Science in Society Archive

The Truth about Chernobyl

Senior Russian scientists document deaths and illnesses from Chernobyl 100 times those reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Prof. Peter Saunders

Nuclear “one of the safest ways of producing energy”

There are many reasons for rejecting the nuclear option in the ‘low carbon economy’ as thoroughly reviewed in Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 [1] (ISIS report). One of the biggest question marks hanging over the industry is the potential of another catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl, or worse.

The industry and its friends [2] insist that we have nothing to worry about; both the design and the operation of nuclear power plants are far better now than they were in 1986, and there is really no chance at all that anything like Chernobyl could happen today. 

For those who do not believe that any industry can operate for a long time without a serious accident – and given the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico there must be even fewer who do – they have a second line of defence. Considering that Chernobyl was by far the worst nuclear accident that has ever occurred, it caused remarkably little harm: at most a few thousand deaths and about four thousand cases of thyroid cancer. The number of deaths per unit of energy produced has been much less than in coal mining. Far from being especially hazardous, nuclear is one of the safest ways of producing energy.

Reality check

Unfortunately, the figures the industry quotes bear little relation to reality. Chernobyl did far more harm than they admit. Evidence for this has been available both in the former Soviet Union and in the West for some time [3-5]. A long and detailed review has recently appeared in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, co-authored by scientists uniquely qualified to write on the issue [6].

Alexei Yablokov is a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a leading Russian environmental scientist who has been a vice-president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Vassily Nesterenko, now deceased, was a member of the Belarus Academy of Sciences. In 1986, he was director of the Institute for Nuclear Physics in Minsk. He began his work on Chernobyl the day after the explosion by flying in a helicopter over the reactor to help assess the damage; the radiation he received eventually led to his death in 2008, shortly before the review paper appeared. In 1990, with the help of the famous physicist Andrei Sakharov, he founded the Independent Institute for Radioprotection (BELRAD) [7]. After his death, the directorship passed to his son, Alexei Nesterenko, the third author.

How many deaths?

The usual figure given for the number of deaths due to Chernobyl is 4 000. Of these, 56 were killed in the explosion or received high doses of radiation and died soon after, and the rest are an estimate of the additional deaths (i.e. more than would otherwise have been expected) from cancer that would eventually occur in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in people who were exposed to lower doses of radiation.  Little or no mention is ever made of deaths in other countries, or illnesses other than thyroid cancer. That is the assessment of the Chernobyl Forum, a group set up by the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) though with representation from other bodies [8]. Commentators generally ascribe these figures to the IAEA and the World Health Organisation (WHO), thereby giving them greater credence. As the IAEA was set up specifically to promote nuclear technologies, there is almost certainly a conflict of interest when it is also acting as regulator or investigator. But WHO has not carried out its own studies and reached the same conclusions as the IAEA. In 1959, the two organisations formally agreed [9] that where they are both interested in some issue, they should consult each other “with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement.”  In practice, it is the industry-oriented IAEA that is solely responsible.

Most estimates of the death toll are much higher than those of IAEA.  The TORCH report [3] estimates that there will be between 30 000 and 60 000 cancer deaths due to Chernobyl, and Yablokov estimates 225000 in Europe and 19 000 in the rest of the world [10]. Yablokov also estimates that several hundred thousand people in the territories have already died from cancer and other conditions caused by Chernobyl [11]. The Russian Academy of Sciences suggests there have already been about 200 000 Chernobyl-related deaths over the past decade and a half, in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The Belarus Academy of Sciences estimates 93 000 deaths so far in Belarus; and the  Ukrainian National Commission for Radiation Protection  estimated 500 000 in Ukraine. These figures include deaths from conditions other than cancer [12].

It is, of course, very difficult to estimate the number of deaths due to Chernobyl. Many of them have not happened yet, and even looking back it is generally hard to be sure that the cancer that killed a particular individual twenty or more years after the event was caused by the radiation. Instead, we have to compare the number of cancer deaths in a contaminated area with the number that we would have expected to occur had there been no contamination.  The difference, the number that can be attributed to Chernobyl, can be only a rough estimate because of all the uncertainties in the calculations. What stands out, however, is that the lowest one by far, by a factor of at least two orders of magnitude, comes from an agency that was set up to promote nuclear technology.

How many ill?

