Yesterday I suggested that the fuss about imminent nuclear disaster was greatly overdone. And predictably, the first name invoked by one of the gang of shrill haters who congregate below this blog was Chernobyl. So Im grateful to Roddy Campbell for producing this guest post on that subject.
Before I hand you over to Roddy I should also like to draw your attention to this post from Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT Boston, whose father has extensive experience in Germanys nuclear industry. (H/T Eureferendum)
In a nutshell, Oehmen argues that a) there is nothing remotely worrying about Japans alleged nuclear crisis:
There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity.
By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.
and b) that almost everything you have read or heard in the MSMs reporting on the subject is wrong:
I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.
Right. Now heres Roddy Campbell on Chernobyl
We seemed to have just reached the point where civil nuclear power was acceptable in polite society again, as decades on the fears that accompanied Three Mile Island and Chernobyl abated, CO2 emissions fears placed environmental advocacy groups in a cleft stick of nuclear versus global warming, and increasing demand for energy, and energy security concerns drive government policy. The UK has plans to replace its ageing fleet of reactors, the US likewise, and China is already building new nuclear power stations, even green Germany has extended the life of its nuclear generating capacity.
Now we have an earthquake in Japan, possibly causing meltdown at a number of nuclear reactors, whose safety systems seem not to be working too well, and we may be back to square one.
So, how dangerous is it, either when there is massive operator error, like Chernobyl, or an exogenous event, like the earthquake in Japan? We don’t know yet about Japan, although most expert commentary seems reasonably relaxed about the radiation risks in the event of core melt-down. What do we know about Chernobyl?
Well, arent we lucky? We have an almost perfect test case of the hazards of civil nuclear power, Chernobyl 1986. 25 years on we have an excellent view of the lives lost, environment despoiled, cancer rates, societal impacts, ecosystems, and so on, caused by the worst civil nuclear disaster ever.
We have endless reports from international agencies. Cover-up? I doubt it. Ukraine and Belarus want aid and help, have no interest in covering up, and its difficult to believe in an international nuclear industry driven cover-up taking in all those UN agencies.
Or you can let me summarise from the WHO/IAEA/UNDP Press Release that accompanied the 600-page September 2005 report, written jointly by 8 UN specialized agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), and the World Bank, as well as the governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
Deaths so far? ‘As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers…..’
Possible deaths in total? ‘A total of up to 4000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant …. an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.’
Cancer? ‘About 4000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the accident’s contamination and at least nine children died of thyroid cancer; however the survival rate among such cancer victims, judging from experience in Belarus, has been almost 99%.’
Fertility and malformations? ‘Most emergency workers and people living in contaminated areas received relatively low whole body radiation doses, comparable to natural background levels. As a consequence, no evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility among the affected population has been found, nor has there been any evidence of increases in congenital malformations….’
General health effects? ‘ …..the health effects of the accident were potentially horrific, but when you add them up using validated conclusions from good science, the public health effects were not nearly as substantial as had at first been feared.’
How much radiation did people receive? ‘With the exception of on-site reactor staff and emergency workers exposed on 26 April, most recovery operation workers and those living in contaminated territories received relatively low whole body radiation doses, comparable to background radiation levels and lower than the average doses received by residents in some parts of the world having high natural background radiation levels.’
Why do people assume it was so much worse, in terms of human fatalities and illnesses? ‘Confusion about the impact has arisen owing to the fact that thousands of people in the affected areas have died of natural causes. Also, widespread expectations of ill health and a tendency to attribute all health problems to radiation exposure have led local residents to assume that Chernobyl related fatalities were much higher than they actually were.’
Any more reproductive or natal effects likely? ‘….. no evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility has been seen among males or females. Also, because the doses were so low, there was no evidence of any effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes, delivery complications or overall health of children.’
Environmental impact? ‘As for environmental impact, the reports are also reassuring, for the scientific assessments show that, except for the still closed, highly contaminated 30 kilometer area surrounding the reactor, and some closed lakes and restricted forests, radiation levels have mostly returned to acceptable levels.’
Psychological impact – now that’s where the report is really interesting, stating that fear, lack of information, relocation, poverty, and so on had a far greater effect than anything else. ‘…the report labels the mental health impact of Chernobyl as “the largest public health problem created by the accident” and partially attributes this damaging psychological impact to a lack of accurate information. These problems manifest as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.’, and ‘In most areas the problems are economic and psychological, not health or environmental.’
Don’t get me wrong, Chernobyl was not a Good Thing. Lots of things aren’t Good Things, like Macondo, floods, earthquakes, coal mining deaths and lung diseases, so we have to try and measure how much of a Bad Thing they are. Evacuations , resettlement, and agricultural economic impacts seem to have, according to the reports, caused most of the human suffering. These seem now largely unnecessary, or at least capable of substantial mitigation, and to have been greatly exacerbated by false fear.
Where I get to is that the health and environmental impacts of Chernobyl, while not a Good Thing, are far less bad than people thought and indeed still think. That’s what the reports say. And the impacts derive from a really bad disaster; one might exaggerate and say it’s difficult to think of how a civil nuclear disaster could be worse.
And you have to compare nuclear impacts over decades to the deaths, illnesses and environmental impacts caused by other energy generating businesses, which are the natural comparatives – coal mining, oil drilling, gas.
So let’s not exaggerate. Stick to nuclear. Overall it is clearly a Good Thing. As is the invention of the combine harvester, which has ripped a few arms off and caused a few deaths in its time.
- Japan: whatever happened to the nuclear meltdown?
- BP oil spill: ‘mass hysteria on a par with the Dutch tulip bubble’
- The real reasons why one billion go hungry: wind farms, biofuels, sustainability…
- Queensland floods: but at least the ‘endangered’ Mary River cod is safe, eh?
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