People who oppose nuclear power often use the words “Three Mile Island” and “Chernobyl” as shorthand to imply that there are safety concerns relating to the technology that cannot be overcome. The great news, however, is that Three Mile Island happened more than 22 years ago, while the 15th anniversary of Chernobyl occurred Thursday, April 26.
It is encouraging to know that the few accidents that have been experienced in nuclear power plants have become so famous. After all, the technology did not disappear after either one of the accidents; instead, the annual energy total produced in nuclear power plants worldwide has grown by 85% since 1986.
It is a truism in the news business that unusual events make better stories; a story about a man biting a dog is far more likely to make it to the evening news than is one about a dog biting a man. When nuclear plants get into trouble, everybody pays attention, creating events that are universally remembered. It would be an ill-informed person indeed who had never heard of Chernobyl and the explosion that occurred there 15 years ago.
The stories about the accident are numerous and horrifying. The reactor burned for 10 days, requiring a heroic effort to put out the blaze and stop the release of radioactive material to the environment. About 134 of the firefighters were exposed to so much radiation that it made them sick almost immediately. Of those, 28 died within three months and two more died a bit later from the effects of their exposure.
Those facts are generally agreed upon. There is, however, significant disagreement over the long-term effects of the accident. These effects are what anti-nukes want to talk about when trying to make the case that the accident was more deadly than hundreds of other industrial accidents resulting in a similar short-term death toll. While many sources casually provide estimates of thousands of early cancer cases among the population of people exposed to some radioactive material from Chernobyl, the most detailed studies available tell a far different story.
According to a June 6, 2000 report, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found that, ‘Apart from the increase in thyroid cancer after childhood exposure, no increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality have been observed that could be attributed to ionizing radiation.”
Their supporting statements lead one to believe that the area evacuations ordered by the Soviet government were actually harmful to human health and that the fertile land surrounding the accident site is still fit for human habitation. Those conclusions will not be too surprising to the workers that continued to operate other reactors on the Chernobyl site up until late last year.
The UNSCEAR members sifted through enormous volumes of medical data accumulated in detailed studies over a 14-year period to come to their extraordinary conclusions. Unfortunately, the bottom line of the study is buried deep inside a 1,220 page document whose summary includes more than 19 pages of densely worded jargon. Though outwardly dedicated to the goal of increasing the world’s knowledge of radiation health effects, the scientists who wrote the report are not particularly skilled in the art of communicating with mere mortals like the rest of us.
I predict that there will be no end to the catastrophic predictions of excess deaths; it will take more than an admittedly boring scientific report to shake people from their convictions.
Please understand; I am not blaming the media for their failure to dig into the UNSCEAR report to search for nuggets of understandable news. It is a tough story to research, a difficult one to tell, and certainly one that does not sell as well as the dramatic news of the day.
I just hope, however, that before reporters write stories that quote old estimates of thousands of people suffering from the effects of radiation released from the Chernobyl accident that they exhibit a questioning attitude and find out what carefully conducted studies are actually showing. There is a world of difference between a prediction based on assumed theories of radiation health effects and documented evidence of actual cancer rates versus those of non-exposed populations.
I also hope that the writers realize that there are a multitude of factors influencing the health of inhabitants of the Chernobyl area and that actual radiation health effects are much lower than the effects of stress and dislocation caused by an excessive fear of what the effects might be. A portion of the report is available at http://www.uilondon.org/industry/chernobyl/chernounscear.htm as is information about how to obtain a full report.