Chernobyl Turns 25

On yesterday’s 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, western news media focused on the accident with an intensity not witnessed for more than 20 years. Much of the reason behind the news media’s “Chernobyl resurrection” has been due to the emergency at Fukushima Daiichi. But, some of the reason for the news media’s renewed interest is because the events at Fukushima have eased considerably, and the changes occurring this past week have been quite positive and non-fear-inducing. It’s almost impossible to make the important reduction of seawater I-131 levels, and in most cases a complete loss of detectability, sound scary. (As of this morning, all but one TEPCO I-131 sampling locations are either undetectable or below health standard, and all MEXT locations read no detectable I-131) It’s difficult to make the low levels of airborne activity at the accident site itself sound ominous. (All airborne tests yesterday were below worker protective standards) It’s most challenging to make the background levels of whole body exposure in the cities of northern Japan seem forbidding. And, the reactor temperatures and pressures continue steadily inching their way to a cold shutdown level, so there’s no basis for “spiraling out of control” headlines. The news media wants to keep Fukushima fears in the headlines. It’s very, very good for business. In the news media’s thirst for chilling nuclear reports, their focus now shifts to the historically tried and true…fear of radiation as it relates to Hiroshima and Chernobyl.

There’s little interest in resurrecting Chernobyl and Hiroshima in the Japanese Press, but the western news media has broadcast numerous fearsome reports covering death estimates from Chernobyl, comparisons between Chernobyl and Hiroshima radiation (e.g. the Hiroshima Syndrome), and annual anti-nuclear demonstrations (mostly in Europe) showing increased support due to Fukushima. All three topics need to be addressed here. To summarize the reports, the death estimates relative to Chernobyl vary greatly, from as few as 50 to as many as 985,000. Next, the grossly misleading n”fact” that Chernobyl released 400 times more radiation than Hiroshima. And finally, the protest rallies all boil down to the exploitation of widespread fear of radiation. Now for the details…

Chernobyl death estimates

The lowest estimate on Chernobyl deaths comes from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. UNSCEAR reports at least 50 died from both non-radiation injuries and radiation over-exposures due to fighting the massive radioactive releases from the demolished power plant. They say that while theories abound on possible cancer deaths over the 20-30 year period beginning in 1986, as of 2011 there is no actual evidence to show whether or not these theories have manifested, “Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of (non-fatal) 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. 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.”

On the other hand, the highest widely-broadcast estimates come from notorious nuclear naysayers like Greenpeace, using unprovable, eschatological (e.g. prophetic of doom; apocalyptic) radiation risk models. In 2004, Greenpeace reported there had been 200,000 Chernobyl cancer deaths over the preceding 18 years, and recently said that by 2016 there will be a another 93,000 Chernobyl cancer deaths world-wide. This is primarily based on the never-proven, completely unverifiable Petkau theory which purports that long exposures to very low doses of radiation are many times more dangerous than huge, Hiroshima levels of exposure. However, the most extreme number comes from a little known (in the West) Russian book, “Chernobyl : Consequences of the catastrophe for the People and the Environment” (2007), estimating that 985,000 people had died due to Chernobyl by 2004, and perhaps another half million would die by 2036 (the 50 year anniversary). This gross estimate is based on the irrational assumption that all cancer deaths within 100 kilometers of Chernobyl are due to the accident.

Chernobyl vs. Hiroshima radiation

Perhaps the most ubiquitous and misleading “fact” found in all Chernobyl 25th anniversary western news reports is that Chernobyl released 400 times more radiation than Hiroshima. The reality is that Chernobyl released about 400 times more fission products than Hiroshima. What’s not reported is the radiation exposures from Chernobyl were thousands of times less than Hiroshima because most of the bomb’s radiation exposures were not from fission fragments! Where did the bomb’s enormous, deadly radiation exposures come from, and how do they compare with Chernobyl?

