Challenging New York Academy of Sciences to repudiate “Chernobyl Consequences”

On the 25th anniversary of the explosion that destroyed unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, Ralph Nader published a commentary in which he strongly supported the book titled Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. As part of his opinion piece, he made the following statement:

“Dr. Yablokov, you are a distinguished scientist in your country, as reflected in your membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences, what has been the response to your report by corporate scientists, regulatory agency scientists and academic scientists in the West? Did they openly agree in whole or in part or did they disagree in whole or in part or were they just silent?”

Academician Yablokov replied that the compilation of these many reports has been met with silence. He added that science means critical engagement with the data and implied that silence was not an appropriate response from the scientific community.

Silence, of course, is not without its purpose. For to engage, whether to rebut, doubt or affirm, would give visibility to this compendium of scientific studies that upsets the fantasy modeling by the nuclear industry and its apologists regarding the worse case scenario damage of a level 7 or worse meltdown.

Apparently, Mr. Nader does not frequent Atomic Insights (see, for example Chernobyl Consequences – Myths and Fables Versus Science published in September 2010 or Defusing Misinformation About a “New” Chernobyl Study Before it Has Too Much of a Head Start from November 2010). There is no real surprise there.

However, Nader’s point regarding the silent treatment is an important one; a false report that goes unchallenged can develop a life and a credibility that will be difficult to overcome. It is incumbent on the people who have done the real science and found completely contrary results to directly confront the purveyors of falsehoods. We need to help the public understand that the report is not just an opinion and not just a matter of controversy; it is simply wrong. The New York Academy of Sciences, as a publisher, has a right (and responsibility) to complete its long-delayed review, repudiate the study and distance itself from its continued availability.

Here are some additional thoughts that Ted Rockwell shared with the NYAS as an enclosure in his April 21, 2011 letter to the Board of Governors and The President’s Council.

Begin quoted letter.

Additional Comments on the NYAS-Greenpeace Report on Chernobyl

The type of claims it makes, of extensive radiological damage to people and the environment from the Chernobyl reactor explosion of 1986, have been repeatedly shown to be contradicted by the data. The NYAS report unfortunately carries these claims to new heights, calling the incident “the largest technological catastrophe in history.” claiming “a danger greater than nuclear weapons concealed within nuclear power…No citizen of any country can be assured that he or she can be protected from radioactive contamination.” Getting more specific, the report claims “Prior to 1985, more than 80% of children in the Chernobyl territories…were healthy; today fewer than 20% are well. In the heavily contaminated areas, it is difficult to find one healthy child.”

The facts of the case are quite different. For example, in the exclusion zone, where the report claims it is difficult to find one healthy child, the radioactivity is lower than my sister’s front yard in Colorado (where she raised four very healthy children, and the cancer rate is significantly lower than average). And the Ukrainian tourism bureau is sponsoring eco-tours to show how wildlife is flourishing because the human presence has been restricted. Two thousand villages in the evacuated zone are being repopulated. The Chernobyl meltdown has probably been studied more than any other industrial casualty, by the UNSCEAR, WHO, Red Cross, IAEA, et al. The NYAS report implies that these organizations are uncritical tools of the nuclear industry, but offers no supporting evidence for such a claim.

Why are the conclusions of the NYAS report versus the consensus reports so dramatically different? There are several facts that contribute to the difference:

a. Fear of radiation was rampant and deep-seated. Government actions were confusing and contradictory. Several of the medical specialists who investigated the after-effects of Chernobyl noted that fear of radiation could by itself explain the spread of depression, alcoholism, absenteeism, abuse of drugs, sleeplessness, and the symptoms that such ills create and sustain. One example: Prior to 1986, the rate of abortions downwind of Chernobyl was fairly constant. The year following showed an additional 50,000 to 100,000 abortions, and abortion rates for following years returned to nearly the previous level. This is presumably because physicians advising pregnant women were ill-informed about the effects of low-dose radiation, and added to the problem, rather than alleviating it. It was repeatedly reported that fear of radiation was much more destructive than the radiation itself.

b. The Ukrainian government offered extensive incentives to declare oneself a “Chernobyl victim.” The original contract with the Soviet government promised that any person injured by the reactor would be fully taken care of, at the expense of the Russian government. This provision came to include housing, hospitalization and other medical care, and cash. The program became so lavish and extensive that resentment grew up against the “victims” who were judged by many to be parasites. There were fund-raising tours through USA and elsewhere, of malformed “Chernobyl victims” who didn’t even all live in or near Chernobyl.

