In December of 2009, the Annals New York Academy of Sciences provided publication services for a book titled Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. Here is how the book is described on a web page with the HTML title of Chernobyl | The New York Academy of Sciences: (The HTML title of a web page is an important element in the way that search engines index the site.)
This is a collection of papers translated from the Russian with some revised and updated contributions. Written by leading authorities from Eastern Europe, the volume outlines the history of the health and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. According to the authors, official discussions from the International Atomic Energy Agency and associated United Nations’ agencies (e.g. the Chernobyl Forum reports) have largely downplayed or ignored many of the findings reported in the Eastern European scientific literature and consequently have erred by not including these assessments.
After reviewing the book, a number of nuclear professionals, including some credentialed and experienced radiation effects specialists began exchanging emails wondering how the New York Academy of Sciences could have possibly accepted this book for publication based on a number of specific errors, omissions and outright denials of the scientific method. At least one member of the email discussion group is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences; he volunteered to contact the people in charge of publications to find out what could be done.
After some discussion, the people at the NYAS agreed that the document did not reflect the views of the academy, but that the decision to publish the document was made before the person who is currently in charge of publication arrived in his job. That person has stated that he has no authority to withdraw the publication, but he did issue a statement that provides some, but not much, distance between the document and the NYAS.
The statement, titled Statement on the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences volume entitled “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” was posted on April 28, 2010. It says the following:
With a foreword by the Chairman of the Ukranian National Commission on Radiation Protection, Dimitro M. Grodzinsky, the 327-page volume is an English translation of a 2007 publication by the same authors. The earlier volume, “Chernobyl,” published in Russian, presented an analysis of the scientific literature, including more than 1,000 titles and more than 5,000 printed and Internet publications mainly in Slavic languages, on the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences issue “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment”, therefore, does not present new, unpublished work, nor is it a work commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences. The expressed views of the authors, or by advocacy groups or individuals with specific opinions about the Annals Chernobyl volume, are their own. Although the New York Academy of Sciences believes it has a responsibility to provide open forums for discussion of scientific questions, the Academy has no intent to influence legislation by providing such forums. The Academy is committed to publishing content deemed scientifically valid by the general scientific community, from whom the Academy carefully monitors feedback.
Some members of the scientist and engineer email group have recommended a response of silence – essentially hoping that ignoring the book will overcome the fact that it is still available from a web page giving a strong impression that it is considered to be scientifically valid and that can easily be interpreted to support a contention that the document has been peer reviewed for publication by a reputable group of scientists. However, ignoring the existence of this document has done nothing to reduce its utility as a focused weapon to be used against the sensible path of developing nuclear energy to replace fossil fuel combustion.
On September 4, 2010, Karl Grossman, a man who has been professionally engaged in anti-nuclear advocacy activities since the 1970s, but who calls himself a journalist, published a book review of Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment that once again attempted to add credibility to the document by linking it tightly to the New York Academy of Sciences. His piece can be found at Climate and Capitalism with the eye catching title of Scientists conclude: Chernobyl killed nearly 1 million people.
Grossman’s title and the conclusions that he published make a mockery of truth. The reality is that an enormous amount of credible scientific effort was invested in the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) study of the health effects of the Chernobyl accident. That study reached a completely different conclusion. Here is the description of the study and the organizations involved:
An inter-agency initiative, the Chernobyl Forum, was launched in 2003 to provide assessments of the environmental, health, and socio-economic consequences of the Chernobyl accident. The following UN organizations (FAO, IAEA, OCHA, UNDP, UNEP, UNSCEAR, WHO), the World Bank and the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine joined the efforts to generate “authoritative consensual statements” on the environmental and health consequences attributable to radiation exposure arising from the accident and provide evidence-based recommendations for mitigation of these consequences.
That international, multi-agency effort used careful science to produce a lengthy report that concluded that Chernobyl killed just 30 people (2 from burns and other injuries, 28 from acute radiation sickness) and MAY result in AS MANY AS 4,000 additional early deaths from delayed effects among the 626,000 people that received doses above variations in natural background radiation. What many people who read that result do not necessarily understand is that the phrase “as many as 4,000” can also mean “as few as zero”.
I spent most of my adult life as a commissioned officer in the Naval Service. I am proud of having been sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. The people who wrote and published their biased and unscientific interpretation of the effects of the Chernobyl accident were perfectly within their First Amendment rights. The best answer to free speech that happens to be incorrect is more speech that exposes truth and science to show just wrong other interpretations might be.
In June of 2010, the American Nuclear Society’s Nuclear News published a blurb about Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment in a regular segment titled Recently Published. Ted Rockwell, a man with a long list of professional credentials and accomplishments that include having edited the very first unclassified nuclear reactor shielding design manual for the US Atomic Energy Commission, wrote a letter to the editor of Nuclear News to share his thoughts about the unsubstantiated Chernobyl document. The below letter first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Nuclear News.
