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Getting Out in Front of the Chernobyl Bandwagon

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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Anonymous said…
"the survival rate of these cancers has been nearly 99% due to early diagnosis and treatment."

Cancer from Chernobyl? Eh, you'll get over it.
Rod Adams said…
One of the great tragedies of Chernobyl is that the actions taken by the government after the accident were responsible for a great deal of the pain, suffering and even disease.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that we have learned very much about how to calmly and effectively respond in the case of any major incident or accident.

For example, one of the best ways to have prevented that thyroid cancer cause by short-lived I-131 would have been to keep people in doors and warn them about specific foods and other ingestion hazards. Evacuation could potentially be just the wrong thing to do.

Lots of opportunities will exist to continue this discussion over the next few months.
William Space said…
Lisa Shell seems to have missed an important detail contained in the recent report on the effects of Chernobyl. The report states that Chernobyl may cause up to 4,000 more cancer deaths over the coming years. Here is an excerpt from the WHO web site:

"The international experts have estimated that radiation could cause up to about 4000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, i.e., emergency workers from 1986-1987, evacuees and residents of the most contaminated areas. This number contains both the known radiation-induced cancer and leukaemia deaths and a statistical prediction, based on estimates of the radiation doses received by these populations. As about quarter of people die from spontaneous cancer not caused by Chernobyl radiation, the radiation-induced increase of only about 3% will be difficult to observe. However, in the most exposed cohorts of emergency and recovery operation workers some increase of particular cancer forms (e.g., leukemia) in particular time periods has already been observed. The predictions use six decades of scientific experience with the effects of such doses, explained Repacholi."
JS_VP said…
My reaction, after several years of looking into this is that inept Soviet manufacturing and managerial practices
are what created the entire Chernobyl event, not anything particularly nuclear.
The run-down test which was being performed before the event was a startup requirement, which had not been done at startup.
The safety analysis which concluded it could be done, was written calculating non-irradiated
fuel elements present at startup. The first managerial lapse was not doing the test at startup.
The second delinquency was to schedule a supposed startup test four years too late, as if
checking off required checkoff boxes was the be-all and end-all of the managerial style
at the unfortunate installation. In the intervening years, the irradiation of the criticalized fuel
raised its reactivity profile immensely from what it had been before startup.
So the third managerial lapse was to avoid a new safety analysis, accounting for
the criticalized, much more active fuel load. The level of criminal negligence
in evidence here has really never been matched in the west,
except perhaps in the case of the Johnstown Flood.
The managerial attempt to cover up the event in the first days after it happened, resulted in
the great majority of illnesses to unsuspecting locals, who were cynically
allowed to walk around under falling ash. This is a specifically Russian,
or more correctly Soviet propensity for screwing the common man, to cover
one's own over-important arse.
Aside from the criminal negligence, the Soviet design with an 18"
null spot at the front end of moderator rods, and a generalized
positive void coefficient, is a unique coincidence of 2 bad design
decisions multiplying into a vast, criminal design negligence.
The West has no similar situation, no similar machinery,
no similar lacuna of oversight, nor vested political power
strong enough to lie about a disaster, and be believed for a week.
Chernobyl has no lessons for American nuclear power,
except to continue to be as good as American nuclear is,
and never, ever be as bad as Soviet nuclear power has been.
Any more than this, wherever you hear it from,
is unfounded agendist political hype.

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