Estimating the number of people made ill from the effects of Chernobyl is also difficult. The accident occurred while Ukraine was part of the USSR, and the health data were kept secret for the first three years.  The Soviet authorities, notoriously anxious to minimise the consequences of any incident, deliberately falsified the statistics; for example, hospitals were instructed that where there were no obvious signs of radiation sickness, the records should neither include the dose of radiation received nor mention that the patient had been a “liquidator” (one of the estimated 800 000 who participated in the emergency or cleanup operations) [13]. The lists of liquidators are themselves unreliable as evidence because it is seldom possible to know how long (if at all) any individual was exposed to radiation, while many who were exposed are not on any list. For example, of the 60 000 military servicemen who were followed up, not one had an indication on his identity card that he had received a dose of radiation more than 25 R (roentgen), the maximum considered normal and acceptable at the time. Yet, when 1 100 male Ukrainian clean-up workers were surveyed, over a third had clinical and haematological signs of radiation sickness, which implies they must have experienced more than 25R [10]

There was also the inevitable problem that much of the evidence comes from health workers who were naturally more concerned with helping their patients than recording data in a form suitable for research.

Despite all these obstacles, many scientific papers have been published. They give a powerful and convincing picture quite different from the claims of the Chernobyl Forum.

Real evidence

The complacent IAEA reports are in stark contrast to what is being observed by people on the ground. Doctors and other medical health workers in the former Soviet Union and other countries are reporting far more deaths and radiation-related illnesses than the official figures show. Yablokov and his colleagues have made vast quantities of evidence available to those us who cannot read Slavic languages; there is now even less excuse for ignoring it.

The authors acknowledge the assistance of 49 other experts, mostly from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The review contains a huge amount of data, so much that it is impossible to give even a brief summary here. The section on non-malignant illnesses alone has more than 500 references [10] and these are only a few examples from many similar studies. In all cases, when heavily contaminated areas are compared with areas that are less contaminated but otherwise similar in ethnography, economy, demography and environment, the former show increased morbidity, increased numbers of weak newborns, and increased impairment and disability. The effects were greatest in two categories of the population, liquidators and children.

Most of the data are from the former Soviet Union, but some are from other countries, where more than half the radionuclides from Chernobyl fell [14]. For instance, there was a 49 per cent increase in Down’s syndrome in the most contaminated districts of Belarus in 1987-188 [15]. Large increases were also reported in West Berlin, in the northeast of Sweden (the most contaminated part of the country) and in the Lothian district of Scotland [16], also an area that received a higher dose than average for the country as a whole.  This is where detailed studies are especially important: the evidence for the effects of radiation can be masked if we combine data from areas that received high doses with those from areas of the same country that received much lower doses.

The review covers a wide range of illnesses, most of which the lay person might not think of as radiation related, but which have clearly increased in areas where the radiation doses were high.

The figures on cancer are very worrying. In Belarus, for example, in the period 1990-2000 cancer morbidity went up by 40 percent, with the highest increase in the most highly contaminated province, Gomel. In Ukraine, cancer morbidity rose by 12 percent, with again the greatest increase in the most contaminated districts. There was also excess cancer morbidity in the heavily contaminated districts of Russia. It has been estimated that Chernobyl caused 500 deaths from cancer in Bulgaria and more than a thousand in Sweden between 1986 and 1999 [10]


Reading the long, detailed and carefully referenced account of the harm caused by the Chernobyl explosion [10] is a very sobering experience. It is in stark contrast to the summary of the report of the Chernobyl Forum [17]: “Apart from the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer among those exposed at a young age, there is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of solid cancers or leukaemia due to radiation in the most affected population. There was, however, an increase in psychological problems among the affected population, compounded by insufficient communication about radiation effects and by the social disruption and economic depression that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.”

In the USSR, dissidents were sometimes locked up in mental hospitals on the grounds that anyone who could not appreciate how wonderful the Soviet system was must be mad. With cruel irony, and in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the Chernobyl Forum now insist that hardly anyone was affected by the Chernobyl explosion and anyone who is worried about it must have psychological problems. 

For the IAEA to persist in claiming that no more than a few thousand people were killed or injured as a result of Chernobyl and that those who fear the after effects are mostly suffering from psychological problems is an insult to all those who live in the shadow of the explosion. It is grossly irresponsible for governments and the nuclear industry to cite those figures as justification for building new nuclear plants all over the world.

