-Was Chernobyl as tame as Andrew Bolt claims?

The West Wing on cartography and social equity

Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt glosses easily over the potential negative health implications of the troubled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear reactor in Japan. He says too much emphasis is given to the Chernobyl disaster because, contrary to received wisdom, he maintains only 65 deaths are associated with this accident. But there’s more to it than that.

These accounts (here and here)  from Wiki indicate there are wildly varying claims about the number of deaths associated with the accident. The World Health Organisation estimated deaths at 4,000; Greenpeace at 200,000; and this Russian report, translated in 2007, says there were one million deaths, 170,000 of them in North America.

However estimates of deaths by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation are broadly consistent with Andrew Bolt’s claims. But what Bolt fails to mention, and the UN draws attention to, is the long run health implications of the accident.

For example, by 2005 there were 6,000 diagnosed cases of thyroid cancer among residents of Belarus, Ukraine and proximate parts of Russia, who were children at the time of the accident. According to the UN, it is most likely that a large fraction of these cancer cases are attributable to radioiodine intake (fortunately, thyroid cancer is usually treatable – the 30 year survival rate is 92% – but it’s a gruelling experience).

Now a new study has drawn attention to the cognitive risks of radiation exposure. Douglas Almond, a Columbia University Professor, wrote to the New York Times earlier this month pointing out that even low levels of radiation can have severe consequences for unborn children. He and his collaborators recently published a study of the effect of fallout from Chernobyl on Swedish children.

Sweden experienced radiation levels from Chernobyl that were so low they were considered safe. Almond’s team confirms that this presumption was mostly right. However they found that “Swedish students who were in utero during the accident experienced significantly lower cognitive functions, as reflected in performance on standardised tests in middle school, especially those tests that correspond best to IQ”.

They go on to say:

The damage was greatest for cohorts in utero in regions of Sweden that received more fallout by virtue of rainfall during the time the radioactive plume was over Sweden, and were of gestational age 8-25 weeks at the time of the accident. This last finding mirrors earlier epidemiological analysis of the survivors of Atomic bombings in Japan, which found reduced IQ and head circumference among the cohort exposed to radiation at those gestation ages.

The explanation is probably that cells which are dividing rapidly are particularly vulnerable to damage from radiation. The research by Professor Almond et al is published here. That’s gated but here’s what appears to be the same paper.

Please Andrew, can you amend your assessment of Chernobyl to take account of the broader impact of exposure to radiation?

5 Comments on “-Was Chernobyl as tame as Andrew Bolt claims?”

  1. Matthew says:

    Ah I see your mistake there Alan. You’ve taken Andrew Bolt seriously. When it comes to one type of silly sausage you can say “is Don, is Good”, and for the other type of silly sausage “is Bolt, is Bad”.

    There is still a 30km radius exclusion zone around Chernobyl. i.e 2827 square kilometres of land too polluted to be permanently inhabit by humans. What’s that like? a bit bigger than a 50x50km square. So the same scale of size as Melbourne and its suburbs.

    Whatever his disingenuous argument is, he loses based just on facts. He’s like the antiMidas.

  2. Russ says:

    Alan, could you have picked a more bias-ridden and less informative wikipedia page to cite? Note an additional difference between those reports too, the WHO predicts 9000 additional deaths at some point in the future – that figure could easily be out by a factor of 50 either way – but such a low number across such a large population over so long a period is almost impossible to detect (it is something like 2 additional deaths per 100,000).

    The second report claims a million deaths already. That is a massive difference, and from the reading I did of it it seems to do so through the thorough abuse of statistics: notably, fitting a log graph to infant mortality rates from 1980 to 2000 and then claiming additional deaths in the gap between the drop after 1990 and the flat-line through the late 1980s; and creating similar allusions about death-rates and neo-mortality between late-80s Soviet Union and the mid-1990s that essentially attribute every adverse health outcome to Chernobyl in countries that underwent significant social and economic change. Not to mention most countries modified their method of reporting on infant mortality in the late 1980s, got serious about environmental air quality (particularly lead) which don’t appear to have been taken into consideration.

    More to the point, even if we did accept the higher figure, nuclear would still be several times safer than its major competitor: coal, largely because coal power has comparatively few restrictions, and is subsequently a lot cheaper too.

    Matthew, that isn’t that large an area, in world terms, nor is it likely to be “permanently” uninhabitable, as quite a few people travel to and from there already (their main concern are “hot-spots” and not all the residents left. In any case, the most likely outcome is that it remains a nature reserve, as by several reports the absence of any significant human activity has been a net positive for the local environment.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Russ, I’m a bit non-plussed – did you see the first Wiki I cited (here)? It seems to me it takes a skeptical view of the large numbers and endorses the modest UNSCER numbers. I’ve edited the wiki links to make them more visible. Agree with you about the safety of coal vs nuclear (as ever, Barry Brook is good reading on nuclear).

      • Russ says:

        Alan, my apologies. I only saw the second of the two links which are now promimently displayed, and which is really little more than a generous book summary. The general wikipedia page is much better, though I wouldn’t pay much heed to which side of a debate it comes down on. Like any document it is the product of its authors, and the “winner” may just be the most persistent editor.

  3. Alan Davies says:

    George Monbiot (in The Age today) discusses some of the sources/figures I’ve cited above.

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