby residents have not suffered from “decreased fertility,” the report concludes; nor is there “any evidence of increases in congenital malformations that can be attributed to radiation exposure.” And although the presence of radiocesium in milk, meat, and other foods “remains the most significant concern for internal human exposure . . . with the exception of a few areas, concentration levels fall within safe levels.” Indeed, in the view of the report’s authors, the worst casualties of Chernobyl have been largely self-inflicted: “People have developed a paralyzing fatalism because they think they are at much higher risk than they are, so that leads to things like drug and alcohol use, and unprotected sex and unemployment,” said Fred A. Mettler, a radiologist who was the health effects team leader for the investigation, in a statement to the New York Times.

“The sum total of the Chernobyl Forum is a reassuring message,” declared the WHO’s Michael Repacholi in the report’s summary–and the scant press attention given the report has largely echoed this mantra. (A New York Times editorial dismissed environmental groups that attacked the report for being “biased” toward the nuclear industry, pointing instead to the fact that the report reflected a consensus conclusion among several U.N. agencies and national governments.)

But according to other observers, while the report seems to demonstrate that Chernobyl’s devastation is less dramatic than once thought, it can hardly be called “reassuring.” They argue that the report provides little solace to those still suffering from the effects of the accident and fails to accurately portray its total impact. And they draw a sharp distinction between the actual report–which is composed of two draft studies, one on health consequences and another on the environment–and the report’s summary and press release, which they argue minimize and contradict the report’s findings.

Richard Garwin, an internationally renowned physicist and IBM fellow emeritus at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, calls the report “deliberately misleading,” arguing that it overlooks evidence that contradicts some of its conclusions. (The report prompted Garwin to respond with a pointed rebuttal, published by UPI on November 9, 2005 and available at the Garwin Archive on the web site of the Federation of American Scientists.) Garwin’s criticism centers on what he sees as a glaring omission–the report’s failure to cite the findings of a 1993 study produced by the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which estimated that the worldwide “collective effective dose” from the Chernobyl accident was about 600,000 man-sieverts. He also refers to a report published last summer by the National Academy of Sciences on the effects of ionizing radiation, which concludes that each dose of whole-body radiation causes a lethal cancer at the rate of 0.04 cancer deaths per sievert of exposure. Taken together, these findings point to a much higher death rate than that publicized by the Forum. “Although it is impossible to identify these 24,000 among the many tens of millions of people who would die from similar cancers from natural causes over the same period,” Garwin noted in his UPI op-ed, “those deaths are nevertheless a consequence of the radiation release.”

Garwin, a nuclear power advocate, calls this omission a “terrible scandal,” arguing that it lets the industry off the hook. The best way to minimize future accidents, he says, is to adhere to the principle of “polluter pays.” But what the polluter is billed depends in large measure on what agencies like the IAEA report. “The nuclear industry has a good enough story to tell without ignoring these costs,” contends Garwin. In his view, the cumulative benefits of nuclear power, to both society and the environment, outweigh even Chernobyl’s consequences.

David Marples, a historian at the University of Alberta who has written several books about the Chernobyl disaster and has done extensive field research in the affected regions, also contests some of the Chernobyl Forum’s figures. He finds the report consistent with earlier studies produced by the IAEA, which he says have attempted to minimize the health consequences of radiation exposure while highlighting other factors, like psychology, economics, and living standards.

One new feature, says Marples, is the long overdue acknowledgement that the accident caused an outbreak in thyroid cancers among people who were children at the time. According to the report’s summary, there have been 4,000 such cases, which are often caused by drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine. While Marples commends the IAEA for finally recognizing this problem, he takes issue with the summary’s claim that only nine deaths have resulted from these cases. He points to a 2003 study from Belarus that cites 19 deaths from thyroid cancer in that country alone. “Many of the experts I know in the region were not cited in this report, which raises some questions in my mind about the accuracy of its estimates,” he says.

Another red flag for Marples was the report’s findings regarding recovery operation workers (or so-called liquidators). The Forum cites a figure of about 600,000 “registered” liquidators but focuses on the 240,000 who took part in “major mitigation activities.” According to the report, some 200,000 of these liquidators were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation–of whom an estimated 2,200 will eventually die from this exposure. Marples believes the number of liquidators exposed to dangerous levels of radiation is much higher. “There was no central registry to track these people, and we have no idea about the impact exposure had on their health,” he says, but adds that the Chernobyl Forum’s estimate “is belied by recently released Ukrainian KGB documents” that show widespread health problems among a large portion of the liquidators.

For Greenpeace International nuclear campaigner Jan Vande Putte, one major problem with the report is not the report itself, but its IAEA-drafted summary, which he says contradicts key findings of the Chernobyl Forum. Case in point is the figure of 4,000 total eventual deaths cited in the summary (and repeated by media outlets worldwide). According to Vande Putte, this figure is contradicted by the health report, which shows “that the death toll is closer to 9,000” when the population in low-contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation is also taken into account. In Vande Putte’s view, the report is an amalgam of qualifications, reflecting gaps in knowledge and highlighting the uncertainty surrounding much of the analysis. This stands in stark contrast to the summary’s list of definitive conclusions, which he chalks up to the IAEA’s effort to “whitewash” history in a way that benefits the nuclear industry.

The Chernobyl Forum’s Mettler concedes that some of the “spin” in the summary was misleading, saying that “the use of the word ‘reassuring’ was unfortunate.” And, in comments he made to the Economist (September 5, 2005), Mettler acknowledged that the Chernobyl Forum was not able to examine all the potential effects of the radiation and focused on those it deemed most important. But he bristles at accusations of a whitewash, noting that “many of the people who worked on this report were definitely not pro-nuclear, and I can’t believe they would see the report as downplaying the potential dangers of nuclear energy.”

Regarding Garwin’s assertion that the report underestimates the total eventual deaths by nearly 20,000, Mettler says that it is extraordinarily difficult to extrapolate total deaths worldwide from the sort of global exposure data used in the 1993 UNSCEAR study. The Forum, he contends, used the best scientific data it had on actual cases of exposed people to come up with its findings. “There is a big difference between looking at a person who got a particular dose and making large estimates about how many people could theoretically die globally because of the accident,” he says.

For his part, Mettler believes that the real take-away message is not what the study says about Chernobyl, but “about what we must do when there is a major radiation release, for instance in a dirty bomb explosion.” In the aftermath of the accident, “there was no timely information, authorities held back important information, there was not enough rapid medical attention, and people were evacuated who didn’t need to be.”

Len Ackland, the Bulletin‘s editor at the time of the accident and currently a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, also sees a larger–albeit bleaker–message in the report. Twenty years later, he observes, the prevailing problems at the time of the accident are still with us: “There is the intimate connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons proliferation, and we have yet to overcome the problem of the susceptibility of complex systems to human error. Chernobyl remains the symbol of these dark sides of nuclear power.”

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