The Chernobyl Catastrophe Reassessed

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Remember the nuclear "disaster" at Three-Mile Island? In 1979, a minor accident at the Pennsylvania nuclear plant led to the release of tiny amounts of radioactivity. The ensuing panic was out of all proportion to the actual health threat, which was zero.

Seven years later, a major release of radiation emanated from the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine (it was then part of the USSR). The area in a twenty-mile radius around the plant was evacuated, including part of neighboring Belarus (also in the USSR at that time); winds blew radioactive dust towards Poland and Sweden, where radiation detectors first brought the accident to the world's attention. Fears ran rampant about the likelihood of tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths and illnesses from various cancers induced by the radioactive dust.

But recently, a report issued by a group called the Chernobyl Forum, a committee made up of several different UN-related organizations, gave a far less alarming assessment. While Chernobyl remains a far greater disaster than Three Mile Island, the new report estimates the eventual total death toll as a result of Chernobyl to be about 4,000 -- terrible, but far less devastating than the initial estimates (and some recent ones).

The current death toll from radiation since the event is 56 total: 47 emergency responders and 9 children who died of thyroid cancer. The rest of the predicted 3,940 deaths are supposed to occur over an indeterminate future interval, due to other types of cancer, almost all predicted to strike the emergency responders, not the local inhabitants.

Even this toll is still unacceptable to those of us interested in promoting sound public health policies. But the Soviet-run facility was not the model of modern safety and efficiency that characterizes the current crop of European and Asian nuclear plants. Both the negligence that allowed the accident to occur and the ineptness of the initial response would be highly unlikely to happen today.

The UN report emphasizes a factor that the anti-nuclear and other activist groups always ignore: the greatest threat from the Chernobyl accident, and even more so in the case of Three Mile Island earlier, was the fear factor, the "mental health impact," as the report terms it. Somewhere between 200,000 and 350,000 people were evacuated from the area over the subsequent years, although three out of four of the reactors resumed operation before the end of 1986. The earth and water near the facility were heavily contaminated, but again, the report noted that, for the overwhelming majority, stress and anxiety -- the fear of radiation effects, the loss of homes and livelihoods -- were more serious problems than the actual radiation.

"Fear of radiation is a far greater threat to the affected individuals than radiation itself," UN Assistant Secretary General Kalman Mizsei told a conference on Chernobyl. Those relocated went through "a deeply traumatic experience."

Dr. Burton Bennett, chairman of the Chernobyl Forum and an authority on radiation effects, said: "By and large, however, we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, except within a few exceptional, restricted areas."

Even among the local residents, however, there was -- with the exception of thyroid cancer -- no increase in the rate of leukemia or other cancers; there was no increase in birth defects nor any decrease in fertility. The contaminated areas were small and restricted. Those living in the nearby areas were exposed to relatively low radiation doses, comparable to background levels, according to the UN statement. (On a similar note, see the recent ACSH publication, The Facts About "Dirty Bombs").

Of course, the anti-technology group Greenpeace had a different take on the report, calling it incomplete and misleading. This should come as no surprise to those who follow the statements and activities of this organization.

The lesson to be learned here: the reaction to a release of radioactivity may well be more damaging to public health than the radiation itself.

Since the false alarm at TMI, the U.S. nuclear energy program has been in a state of paralysis while anti-nuclear activists have had the stage to themselves. The Chernobyl mishap was more grist for the technophobe mill. Yet in Europe, ironically, the nuclear industry grew despite the Ukrainian accident. Most of the EU countries are far more reliant on (safe and clean) nuclear power than we are here in what is supposedly the most scientifically advanced nation on earth. Despite the unjustified fear of nuclear energy, this is a technology we should be utilizing more and more, as time and events demonstrate the folly of relying on oil and other fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is clean and safe, and despite growing dramatically over the past four decades (except in the U.S.), Chernobyl remains the only significant mishap.

It's high time we resumed building plants and exploiting nuclear energy to replace imported oil -- it's both the right thing to do, and the wise thing to do.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is the Executive and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health (,

The blog has been nice enough to link to this piece, and you might check that site out for other nuke-related controversies.