Saturday, April 08, 2006

John Roughan: Chernobyl was not that bad after all

It is 20 years this month since Chernobyl and I'm still waiting for the haze to clear. I was there just two years after the accident, in the course of an exchange visit the Herald used to do with the Soviet Union's Novosti news agency. While in Ukraine I asked to see something of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

My guide happily complied. This was the period of perestroika, when Mikhail Gorbachev was trying to put honesty into communism by encouraging open criticism of shoddy work. The Soviet media, scarcely believing its sudden freedom, was feasting on revelations and condemnations of minor functionaries.

The mistakes made at Chernobyl, in design and management of the power station and in the panic when a reactor caught fire that April day, were already well publicised. My intention was to provide a visitor's ground-level view of the consequences.

After all, nuclear radiation was a universal nightmare. By the late 1980s we had been inundated with books and movies warning of the global scale of the catastrophe we could expect, not only from a nuclear weapon but from anything that went wrong in those ghostly domes that contained atomic explosions in unsuspecting countrysides.

We were told Chernobyl was still a no-go zone but we could enter the evacuated area 30km around the site.

We drove to the town of Pripyat just 3km from ground zero. It was deserted. Homes were closed up, lawns were long and grass grew through the cracks in concrete paths.

I was warming to my story and asked the guide how many had died here.

"I don't think anybody died here," he said.

Right. What was the death toll all told?

About 30, he thought.

He didn't mean 30,000? No, 30.

Why hadn't I known this, considering everything that had been published about Chernobyl to that point? I suppressed an alarm bell in my head and wrote the descriptive piece I had envisaged.

But ever since, I have read reports about Chernobyl with particular care. An anniversary feature from the Observer appeared in this paper last weekend.

It, too, began with a visit to Pripyat, "the most radioactive town on Earth". It described the explosions in the early hours of April 26, the fire that would burn for 10 days and the radioactive drift that was recorded as far away as Sweden.

"There were 176 operational staff on duty at the Chernobyl plant that night and the subsequent efforts to contain the disaster would eventually involve more than half a million men and women," the article said.

"Many of them were subjected to enormous doses of radiation. Some were killed instantly. Others died agonising deaths afterwards ... " Notice it doesn't say how many.

It continued, "The doses received by hundreds of thousands of soldiers and reservists - 'liquidators' - who decontaminated the poisoned landscape of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus were either classified or never officially recorded." How then did he know the doses were "enormous"?

In almost everything that has been written about Chernobyl for popular consumption is an absence of solid figures to support the determined story of disaster. This was the world's worst nuclear power accident, but either the fall-out was inexplicably low or radiation is not as devastating as we have been led to think.

Twenty years on, the death toll stands at 59. That includes nine deaths from thyroid cancer, an effect of radiation that can be countered by quickly distributing iodine tablets, which evidently was not done.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reported Chernobyl's consequences to the General Assembly, saying, "Apart from the substantial increase in thyroid cancer after childhood exposure observed in Belarus, in the Russian Federation and in Ukraine, there is no evidence of a major public health impact related to ionizing radiation 14 years after the Chernobyl accident.

"No increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality that could be associated with radiation exposure have been observed. For some cancers no increase would have been anticipated as yet, given the latency period of around 10 years for solid tumours.

"The risk of leukaemia, one of the most sensitive indicators of radiation exposure, has not been found to be elevated even in the accident recovery operation workers or in children. There is no scientific proof of an increase in other non-malignant disorders related to ionizing radiation."

One of the main ill effects found in "survivors" was anxiety, which suggests emotionally charged reporting has done as much harm as residual radioactivity.

Twenty years on, farmland in Belarus and Ukraine is still being treated for contamination and the 30km exclusion zone around the now decommissioned power station remains in force.

But those are precautions, not human damage. It is easy to beat up a calamity story by treating the precautions as proof.

On Wednesday the Independent in Britain published a piece by Andrew Osborn who had gone into the exclusion zone and found it is now an unplanned nature reserve. He reported that animals have returned of their own accord, including 7000 wild boar and a similar number of elk.

It is home to 280 species of birds, many of them rare and endangered. Even the cooling ponds of the power station were teeming with fish. He quoted Maria Shaparenko, a former inhabitant who has returned. She said: "It's very nice here in summer, everything blooms. In fact nothing is wrong here, it's just that people have been scared off by the radiation."

Undoubtedly there will be more Chernobyl retrospectives before the month is out. Read them carefully and you may conclude that mankind's worst nuclear accident was not the holocaust we've been so long led to expect.

The truth may be - and it is a headline I still hope to see - Chernobyl was not that bad.


Blogger Verite said...

Some key findings of The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH) (i) include:

Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were heavily contaminated, however more than half of Chernobyl's fallout was deposited outside these countries;
Fallout from Chernobyl contaminated about 40% of Europe's surface area;
About 2/3rds of Chernobyl's collective dose was distributed to populations outside Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, especially to western Europe
About 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths are predicted, 7 to 15 times greater than IAEA/WHO's published estimate of 4,000.
See also discussion of other misreporting and map of Ceasium fallout at

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Laughing Fox said...

This article is just so weird. I'm not in the least bit sure what it's trying to say. I have read it three times and I'm still confused.

Is it trying to say, "Ye Olde Soviet Union officials lied at the time and grossly underestimated the impact."

Or is it trying to say, "Look, I was there shortly after it happen, and only a measly 59 people died, nuclear power is safe and everyone is hyping the dangers."

I feel as if there is a Dog Whistle blowing through this article, but I cannot quite hear it.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not that bad? After the explosion there were fears that if the remaining superhot nuclear material broke through the concrete floor to where firefighting water had gone, that it would cause an explosion measured in the megatons which would have made most of Europe uninhabitable.

Anything that presents even a 1% chance of such a thing is bad news.

By the way, many species of animal are less affected by radiation. Added to that that many deformed ones did not reproduce.

That article was weird.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous buddhalover said...

"Not that bad after all"


watch this for something more accurate.

1:40 AM  
Anonymous nimbus said...

The IAEA uses a technique common in the murky world of governments and big business. If a direct connection between cause and effect can't be established experimentally (as in the present case),then it has to be done using statistical methods. Because these methods can't show a direct cause and effect chain in any individual case, this provides an excuse to weasel out of all cases. The same technique if still being used by the diehards of the tobacco industry. Since there are no individual cases on record where a person's death can be shown to have been caused by smoking, the industry is able to claim 'not proven' and to reject all cases.

9:06 AM  

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