  • The seriously damaged reactor fuel cell at Chernobyl had accumulated fission products for years. On the other hand, the bomb burst at Hiroshima produced fission products for no more than a second! It took Chernobyl years to accumulate 400 times the volume of released fission products that Hiroshima produced in a second!
  • Not all of the radioactive material released by Hiroshima was from fission. A significant fraction of the released radioactive atoms were what we call “activation products”. The gigantic, albeit brief neutron burst from the detonation at Hiroshima inundated all of the particulates sent airborne with the blast, and made the dust and debris radioactive. Only a vanishingly tiny fraction of Chernobyl’s releases were from neutron activation, at most.
  • Hiroshima fallout “fell” faster than the radioactive material released from Chernobyl. Bomb fallout is very heavy which naturally concentrates it’s radioactive matrix, while reactor releases are very lightweight and naturally disperse and dilute. Chernobyl releases experienced a much greater dispersal over a much wider area than Hiroshima. Thus, Hiroshima’s surface contamination was considerable and produced a measurable radiation field for whole body exposure. Chernobyl’s surface contamination levels paled in comparison.
  • Most importantly, 99% of the radiation from Hiroshima was neutron and gamma exposure from the explosion itself. On the average, neutron/gamma exposures of 5 sieverts per person who died at Hiroshima in the 5 years after the bomb blast (man-sieverts). Five sieverts times 50,000 deaths equals a collective exposure of 250,000 person-sieverts for those who died. However, there were unquestionably millions of person-sieverts absorbed by the bodies of the million or more Hiroshima-exposed Japanese who did not die!
  • In comparison, neutron exposures from Chernobyl were virtually non-existent to the surrounding public, and must be dismissed here. However, gamma exposures to the surrounding public at Chernobyl were measurable and statistically analyzable. WHO estimates that the collective Gamma dose for the Chernobyl-exposed areas of Europe was/is about 80,000 person-sieverts, while the collective dose for that population from natural background radiation is 500,000 person-sieverts. This means that Mother Nature is more than six times a greater cancer-death risk than Chernobyl?

It’s this sort of philosophical irresponsibility that permeates the misleading notion that Chernobyl realistically compares to Hiroshima in radiation levels. Misuse of information is bad enough, but making claims of death and suffering based entirely on irresponsible fiction is ethically and morally corrupt.


Nuclear Protests

Public demonstrations on the anniversary of Chernobyl are not uncommon in Europe. This year, attendance has swelled because of Fukushima. But, the arguments against nuclear energy have not changed much in two decades. Some of the quotes come from European leaders, who necessarily respond to public opinion within their borders. In Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev catered to his nation’s Chernobyl-based distrust of official nuclear information by saying, “I think that our modern states must see the main lesson of what happened at Chernobyl and the most recent Japanese tragedy as the necessity to tell people the truth.” (i.e. the Japanese are lying as much as the Soviets did) In Austria, Chancellor Werner Faymann echoed his nation’s long standing opposition to nuclear energy (they have huge coal deposits…wink, wink) by boasting that since Chernobyl there have been 160 new nukes built world-wide, but none in Austria. He charges that the “cyclical nature of the nuclear lobby” wants the world to forget that Chernobyl and Fukushima ever happened. What world-wide nuclear lobby is he talking about? A random conspiratorial suggestion? Unfortunately, no. The “world-wide nuclear conspiracy” theory is widespread among nuclear opponents…and they believe it!

However, the juiciest, and most predictable quotes come from the hard-core prophets of doom, like German anti-nuke fanatic Remi Verdet who feeds the phobic fear of radiation by saying, “Radioactivity knows no borders,” then adds, “We’re here to remind people that zero risk does not exist.” Closer to Chernobyl itself, “Authorities are covering up the facts. Contaminated products get straight to the dinner tables of Belarusians,” said Irina Sukhiy, head of the Eastern European (Russian?) environmental group Ekodom. “There are no clean territories — radiation have spread across the country.” And then there’s Green Party (Germany) activist Vladimir Volodin who says the authorities in Belarus are covering up the true horror of Chernobyl by classifying Chernobyl deaths as something different.

Then there’s the so-called grass-roots efforts. The one I found most creative is from an anti-nuke picnic in southern France attended by about 600, where a large sign read, “We can’t stop tsunamis but we can stop nuclear power stations”. Cute…misleading but cute.

The human beings doing these things are not merely saying something cliché to get themselves on TV…they believe it with all their heart. They have totally succumbed to the no-safe-level-of-radiation myth. They are inescapably enveloped in the arms of the Hiroshima Syndrome. They should not be an object of frustration. They should be treated with understanding. Theirs is a level of affliction that may never be resolved.