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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Chernobyl Death Toll: 4,000 or 1 Million?

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, energy, nuclear, Chernobyl, public health, science, Alternet, New York Academy of Sciences, International Atomic Energy Agency,

Chernobyl bookLast week, a few alternative and environmental news outlets drew attention to a newly published science book that put the cumulative death toll of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident at more than a million—a story that had particular resonance on the 24th anniversary of the reactor meltdown, the book’s publication date. But the story did not bleed out into the mainstream media, and even the progressive website Alternet seemed suspicious, calling the 1 million estimate an “astounding allegation” in its headline.

The number is dramatically higher than the estimate of 4,000 deaths presented in a 2005 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program—a figure that has often been criticized as being far too low and influenced by the IAEA’s pro-nuclear agenda.

Where is the truth here? It’s an awfully long way from 4,000 to one million—996,000, in fact. If the truth is somewhere in between the two figures, neither one is of much help to people who are trying to decide whether new nuclear plants—such as those President Obama has proposed—are a safe energy source.

The book that raised eyebrows last week was published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a well respected, almost 200-year-old scientific society, so it carried a whiff of academic rigor. But just six days after the book’s publication, NYAS issued an online statement in which it downplayed the currency of the information and distanced itself from it. The statement notes that the book was based on a report originally published online in November 2009, which itself was the translation of a 2007 publication:

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issue “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” therefore, does not present new, unpublished work, nor is it a work commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences.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 an open forum for discussion of scientific questions, the Academy has no intent to influence legislation by providing such forums.

The messages I take away from this not-very-deeply-coded missive are threefold: 1) The information isn’t all that new, so move along; 2) We’re not backing up the scientists, so caveat emptor; and 3) Corporate partners and foundation heavyweights, please don’t cut our funding because you think we’re anti-nuke.

While both studies appear to have credibility problems, the larger question is this: If the United States is going to enter a new era of nuclear power, as a host of observers have predicted, we’re going to have to get a firmer handle on its potential downside in a worst-case scenario. Techno-optimists who believe in the awesome power of science should create a panel of independent medical and public health experts—outside the IAEA—to arrive at a Chernobyl death estimate that both pro- and anti-nuclear forces can trust. Until then, potential supporters of both camps have 996,000 reasons to doubt what they’re told.

Sources: New York Academy of Sciences, Alternet, IAEA

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3/27/2012 6:35:42 PM

pull the anti cancer drug. the uckraine is not paying it bill for the putting out of chernonbyl. why should I allow them somthing that work's. when there not paying there bill.

robert maclachlan
4/5/2011 9:50:05 AM

The problem is that noone will ever know. If 50,000 people a year were dying of cancer ar the time of chenobyl and 52000 died last year were the extra deaths caused by radiation or is it better diagnostics. There is no statistical proof that the death rate from cancer has gone up though of course everyone with cancer 1000miles from the plant will blame the accident. What we are left with therefore is the statistical chance in the future lives will be cut short and this is only a wild guess. After all most people in the area received the sort of dose that people in certain areas of the world experience from background radiation without problem. We need nuclear power as afordable energy is vital for a modern society. Remember that China has lost over 250,000 in hydro accidents alone. Every source of energy has its risks. This article is highly irresponsible

william tucker
5/5/2010 4:07:27 PM

I've never known what to make of this discrepancy. Greenpeace was putting out similar numbers - actually a little lower, 750,000 - when the UN report came out. Four thousand versus 750,000 - the whole thing seemed bizarre. (I review this in my book, Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Energy Odyssey.) I'd say the best estimate is "in between," but skewed way low toward the UN figure. The UN obviously seems to have missed a lot of fatalities. Dr. Henry Heimlich (of "The Maneuver"), whose autobiography will be published shortly, says he was in Italy in the 1980s and there were special hostels for Ukrainians who had gotten sick from Chernobyl. I doubt the UN counted those fatalities. On the other hand, the present authors seem to have gone around the world and collected every study that ever made a wild estimate about the effects of Chernobyl. For instance, they cite on study saying childhood leukemia doubled in Connecticut in the mid-1990s and this must be attributed to Chernobyl. Why Connecticut and not Massachusetts? Why ten years after the accident? No explanation. The study was done by the notorious Dr. Ernest Sternglass, who used to go around the country in the 1970s looking for cancer upticks and then attributing them to radioactive fallout. I'd estimate as many as a couple of thousand people could have died directly from Chernobyl but it ain't a million.