Nuclear power is not cheaper than other low-carbon sources [18] (see The Real Cost of Nuclear Power, SiS 47). It cannot even be justified on the grounds that we need it to ensure a sufficient supply of energy [1]. There are already dangers from the normal operation of nuclear power plants [19-21] (see for example Old Nuclear Cash Cows Exposed SiS 40  UK’S Lackluster Low Carbon Transition Plan, SiS 42). Were a major incident to occur – and sooner or later one is bound to – the consequences could be catastrophic.  We simply cannot afford to go nuclear.

Article first published 17/06/10


1. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT (2009). Green Energies: 100% Renewables by 2050. ISIS, London. ISBN 0-9544923-5-8.

2. Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Nuclear Power, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The Stationary Office. ISNN 978-0-10-172962-8, 2008, p75.

3. Fairlie I and Sumner D (2006). The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH). Commissioned by European Greens. Executive summary available at http://www.greens-efa.

4. Rosen A (2006) Effects of the Chernobyl Catastrophe – Literature review.  Available at

5.  Busby C and Yablokov A. (eds) (2006). Chernobyl 20 Years On: The Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident (Documents of the ECRR 2006 No. 1). Green Audit Press, Aberystwyth UK. ISBN 1-897761-25-2.

6. Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for people and the Environment. Proceedings of the New York Academy of Sciences 1181 (November 2009). With a forward by DM Grodzinsky, Chairman, Department of General Biology, Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences.

7. Ratel  V (2008) Death of an exceptional resister: Vassili B. Nesterenko. Press Release, Association Enfants de Tchernobyl Bélarus.

8. Chernobyl Forum (2006) Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts  and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. IAEA, Vienna. Available at

9. Agreement Between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, 28 May 1959. Available at

10. Yablokov AV. (2009). Oncological diseases after the Chernobyl catastrophe. In [6] pp 161-191.

11. Yablokov AV (2009). Mortality after the Chernobyl catastrophe. In [6] pp 192-216.

12. “Chernobyl nuclear accident: figures for deaths and cancers still in dispute”, J Vidal, The Guardian, 10 January, 2010.

13. Yablokov, AV (2009). Chernobyl’s public health consequences: Some methodological problems. In [6] pp32-41

14. Nesterenko VB and Yablokov AV (2009). Chernobyl contamination through time and space. In [6] pp5-30

15. Yablokov AV (2009) Nonmalignant diseases after the Chernobyl catastrophe. In [6] pp58-160.

16. Ramsey CN, Ellis PM and Zealley H (1991). Down syndrome in the Lothian region of Scotland 1978 to 1989. Biomed. Pharmacother. 45 267–272.

17. Reference [8] p 7. See also United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) (2010). The Chernobyl accident: UNSCEAR’s assessments of the radiation effects., there were widespread psychological reactions to the accident, which were due to fear of the radiation, not to the actual radiation doses.”

18.  Saunders PT  (2010) The real cost of nuclear power. Science in Society 47.

19. Ho MW (2008). Old nuclear cash cows exposed. Science in Society 40 40-41

20. Saunders PT and Cherry B. (2009) UK’s lacklustre low carbon transition plan. Science in Society 44, 36-39.

21. Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz (2007). Background Information on the KiKK Study. Available at

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Rory Short Comment left 21st June 2010 21:09:59
It is not only the nuclear power stations themselves which provide hazards but the whole process of mining uranium, shipping it to processing plants and then shipping it on to the nuclear stations that is hazardous both in the short and long term to say nothing about dealing with the spent nuclear fuel which is definitely hazardous far into the future. Nuclear power stations definitely do not make any sense particularly when there are real environmentally friendly ternatives.

Jenny Goldie Comment left 21st June 2010 16:04:44
I have spent a large part of my life opposing nuclear power but lately some scientists who I respect say the new breed of reactors (pebble-bed etc) are not like the old kind as in Chernobyl and are safe. I would be grateful for other comments on this.

colin leakey Comment left 22nd June 2010 18:06:18
Ihave a persdonal copy of the major 1994 report Belarus-Japan Synposium "cute and late consequences of Nuclear Catastrophies" Hiroshima-Nakasaki and Cernobyl. The meeting was in Minsk. Afterwards I worked in Belarus thre times and indeed near to Chernobyl looking at the copnsequences forfoodproduction of exclsion policiese etc. (see note in AAB news)I was then and am still inclined to think that the problems asociated with nuclear as a source cannot be reconciled with its being considered "sustainable". It may well be one of several factors leading towards our extinction-but not just yet!