c. A collection of anecdotes is not data. Correlation does not prove cause. The data cited in this report were accumulated by stumbling across correlations of various illnesses or symptoms, regardless of whether such symptoms have ever been known to result from irradiation. Most have not. Recognizing that such post-hoc pattern-building is generally disparaged by scientists, the authors argue that in the Chernobyl situation, it is required. There is no attempt to replicate or peer-review the data. The need for statistical significance is specifically denied.

d. “Exposed to radiation” does not mean “injured,” though the report implies otherwise. All life-forms have been exposed to radiation, since the dawn of time. Table 1.9 of the report’s Chapter 2 shows the number of people “Suffering from Chernobyl Radioactive Contamination.” Heavily contaminated areas is 270,000; Outside Europe is 4,000,000,000. These four billion people are said to be suffering from a Chernobyl radiation dose of 0.025mSv. This is about 1% of the global average radiation background from all sources, and many people will casually take actions that increase their radiation dose a hundred times the Chernobyl dose, just from the everyday activities of living.

Marshall Brucer, “the father of nuclear medicine,” in his canonical “Chronology of Nuclear Medicine,” indicates how extensive this variation can be. On page 323, he lists various radiation background levels (with cosmic ray contribution removed) from New York City at 0.62mSv/year to SW France up to 87.6; to the potash fertilizer area in Florida up to 1,750. He notes, “If you live in one place on earth, your background may vary from day to day by a factor of ten, or even 100…The inside exposure rate can change by a factor of 10 within hours, just by opening windows.” He notes that building with brick, rather than wood, can nearly double your daily radiation dose, but that the radioactivity of bricks and concrete is also highly variable: from 0.05 to 4.93 mSv/hr for bricks, and from 0.29 to 2.54 for concretes. “A factor of 10 daily variation [in radioactivity] marks the diets of most people.” As to the specific isotopes unique to nuclear fission: despite statements to the contrary in the report, over 99% of those were put into the air by nuclear weapons tests, not the reactor.

The authors’ theory of radiation damage is bizarre. “One physical analogy can illustrate the importance of even the smallest load of radioactivity: only a few drops of water added to a glass filled to the brim are needed to initiate a flow. The same few drops can initiate the same overflow when it is a barrel.” [TR note: No, it doesn’t. Just try it. The water will not run up and over the sides of a glass or a barrel.]
“…we simply do not know when only a small amount of additional Chernobyl radiation will cause an overflow of damage and irreversible change in the health of humans and in nature” No evidence is offered to support this unorthodox theory of radiation damage.

One other factor makes the tiny Chernobyl dose appear to be so significant–the statistical magic of small numbers. Cluster analysis has been made notorious by Sternglass, Wing, et al. They look at the cancer rate in counties surrounding, say, a nuclear facility. They are shocked to find that about half the counties are above average. (This is not Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average.) Asked about the other half, they say these are not of interest; those people are just lucky. If the average annual rate of cancer deaths in the counties of this study is, for example, 10, then suppose one of that 10 moves to an adjacent county. That raises the death rate for the new county to 11, and lowers the old county to 9 – a 20% difference! If, instead of 10, the average is hundreds, or thousands; do they then lose the magic of small numbers? Not at all. They can then break the data down into particular types of cancers, and/or age groups or other categories of individuals. The possibilities are endless. And it’s all bad science.

Being the publisher of this book dishonors the Academy. If we continue to publish it, we are saying that it is a work that the Academy believes worthy of attention by busy scientists. Why else would we publish it?
There is no shame in reversing course when the facts advise it. This is best done quickly and decisively, with minimum publicity. Unfortunately, the latest move by Greenpeace has foreclosed on that option.

End quoted letter.

Now it is time to add more voices to the chorus. Nader has issued his challenge and suggested that the scientific community should not be silent if they disagree with the methods and conclusions of the Yablokov / Nesterenko / Greenpeace work of art. You can add commentary here. Better yet, if you happen to be a member of NYAS or another technical society with an interest in the topic, would be to formally challenge the work and the decision processes that allows it to be cited as a seemingly credible source of information.

About Rod Adams

15 Responses to “Challenging New York Academy of Sciences to repudiate “Chernobyl Consequences””

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  1. DV82XL says:

    The biggest problem with this pile of dreck is its size. Shoveling through it is not going to be fun, nor is it going to be all that productive. A proper treatment could take years, and wouldn’t change the minds of those holding it up as ligitimate. The rest of us don’t need to be convinced its a crock.

