Pro-Nuclear Environmentalists and the Chernobyl Death Toll
Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2016
By Dr. Jim Green
When it comes to the long-term death toll from the1986 reactor meltdown at Chernobyl, most self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists conflate uncertainty with a mortality rate of zero. Denying the deadly impact of a nuclear disaster because the exact science is uncertain is a position just as indefensible as denying the existence of climate change for similar reasons.
Before considering the pro-nuclear environmentalists’ misinformation, here is a brief summary of credible positions and scientific studies regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll (for detail see the April 26, 2014 article in The Ecologist).
Epidemiological studies are of course important, but they’re of limited use in estimating the overall Chernobyl death toll. The effects of Chernobyl, however large or small, are largely lost in the statistical noise of widespread cancer incidence and mortality.
The most up-to-date scientific review is the TORCH-2016 report written by radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie. Dr. Fairlie sifts through a vast number of scientific papers and points to studies indicative of Chernobyl’s impact:
- An increased incidence of radiogenic thyroid cancers in Austria;
- An increased incidence of leukemia among sub-populations in ex-Soviet states (and possibly other countries—more research needs to be done);
- Increases in solid cancers, leukemia and thyroid cancer among clean-up workers;
- Increased rates of cardiovascular disease and stroke that might be connected to Chernobyl (more research needs to be done);
- A large study revealing statistically significant increases in nervous system birth defects in highly contaminated areas in Russia, similar to the elevated rates observed in contaminated areas in Ukraine; and more.
So what else have we got?
Without for a moment dismissing the importance of the epidemiological record, let alone the importance of further research, suffice it here to note that there is no way that one could even begin to estimate the total Chernobyl death toll from the existing body of studies.
Estimates of collective radiation exposure are available. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates a total collective dose of 600,000 person-Sieverts over 50 years from Chernobyl fallout. And the collective radiation dose can be used to estimate the death toll using the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model.
If we use the IAEA’s collective radiation dose estimate, and a risk estimate derived from LNT (0.1 cancer deaths per person-Sievert), we get an estimate of 60,000 cancer deaths. Any number of studies (including studies published in peer-reviewed scientific literature) use LNT to estimate the Chernobyl death toll. These studies produce estimates ranging from 9,000 cancer deaths (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 cancer deaths (across Europe).
Those are the credible estimates of the cancer death toll from Chernobyl. None of them are conclusive—far from it—but that’s the nature of the problem we’re dealing with.
Moreover, LNT may underestimate risks. The 2006 report of the US National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII) states: “The committee recognizes that its risk estimates become more uncertain when applied to very low doses. Departures from a linear model at low doses, however, could either increase or decrease the risk per unit dose.”
So the true Chernobyl cancer death toll could be lower or higher than the LNT-derived estimate of 60,000 deaths—a point that needs emphasis and constant repetition since the nuclear industry and its supporters frequently conflate an uncertain long-term death toll with a long-term death toll of zero.
A second defensible position, taken by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), is that the long-term Chernobyl cancer death toll is unknown and unknowable because of the uncertainties associated with the science.
A third position—unqualified claims that the Chernobyl death toll was just 50 or so, comprising some emergency responders and a small percentage of those who later suffered from thyroid cancer—should be rejected as uninformed or dishonest spin from the nuclear industry and some of its scientifically-illiterate supporters.
Those illiterate supporters include every last one of the self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists. We should note in passing that some pro-nuclear environmentalists have genuine environmental credentials while others—such as Patrick Moore and Australian Ben Heard—are in the pay of the nuclear industry.
James Hansen and George Monbiot cite UNSCEAR to justify a Chernobyl death toll of 43, without noting that the UNSCEAR report did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths. James Lovelock asserts that “in fact, only 42 people died” from the Chernobyl disaster.
Patrick Moore, citing the UN Chernobyl Forum (which included UN agencies such as the IAEA, UNSCEAR, and WHO), states that Chernobyl resulted in 56 deaths. In fact, the Chernobyl Forum’s 2005 report estimated up to 4,000 long-term cancer deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, and a follow-up study by the World Health Organization in 2006 estimated an additional 5,000 deaths among people exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
Australian “ecomodernist” academic Barry Brook says the Chernobyl death toll is less than 60. Ben Heard, another Australian “ecomodernist” (in fact a uranium and nuclear industry consultant), claims that the death toll was 43.