The Recently Published section of the June issue of Nuclear News (p. 20) included the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, published by the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS). Your readers should be warned that this book is not what they would expect from the academy. As a member of NYAS, I’ve asked the academy to repudiate it, and a panel of independent scientists is now investigating, the “only legal way” to that end. I expect that they will carry out this process fairly.
I do not consider the book a legitimate academy report for a number of reasons:
1. It is not a new study and does not bring any new or unpublished information to light. It is a translation of a book by the same authors that was published in 2007.
2. The preface of the report states that the writing was undertaken “with the initiative of Greenpeace International”. The acknowledgement states that the authors “provided original material or reviews of specific topics to Greenpeace International,” and ends by saying, “This English edition would have been impossible without Dr. Janette Shennan-Nevinger, who tirelessly scientifically edited our very rough translation.” Sherman-Nevinger is known for, inter alia, her work with Alec Baldwin and Ernest Sternglass on the discredited Tooth Fairy Project ( www.radiation.org ).
3. The report makes unsubstantiated claims, calling the incident “the largest technological catastrophe in history … No citizen of any country can be assured that he or she can be protected from radioactive contamination. One nuclear reactor can pollute half the globe.” More specifically, the report claims, “Prior to 1985, more than 80 percent of children in the Chernobyl territories … were healthy; today fewer than 20 percent are well. In the heavily contaminated areas, it is difficult to find one healthy child.”
4. The report’s version of the Chernobyl incident is dramatically different from the scientific consensus. Possible reasons include the following:
a. The introduction to the report states the reason that it is not an acceptable voice for science: It blatantly denies the legitimacy of the scientific method. “Some experts believe that any conclusions about radiation based disease require a correlation between an illness and the received dose of radioactivity. We believe this is an impossibility. … It is not necessary to calculate standard errors … Today’s ‘scientific protocols’ with, for example, ‘confidence intervals’ and ‘case control’ are not perfect. … It is correct and justified for the whole of society … to use the enormous database collected by thousands of experts.”
In other words, one can report a much larger number of “Chernobyl victims” if not limited by the usual scientific practice of using only direct correlation of statistically significant data. That is certainly true. The data cited in this report were accumulated by stumbling across correlations of various illnesses of symptoms, regardless of where such symptoms have ever been known to result from irradiation. Most have not. Conceding that such post hoc pattern building is generally discouraged 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.
b. The author’s 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… We simply do not know when a 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.” Water flow in a toilet works that way because it has a siphon; a glass of water does not. But more important, no evidence is offered to support this unorthodox theory of radiation damage. “Exposed to radiation” does not necessarily mean injured, as implied.
c. Fear of radiation was rampant and deep seated, and government actions were confusing and contradictory. Several of the medical specialists who investigated the aftereffects of Chernobyl noted that fear of radiation could by itself explain the spread of depression, alcoholism, absenteeism, drug abuse, 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 following year showed an additional 50,000 to 100,000 abortions, which thereafter returned to nearly the previous level. This is presumably because physicians advising pregnant women were ill-informed about the after effects of low-dose radiation and added to the problem, rather than alleviating it. It was repeatedly reported that fear of radiation was more destructive than the radiation itself.
d. The Ukrainian government offered incentives for citizens to declare themselves “Chernobyl victims.” 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 expensive that resentment grew against the “victims,” who were judged to be parasites. There were even fund-raising tours through the United States and elsewhere by malformed ‘Chernobyl victims” who didn’t even all live in or near Chernobyl.
e. Radioactivity does not possess all the scary properties attributed to it in the report. The report claims as “damage” a wide range of symptoms extending far beyond those previously shown to result from irradiation. In addition, it describes the effects as extending far into the future.:
“Nearly 400 million human beings have been exposed to Chernobyl’s fallout, and for many generations they and their descendants will suffer the devastating consequences. … In 400 years (20 human generations), the local populations in the Chernobyl-contaminated areas can be less radiosensitive than they are today. Will individuals with reduced radioresistence agree that their progeny will be the first to be eliminated from populations? … The overwhelming majority of Chernobyl-induced genetic changes will not become apparent for several generations … Apparently, impaired immunity triggered by Chernobyl radionuclides adversely affected all of the individuals, without exception, who were subjected to any additional radiation.”
There is no credible science in the vast literature of radiation effects that would support such statements. The authors completely ignore the hundreds of times greater variations in radiation levels that we repeatedly encounter through everyday living.
Chevy Chase, Md.
Other radiation science experts should weigh in and expose Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment for the dangerous work that it is. Unreasonable fear of radiation has already caused far too many illnesses and deaths. Ionizing radiation is a natural part of our environment that should be understood, respected and tamed for human benefit. It should not be a source of fear that causes depression, alcoholism, stress related illnesses or unnecessary abortions.
One final note – the government of Belarus has recently announced plans to begin resettling many of the areas that were evacuated after the Chernobyl accident.