Last week, while the world was very busy with a current tragedy, the United Nations released a report on a study lasting nearly 20 years about a long-ago tragedy at a place called Chernobyl.
The study is rather long and full of technical detail, which makes it unlikely that the report will be read by the people that really need to do so. You can find links to the full report – broken into three separate files – on the IAEA In Focus : Chernobyl, Chernobyl Disaster, Chernobyl accident page at
The bottom line of the study is that the accident was not as bad as initially thought, but it was made hugely worse by the bungling of government officials and by the hysteria and stress. Part of the blame for that reaction has to be attributed to over-zealous reporting by people that desperately wanted to tell a story that would sell papers and attract viewers to broadcast news programs so that they could be used to sell advertising.
As I watch the coverage of the devastation caused by Katrina and hear stories about the forced evacuation of people that have the resources to take care of themselves, I cannot help but wish that more government decision makers would read the Chernobyl report and apply a questioning attitude towards their own actions. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4222054.stm
The New York Times published an opinion piece on September 8th 2005 titled “Chernobyl’s Reduced Impact”, that will be available at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/08/opinion/08thu3.html for a few more days before they move it off to their archive pages. After that, you can still find the article, but you will have to pay for it.
This commentary became a discussion topic on a mailing list that I have been subscribing to for at least a half a dozen years. I obtained permission from one of the authors on that list to post his comment, which is in the form of a letter that he wrote to the editor of the New York Times. Here it is:
To the Editor,
In your Editorial today (“Chernobyl’s Reduced Impact”), you state that “In the long run, the experts predict, some 4,000 emergency workers and residents of the most contaminated areas may die from radiation-induced cancer.”
But Burton Bennett, chair of the Chernobyl Forum and the conference, said that on the contrary, the 4,000 figure was an upper-bound estimate and could greatly overstate the risk from the accident.
Bennett’s comment is consistent with risk calculations based on extrapolating from high radiation doses to low doses, using the so-called Linear No-Threshold, or LNT hypothesis.
As stated in the POSITION STATEMENT OF THE HEALTH PHYSICS SOCIETY, “RADIATION RISK IN PERSPECTIVE,” (posted at http://hps.org/documents/radiationrisk.pdf ), “in accordance with current knowledge of radiation health risks, the Health Physics Society recommends against quantitative estimation of health risks below an individual dose of 5 rem in one year or a lifetime dose of 10 rem in addition to background radiation. Risk estimation in this dose range should be strictly qualitative accentuating a range of hypothetical health outcomes with an emphasis on the likely possibility of zero adverse health effects.”
Average Chernobyl-related doses have been a little over 1 rem per year, and declining over time.
The Position Statement continues, “There is substantial and convincing scientific evidence for health risks following high-dose exposures. However, below 5-10 rem (which includes occupational and environmental exposures), risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are nonexistent. [….] Collective dose (the sum of individual doses in a defined exposed population expressed as person-rem) has been a useful index for quantifying dose in large populations and in comparing the magnitude of exposures from different radiation sources. However, collective dose may aggregate information excessively, for example, a large dose to a small number of people is not equivalent to a small dose to many people, even if the collective doses are the same. Thus, for populations in which almost all individuals are estimated to receive a lifetime dose of less than 10 rem above background, collective dose is a highly speculative and uncertain measure of risk and should not be used for the purpose of estimating population health risks.”
The Chernobyl Forum statement said that apart from the still closed, highly contaminated 30 km^2 (19 mile^2) area surrounding the reactor and some closed lakes and restricted forests, radiation levels had mostly returned to acceptable levels.
Thus while the media may wish to emphasize that the final death toll attributed to radiation “could reach 4,000,” in fact they SHOULD be emphasizing that it is highly unlikely to be very much more than the “Fewer than 50 deaths [that] have been directly attributed to radiation released in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident.”
On the other hand, the Editorial correctly states that “the greatest public health hazard has been mental. People from
the region are anxious and fatalistic, based on a greatly exaggerated view of the risks they face. The result can be drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, and an inability to function.”
Dr. Bennett confirmed that poverty and “lifestyle diseases” posed a “far greater threat” to local communities.
Yet the media fail to make the connection with who is responsible for perpetuating that “greatly exaggerated view of the risks [of radiation]” and therefore also responsible for the enormous public health problem.
The unwarranted fear and panic was whipped up by “environmental groups” aided and abetted by a sensationalist media.
Why isn’t this news?
Jaro Franta, P.Eng.
I think Jaro has it almost right, but government officials have to share in the blame. An awful lot of the fear and panic was caused by ill prepared officials and by officials whose actions were driven by a desire to appear compasionate and in charge. The forcible evacuations and the continued government payouts to “victims” of the accident contributed to the lifestyle diseases, stress, and rootless feelings left behind after the fires were out, the radiation doses fell to an acceptable level and life should have returned to normal.
I fear that similar effects might be the result of Katrina if we do not calm down and rationally evaluate what needs to be done to restore the ability of the region to function and support the kind of normal human activity that should happen in a freedom loving country full of responsible individuals. Politicians should not make massive “guilt” payments, but they should also not shy away from taking agressive action to clean streets and restore services that are most properly done by organized “good government”.
The same calm, rational comments that the Health Physics Society makes with regard to the overall effects of low doses of radiation (see the link above) can also be made about the effects of low doses of other environmental contaminants. Keep doses as low as reasonably possible, but do not worry too much about doses that approach normal background levels.
Government leaders, if you need some advice on how to proceed, I highly recommend that you ask Joe Reilly – the then and current mayor of Charleston, SC – how he rallied a population to recover and prosper after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.