    It would need a massive investment of time, with poor returns for any scientist with the standing to formally challenge the work.

    Not that it doesn’t need to be done but I don’t see a rush to engage happining.

    • George Carty says:

      I think the biggest problem that supporters of nuclear energy face is that many people inherently distrust them. This is probably due to the secrecy that accompanied the early nuclear industry as a result of its military roots. (British power reactors are converted bomb factories, while American power reactors are enlarged submarine engines.)

      What we need to do is to demonstrate that Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear organizations are not trustworthy.

  2. Rod Adams says:

    @George – members of the nuclear community have allowed others to set the agenda and to portray us in a negative light. I believe that one of the primary ways to overcome that is to show just how much financial benefit the oil and gas industry derives from anti-nuclear activities. I think many well meaning people would be appalled to realize whose water they are actually carrying.

    • George Carty says:

      I’d argue that that nuclear industry allowed itself to be taken for suckers by its enemies just as Neville Chamberlain allowed himself to be suckered by Hitler.

      Germany’s claim on the Sudetenland looked reasonable in and of itself (as the Sudetenland was after all full of Germans), but that didn’t take into account that Hitler’s agenda wasn’t just “bring all Germans into Germany”, but ultimately “conquer and depopulate Eastern Europe, so that Germany can be self-sufficient in all resources”.

      Similarly, the anti-nukes’ demands for extra safety precautions looked reasonable, but the goal of such people was not safer nuclear energy but no nuclear energy, at best to allow increased profiteering by fossil fuel resource owners, and at worst to bring down industrial civilization.

      I’d probably in fact go further to argue that the nuclear industry’s behaviour was even more inexcusable, because at least Neville Chamberlain also had other reasons to appease Hitler (primarily fear of Soviet expansionism).

  3. Daniel says:

    Thank you Rod. I am a freshman undergraduate nuclear student at a university and have been in a couple arguments about nuclear power. The reason I started reading your blog was when I ran into a sociology major from California who was a fan of Helen Caldicott. He actually quoted this report when it first came out. I knew what he was saying was BS. Unfortunately the people listening couldn’t tell what was what. If I ever run into him again I will point him to your site. I still have no clue what he meant by the covered up death toll due to Palo Verde.

  4. Jerry says:

    The anti-nuclear movement has over the 25 years since Chernobyl managed to create an “urban legend” that is extremely hard to debunk with people who haven’t ever looked into it themselves with an open mind. The “legend” of Chernobyl includes thousands and thousands of immediate deaths, millions of cancer deaths, and even more heartbreaking, thousands and thousands of malformed and handicapped children, the pictures of which are virtually synonymous with “Chernobyl”. Recently someone even made a video game that implies the exclusion zone is a zone of horror roamed by zombies.
    The nuclear industry’s assurances that new nuclear plants are safe and that another Chernobyl is highly improbable is hardly comforting for people who believe this legend. This was a mistake: we should have focused on debunking the radiophobia. Anything and Everything is being “suspected” and blamed for causing cancer: Cell phones, fast food, car exhaust. Since today, one in three of us gets cancer at some point in our lives, and rising, it’s easy to make these claims. But their fearmongering is wearing out, and we have truth on our side.

  5. XPLAlN says:

    This is frustrating because the risk of making a martyr out of this book is a real one.

    Also, in my experience, committees struggle with questions like ‘how will it look?’ and ‘won’t we just create a bigger controversy?’.

    Nonetheless, I would urge the NYAS to stay focused on its raison d’etre and prioritise science by ditching this dodgy book.

  6. lucaberta says:

    Thanks for your continuous work on this topic, Rod. What you and Ted are doing should be kept in mind by all of us, each and every time that a flawed scientific report or paper, unverified by peers, is used left and right by antinuclear people.

    Just last night, on a national political TV program here in Italy, the representative of the Green party used once again both the NYAS report as a way to refute the UNSCEAR findings mentioned by pro-nuclear Prof. Franco Battaglia, who was arguing about the figures of dead people and people who developed cancer after the Chernobyl accident.

    The politician also used the KiKK report from Germany to validate his point, yet another flawed report quite famous here in Europe, which is reported also in this good comment on a post on BNC:

    We need more “fact sheets” that could be used in all the situations, particularly in media debates, where knowledge of the really weak spots in those flawed reports can be highlighted in a simple way to a non-technical audience.

    We need to broaden our reach much beyond what we’re used to do today, if we want to have a chance to really influence the world in a positive way. There is still too much bad-mouthing nuclear, particularly here in Europe, and I would like to contribute as best as I can in this never-ending debate.

