Chernobyl Death Toll: 4,000 or 1 Million?

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Last 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issue “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” therefore, does not present new, unpublished work, nor is it a work commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences.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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