Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chernobyl 25th Anniversary Fear-Fest.

The 26th of April this year shall mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the worst accident in the history of nuclear power generation, the reactor core explosion which took place in Reactor 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the town of Pripyat in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Anti-nuclear activists and organisations around the world are gearing up to honour the event's anniversary with a predictable outpouring of propaganda aimed at frightening people out of their wits at the prospect of using nuclear power. The following article from Voice of America is doubtless one of an avalanche of similar reports which shall flood the media over the next couple of months.


It's informative to see how this report is structured. First we have the headline, which tells us "UN Reports Thousands of Thyroid Cancers 25 Years After Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster". This turns out to be rather misleading. One could be forgiven for thinking that the UN had found thousands of thyroid cancers stemming from the accident happening now, but no. The headline actually means that a UN report has found that thousands of cases of thyroid cancer were caused by the accident (which is not in dispute), and at the moment it just happens to be twenty five years since that occurred.

We also have a photograph of a clearly distressed nine year old child, Yulia Kostina, in the intensive care unit of the Endocrinology Institute in Kiev, Ukraine, recovering from surgery to treat cancer (presumably thyroid cancer). There is no date for the photo, so the reader might be tempted to think that it is recent or current. It is actually from the year 2000, so Yulia would have been born in 1990 or 1991. The source appears to be the following article:


The clear implication of the photo is that Yulia's condition arose as a result of exposure to radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident. Most casual readers of the original article in 2000 probably thought this a reasonable conclusion, given that she was born a few years after the accident. Readers of the current Voice of America article would most likely think the same thing, even if they thought that the photo was current. After all, we all know that radioactive fallout lasts for centuries, so surely there's still plenty around to go on causing the sort of cancer the article speaks of.

The trouble is that the danger of thyroid cancer for children in the wake of the Chernobyl accident came from the ingestion of the radioactive isotope iodine-131, a highly radioactive fission product which was released in large quantities by the explosion of the reactor core. Iodine is rapidly absorbed by the thyroid in humans, and the biological processes responsible make no distinction between ordinary non-radioactive iodine and the chemically identical radioactive isotope. Iodine-131 was deposited on grasslands, consumed by dairy cows and concentrated in milk products. The Soviet-era authorities recognised the danger and distributed iodine tablets to be given to children (if the thyroid is already saturated with iodine it wont take up any extra from contaminated milk), but it seems that many parents did not trust those authorities, and many thousands of children were unnecessarily exposed to the radionuclide. This effect caused a massive jump in thyroid cancer rates for children, and sadly, nine of those children did in fact die as a result. In the region in question, only a handful of cases would usually show each year.

Of course, because iodine-131 is so very radioactive, it has a short half life of just over eight days. As a general rule of thumb, there is virtually nothing left of an initial mass of radioactive material after about ten half lives have elapsed. Practically all of the iodine-131 released by the accident had decayed away within three months, around four years before Yulia Kostina was born. It is simply impossible for Yulia's thyroid cancer to have been caused by the radioactive release from Chernobyl. It seems that Yulia was one of those few unfortunate children who contracted the disease as part of the normal course of events.

The article uses extensive quotes from Dr. Fred Mettler, a respected figure in the field of radiology and a major contributor to the UN report. Dr. Mettler's comments are quite reasonable, but they are interspersed with quotes from a source many consider compromised, Professor Anders Moller, a Danish evolutionary biologist who specialises in avian evolution. Professor Moller's reputation has been under a cloud since being found guilty of misconduct by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty in 2003:


Moller has recently published a study in which he claims that birds living in the Chernobyl fallout zone have smaller brains than their counterparts elsewhere. This paper has been making the rounds of the media, and came to the attention of Rod Adams, publisher of Atomic Insights in early February. Rod's treatment of the subject is thorough, so I will direct the reader's attention there rather than try to recapitulate his analysis. I also strongly recommend reading through the comments thread:


It is clear that Voice of America has cobbled together a bunch of factoids and misrepresented quotes from sources of widely varying credibility in order to produce a typical hyped-up anti-nuke scare story. Unfortunately we can expect plenty more of the same as the anniversary approaches.


Steve Packard said...

Thanks for the write-up. One somewhat expects media to be unsavy enough to get this quite wrong, but it's gotten even worse than that because of the groups that are putting a lot of their own spin on it.

The area is indeed in bad shape, but not because of radiation. The report has mentioned the social toll of the events. We need to let these people move past it by ending this stigma and belittlement.

Roger Clifton said...

Many wild assertions of Chernobyl's legacy can be countered by quoting facts from, and referring to, the report by an expert panel of scientists to the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine:
www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf .

The document does refer to 5000 thyroid cancers diagnosed as of 2005. These are long-term illnesses under medical maintenance, not fatalities. It includes a rather unfortunate academic speculation on the contribution of the event to statistics of ultimate cause of death in the wider population. I say "unfortunate" because they do not make it clear that such stats refer to the last straw causing my death at 95, which may be a sunburn from 80 years before.

However they do report shocking damage caused to the population by the arguably excessive evacuations and the ongoing foment of fears. It is appalling to see how our hysteria can cause other people's suffering.

DV8 2XL said...

The Chernobyl accident was a radiation event unique in human history, but not in the history of the biosphere. There is evidence of a number of episodes of greater radiation levels during the evolution of life on earth, e.g. due to supernovae. In terms of human losses it was a minor event as compared with many other man-made catastrophes.

In the years after the Chernobyl accident in the officially termed "highly contaminated" areas of the former Soviet Union, except for thyroid cancers, no increase in incidence in solid cancers and leukemia was reported. In its 2000 Report, UNSCEAR stated that the "population need not live in fear of serious health consequences", and "generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail". No epidemics of cancers in the Northern Hemisphere, direly predicted from the LNT assumption to reach tens and hundreds of thousands, or even millions of cases, has ever occurred.

Chernobyl proved just how safe nuclear power is. There was no containment vessel. All radiation was released to the environment. There were less than 200 deaths, all among on-site personnel. An exhaustive international inquiry under the UN found no documented health damage beyond the immediate vicinity (except for a slight increase in thyroid cancer among children, which can be completely prevented by taking inexpensive iodine supplements in the event of a nuclear accident). The area around Chernobyl has been declared a radioactive dead zone at radiation levels about the same as downtown Warsaw, Poland, and five times lower than Grand Central Station in New York City. Plants and animals flourish in the region, showing no ill effects. It is stark raving mad.

jacob said...

Pressure vessel engineering Canada & US
Content : JM Engineering is pinoneer Pressure Vessel Provider in Canada and USA. Pressure vessel engineering Canada & US

James said...

pv power plants in india pv power plants in india
RLCPPL - Offering detailed information related to Solar Plants in India, New Energy Projects,Solar Thermal Water Heating Systems
,Solar Power projects under JNNSM, JNNSM solar plants, PV Power plants in India, Investment in Solar Projects, Investment in Solar power in India,
Upcoming solar power plants in India, National Solar Mission power plants, National Solar Mission projects, Solar Plants in Tamilnadu,
PV Plants in Tamilnadu, Solar PV Plants in Tamilnadu, Investment Opportunities in Solar India, Solar Opportunities in India, Solar Thermal Water Heating Systems.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in, asian affairs magazine

so it will be a better information’s for me. Try to post best informations like this always

New nuclear threats from an old liar