    The silly thing is, I don’t see nuclear as something that would go against other renewables, while those who are in favour of renewables always fight against nuclear. I frankly do not understand in what dream world these guys live in.

    Thanks for all your wonderful work on the blog and podcast, Rod. Much appreciated.

    Luca Bertagnolio
    Milan, Italy

  7. Marje Hecht says:

    Zbigniew Jaworowski’s article (which I’ve noted here before) is relevant: “Observations on Chernobyl After 25 Years of Radiophobia.”

    Jaworowski was in charge of radiation protection in Poland at the time of the accident, and is a former chairman of UNSCEAR.

  8. lucaberta says:

    And now, lo and behold, the latest rant from Helen Caldicott on the New York Times lists the NYAS report as her source of information to spread the lie of one million (insert pic of Dr. Evil sucking pinky) dead from the Chernobyl accident, while she mentions IAEA (really, not UNSCEAR!) as liars for reporting only 4000 predicted deaths from cancer:

    We must not succumb to this shameless blowing snow spread by Caldicott. I am hoping that Rod, Ted, and all you others out there in America can turn back to the NY Times and maybe link the comment made to George Monbiot by Douglas Braaten, Director and Executive Editor, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, on April 2nd 2011, in which he stated “In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer-reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone else.”

    Monbiot’s post with the above mention is at:

  9. Piotr Slowinski says:

    can’t be the LNT hypothesis reduced ‘ad absurdum’ by comparison to homoeopathy?

    • DV82XL says:

      For statistical reasons the LNT cannot be falsified and so the precautionary principle is adopted by default. The reason being that an LNT model is the simplest, most conservative model that can be fit to currently existing evidence.

      The problem with the LNT model is the same as the problem with any other environmental insult model. While at higher radiation doses, effects due to radiation are, like effects due to pretty much any other high-level environmental exposure, much more robust and reproducible, at lower radiation doses, the effects are weaker, and the scatter in the data is much greater. In other words, at low doses the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower due to a lot more noise and a lot less signal in the data. Moreover, the data are more difficult to collect, and variability from system to system, organism to organism, and cancer to cancer is likely to be much greater.

      Thus for a regulator, as imperfect as it is, the LNT model is a reasonable approximation for purposes of policy-making because it is conservative and safe.

      What is needed is a new paradigm for radiation exposure built from scratch, rather than current attempts to discredit LNT by validating the radiation hormesis model, which seems to be the thrust of the current efforts.

      Because until better data can be gathered that clearly demonstrate the superiority of one model over another, for a regulator, the responsible and safe model to choose is the most conservative one that fits reasonably well. Basing public policy on a model that, if incorrect, has the potential to result in considerable harm in the form of increased radiation-induced disease prevalence is not wise policy at all, at least when the alternate model is not demonstrably wrong.

      Yes, this is politics, not science, but in this case the former will always prevail. Change will only come when the scientific evidence is so overwhelming, that the precautionary principle need not apply.

  10. Septeus7 says:

    Hey Rob, I’ve been seening articles by this “George Washington” blogger showing up on pretty popular economics sites on the Internet claiming that we are over exposed to plutonium and that man made radiation is different from “natural radiation” and that The banana-radiation thing was debunked @ the Guardian weeks. He’s also implied that Fukushima is worse the Gulf Oil spill.

    Here’s link and I’m hoping someone does a serious rebuttal of this George Washington blogger’s nonsense because this stuff must be answered because it already has to much of a life on it’s own.

    I”d like to write a detailed response to the dozen post or so by anti nuclear bloggers like George Washington but to that I need access to a forum and some experts like Robert Gale because this stuff like claming at total meltdown at 3 reactors will pressure vessel breach.

    The Antis are constructing a completely different story as to what has happened and if it’s not answered now it will take root just like this Greenpease report.

  11. Richard says:

    I have just heard a rumour that the NYAS is trying to distance itself from the Chernobyl report. Does anyone have any confirmation or statement made by the NYAS thats says they regret the publication as I was advised or is it false?


  12. Theodore Rockwell says:

    Debunking a thick report full of figures, graphs and formulas looks like a formidable task. In this case, it isn’t. Because the report itself says repeatedly, starting on page 2, that normal science doesn’t give the right answer. This is not an inference or an implication. The NYAS-Greenpeace report itself says the scientific community all disagrees with it because they’ve been bought off by the evil nuclear industry.

    The whole report is based on this unsupported premise. That’s all that needs to be debunked.