The PJ Tatler

Putting the Fukushima threat into perspective

The Christian Science Monitor is trying to calm the panic today with an article that tells what the anti-nuclear forces do not want to hear: that even Chernobyl wasn’t all that bad in terms of lives lost.

That sounds cold and heartless, as well as misinformed: didn’t Chernobyl cause thousands to a million deaths, as is so often quoted? The answer is “no,” as even the UN’s UNSCEAR, tasked to study the effects of atomic radiation, found:

Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases can be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding the influence of enhanced screening regimes, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to the shorter time expected between exposure and its occurrence compared with solid cancers, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.

The Monitor points out that even those thyroid cancer cases in children were preventable, if the Soviets had merely warned parents not to have their children drink contaminated milk. In addition, thyroid cancer has a very high cure rate in young patients: about 97%.

That’s not to say that Chernobyl was nothing. It was most definitely something: a frightening event that shone a light on a large number of mistakes (especially in Soviet power plants, and in the Soviet Union’s dissemination of information to the public) that needed to be righted, and a tragedy from which people and the immediate environment suffered. Lives were lost, including but not limited to those who died in the original accident and its immediate radioactive aftermath, usually quoted as numbering 57. It is clear, however, that Chernobyl was nowhere near as destructive as the vast majority of people have been encouraged to think it was.

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