Let me begin by saying that the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl plant should have been prevented and we should not minimize the loss of those whose loved ones died and whose lives were changed.
That said, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the accident and antinuclear groups are salivating at the opportunity to fan the flames of propaganda, I am reminded that the difference between the actual consequences of the accident and those claimed by antinuclear extremists has reached enormous proportions.
Many of the propagated myths were succinctly refuted in an article in The American Spectator last week. In it, Paul Lorenzini criticizes the errors and distortions in the documentary Chernobyl Heart. Lorenzini says
Nobody likes to be "had," but that is precisely what has happened to the American public with the documentary Chernobyl Heart. Since winning the Academy Award for "Best Short Documentary" in February 2003, it has received international accolades, has been uncritically quoted in major newspapers, and is being recommended for America's classrooms on the National Education Association's website...Yet while presented as a documentary on the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, it relies to a shocking extent on scientifically unsupportable claims and in some cases outright falsehoods. It is a well-produced, heart-wrenching film with pictures so graphic it is hard to watch...Yet without a scientific basis for linking these horrifying scenes to Chernobyl, the documentary harms the very people it is claiming to help.Lorenzini goes on to discuss the findings of the Chernobyl Forum, a group of more than 100 scientists representing eight United Nations agencies and the governments of Belarus, Ukraine, and the Russia. In a study released last year, the Forum found that most predictions had been exaggerated. Rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands of fatalities predicted by the ultra-conservative models used by the nuclear industry, and often claimed as fact by antinuclear organizations, the number of deaths in the immediate aftermath was less than fifty. Furthermore, the increase in thyroid cancers was estimated at 4,000. Certainly, that is not a trivial number, but the survival rate of these cancers has been nearly 99% due to early diagnosis and treatment. And unlike the claims in the documentary, the study found no detectable increases in congenital malformations, leukemia or other cancers and no decrease in fertility.
In fact, Lorenzini points out that the Forum concluded that
...misinformation has been the most significant problem for people affected by the accident...The Chernobyl Forum's greater concerns...relate to the impacts on the population caused by distorted reporting. Pointedly it concludes: "the mental health impact of Chernobyl is [the]largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date." Because of the steady flow of misinformation, "misconceptions and myths about the threat of radiation persist, promoting a paralyzing fatalism among residents." The result has been heightened anxiety, increased suicides, and an "exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation," all coupled with a tendency to associate every observed health effect with Chernobyl. Chernobyl Heart only reinforces this false sense of despair.The rest of Lorenzini's article describes other factual errors and exaggerations that are well worth the read.
I've compared in previous posts the Chernobyl accident with the chemical accident in Bhopal, India in 1984. The accident killed thousands immediately and hundreds of thousands were injured in some way, but the response was not "We must shut down the chemical industry." The response was, "We must make the chemical industry safer." The same logic must be applied to nuclear power and indeed, the nuclear industry has been made safer since Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl accident was a tragedy, but it serves no one to exaggerate its effects particularly when the world must now carefully weigh the pros, cons, and risks associated with all methods of electricity production.
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