There doesn’t appear to be a single example of a pro-nuclear environmentalist—or a comparable organization—providing a credible account of the Chernobyl death toll. They’re perfectly entitled to follow UNSCEAR’s lead and argue that the long-term death toll is uncertain. But conflating or confusing that uncertainty with a long-term death toll of zero clearly isn’t a defensible approach.
Evidence of pro-nuclear environmentalist ignorance abounds. For the most part, pro-nuclear environmentalists had a shaky understanding of the radiation/health debates (and other nuclear issues) before they joined the pro-nuclear club, and they have a shaky understanding now.
James Hansen’s understanding of the radiation/health debates is shaky, to say the least. He falsely claims there is a “generally accepted 100 millisievert threshold for fatal disease development.” But the accepted scientific position is that there is no threshold. Thus, a 2010 UNSCEAR report states that “the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates.”
Barry Brook is another example of someone whose understanding was shaky before and after he joined the pro-nuclear environmentalist club. Brook says that before 2009 he hadn’t given much thought to nuclear power because of the “peak uranium” argument. By 2010, Brook was in full flight, asserting that the LNT model is “discredited” and has “no relevance to the real world.”
In fact, LNT enjoys heavy-hitting scientific support. For example the US National Academy of Sciences’ BEIR report states that “the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.”
Likewise, a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states: “Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology.”
On Chernobyl, Brook said: “The credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60. The ‘conspiracy theories’ drummed up against these authoritative organizations rings a disturbingly similar bell in my mind to the crank attacks on the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA and World Meteorlogical Organization in climate science.”
But the WHO, IAEA and other UN agencies estimated 9,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states in their 2005/06 reports, and more recently UNSCEAR has adopted the position that the long-term death toll is uncertain.
Brook repeatedly promotes the work of Ted Rockwell from “Radiation, Science, and Health,” an organization that peddles dangerous conspiracy theories such as this: “Government agencies suppress data, including radiation hormesis, and foster radiation fear. They support extreme, costly, radiation protection policies; and preclude using low-dose radiation for health and medical benefits that apply hormesis, in favor of using (more profitable) drug therapies.”
Brook promotes the discredited “hormesis” theory that low doses of radiation are beneficial to human health. …
Good for wildlife?
If Brook and contrarian scientists are right, Chernobyl (and Fukushima) have been beneficial by spreading health-giving, life-affirming ionizing radiation far and wide. And according to some pro-nuclear environmentalists, Chernobyl has been a boon for wildlife and biodiversity.
The region surrounding Chernobyl is one of Europe’s “finest natural preserves” according to Stewart Brand. Pro-nuclear environmentalist Mark Lynas says the Chernobyl “explosion has even been good for wildlife, which has thrived in the 30km exclusion zone,” and he says that restrictions on fishing around Fukushima “will improve the marine environment there.”
James Lovelock says the land around Chernobyl “is now rich in wildlife” and he follows this asinine argument to its logical conclusion: “We call the ash from nuclear power nuclear waste and worry about its safe disposal. I wonder if instead we should use it as an incorruptible guardian of the beautiful places on Earth. Who would dare cut down a forest which was a storage place of nuclear ash?”
According to most pro-nuclear environmentalists, radiation exposure from Chernobyl has been harmless (except for those exposed to extremely high doses), and according to some it has been beneficial to human health. And Chernobyl has been good for wildlife and biodiversity (mutations aside). Follow the pro-nuclear environmentalists down these rabbit-holes and you come up with Hansen’s claim that the nuclear industry’s safety record is “superior to any other major industry,” or Lynas’ claim that nuclear power is “extraordinarily safe,” or Brook’s claim that “nuclear power is the safest energy option.”
Nuclear power the safest energy option? Safer than wind and solar? To arrive at that conclusion, Brook and others understate the death toll from Chernobyl (and Fukushima) by orders of magnitude. They conflate an uncertain long-term Chernobyl death toll with a long-term death toll of zero, ignoring the science every bit as much as do climate change deniers.
—Dr. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter. This article, which has been edited for length,was written for the April 7, 2016 edition of The Ecologist.