I just read a BBC Science News article titled Chernobyl birds are small brained. The headline writer succeeded in his job – he attracted me to click on the link and read the article. The person who shared the link on Twitter also succeeded, by copying the link and headline into a tweet, he pointed me to a though provoking article. However, neither of those people have succeeded in convincing me that radiation at the levels known to exist in the exclusion zone of Chernobyl nearly 25 years after the accident are harmful to plant, animal, or human life.
You see, I did not just see the headline and accept it on face value as one more scary bit of evidence that should make be fearful. I did not just glance and say to myself that Chernobyl was a huge disaster whose recurrence must be prevented by working to eliminate all nuclear energy facilities. Instead, I read the article to find out what the researchers were actually able to measure. Here is a quote from the article:
Birds living around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident have 5% smaller brains, an effect directly linked to lingering background radiation.
The finding comes from a study of 550 birds belonging to 48 different species living in the region, published in the journal PLoS One.
Brain size was significantly smaller in yearlings compared to older birds.
That summary of information was far less than convincing for the following reasons:
- How precisely do scientists know what the size of a yearling bird should be? A 5% difference is not very much; is it within expected variations?
- Why did the scientists announce their results on such a small sample? Though 550 birds is a pretty fair sample size, if they are from 48 different species and vary in age from very young to mature, the sample size of each category is vanishingly small for statistical analysis. The margin of error with those sample sizes is well above 5%.
- How does brain size between yearlings and older birds compare in populations that are not in an exclusion zone?
The results of the recently announced study also conflicts with the descriptions of vibrant life that are available in such works as Mary Mycio’s Wormwood Forest. It also seems to contradict many existing studies of the effects on flora and fauna in the area. Perhaps the new studies are right and the existing body of knowledge is wrong, but there is not enough information in the article to make that determination.
The final thing that makes me question whether or not the birds around Chernobyl really are small brained is my knowledge of the calendar. You should expect to see a drumbeat of stories over the next few months reminding people about the Chernobyl accident. They are part of a planned publicity effort timed to come to a crescendo by April 26th to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the accident.
In fact, the drumbeat started last fall with the publication of a controversial book that claimed that the number of deaths from the accident has been grossly underestimated by all of the studies conducted by credible and responsible organizations since 1986.
There is a well worn cliche in politics – never let a good crisis go to waste. The analogous phrase in the antinuclear industry is never let an anniversary pass without taking full fund and fear raising advantage and marketing the heck out of it. I know I am contributing to the attention gathering cause by providing links to efforts like those of the Huffington Post, which published a special section titled Chernobyl: 25 Years After The Nuclear Disaster (PHOTOS), but there is no way to hide from the onslaught. Instead, good information needs to be made just as widely available.
Chernobyl was a tragedy caused by the actions taken by lightly trained operators who were forced by a political appointee to continue a poorly planned experiment AFTER becoming nervous about their indications. It happened at a plant that would never have been allowed to be licensed and constructed in any country outside of the Soviet Union. The technology as implemented at the time was unstable and done for reasons of expediency and short term cost savings. (I said it that way because there were significant improvements made in later years that allowed several plants with similar designs to operate safely for decades.)
However, even though the tragic accident happened and a good portion of the radioactive core was released into the surrounding area, there were few impacts on the general public in areas around the plant except for the ones that were caused by the incredibly poor response effort and permanent evacuation orders.
There are excellent sources of information about the effects of the ionizing radiation released by the Chernobyl accident on both human health and on the environment. Arm yourself with understanding and recognize that there will always be people who have motives for spreading as much fear, uncertainty and doubt about the use of nuclear energy as they possibly can.
Some of the people are motivated by sincere, but unfounded fears reinforced by snippets of incomplete science reporting. Some of the people have political reasons for emphasizing the effects of the accident and demanding continued efforts at compensation and restitution. Some of the people are genuinely afraid that if people recognize the unique aspects of the Chernobyl accident and realize that it happened a quarter of a century ago without any similar recurrence that we just might determine that nuclear energy is worth aggressive pursuit. Those people fear not for their lives or for the health of future generations, but for the loss of income they would suffer as nuclear energy began capturing market share from their favorite fuels.