Peter Saunders Comment left 23rd June 2010 02:02:02
The new reactor designs are safer than the one at Chernobyl, but they are not so safe that there can never be another serious accident. With any technology, something is bound to go badly wrong sooner or later, and we have to ask what will happen when it does. The nuclear industry takes Chernobyl as the worst case scenario and argues that if at most 4000 people might die and about the same number get a treatable cancer, the risk is worth taking. When we learn that the number of deaths and serious injuries due to Chernobyl was in the hundreds of thousands, things look very different. The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) that Jenny Goldie mentions is a good illustration. It was designed so that it cannot fail in the way the Chernobyl reactor did, and for some time it was widely seen as a breakthrough in both safety and cost. When looked at more carefully, however, it turns out to have potentially dangerous flaws of its own. See Safe New Generation Nuclear Power? (SiS 29). The South African government has now stopped funding the development of the PBMR, apparently because of unresolved technical issues.

Roger Velez Garinga Comment left 14th March 2011 03:03:50
The recent twin disasters in Japan points to the fact that NUCLEAR power plants does not guarantee sustainable development for humanity. It is even pushing us to the reverse. It must be stopped!

gepay Comment left 6th April 2011 16:04:14
1st off, nuclear fission is a really dumb way to boil water. 2nd Imagine if the insurance company that you had major stockholdings had an unlimited liability policy with TEPCO. Well it wouldn't because no insurance company in the world would insure it. None do because there is no way to calculate the risk in a worse case scenario so governments have to make loan guarantees to get these plants built. IN the US, the Price-Anderson Act was passed so that nuclear power plants could operate without having to have liability insurance for the catastrophic accidents that have happened and will continue to happen. I am not sure if there is some limited liability or not but if there is some amount so small that the majority of damage in the Fukushima catastrophe will be paid for by the Japanese taxpayers or the people whose ancestral homes might become a weird kind of nature reserve or... It won't be TEPCO or some insurance company. All the things that have gone wrong (and Japan is not out of the woods yet and nobody knows what the effect of months of radioactive leakage will have on the Pacific ocean. It's going to make me think about eating sushi for a long time. And this has become the best case scenario. I am in the - there really is no safe limit for radiation - there are only statistical tipping points that have been found for external radiation - more is worse except in a few odd cases like bigger doses therapeutic radioactive Iodine sometimes just kill the thyroid cells instead of causing cancer. I do think there have been no large scale experiments with internal ingestion or inhalation of radioactive particles for obvious ethical reasons. There have been covert administration by the US. In radiation experiments funded by our government, 827 pregnant women at Vanderbilt University were (without informed consent) given oral doses of radioactive iron. These women were, you know, poor white trash. No children in the control group contracted cancer. 3 children born to the radiated women had childhood cancer. Or this: V. HEINRICH VS WILLIAM SWEET, et al - BORON RADIATION EXPERIMENTS Heinrich, et al vs William H. Sweet, the Estate of Lee Edward Farr, Massachusetts General Hospital, Associated Universities, Inc., MIT, and the USA, 44 F. Supp. 2d 408; 1999 U.S. Dist. Lexis 5796. The Heinrich case is a class action suit filed in 1997 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts on behalf of three deceased individuals by surviving family members. The complaint alleges that during the 1950s and 1960s, the defendants conducted boron radiation experiments on the decedents—who suffered from terminal brain cancer—with the knowledge that such experiments offered no therapeutic value to the decedents. The federal court rendered a recent decision on April 20, 1999 rejecting the government’s contention that the claims were time barred. The decedents had been treated by Dr. William H. Sweet at MIT and at Dr. Lee Edward Farr at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York - a nuclear research center operated by the Associated Universities, Inc. and owned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As a supposed treatment for brain tumor, the decedents were unwittingly injected with boron and their skulls irradiated. All suffered excruciating pain and died. In the 1960s, Dr. Sweet and other physicians wrote articles and reports about the failure of the BNCT experiments. These articles and reports indicated that the experiments failed because of inadequate scientific evidence regarding the nature of boron distribution in the human body, inadequate scientific evidence regarding boron chemistry, inadequate scientific evidence regarding the proper shape of a neutron beam for BNCT, and the absence of requisite dosimetric equipment to measure radiation. Furthermore, on September 16, 1982, Dr. Victor Bond (“Dr. Bond”), Dr. Farr’s successor as head of the medical department at Brookhaven, stated in an interview that: The early experience was very unfortunate… Then they went beyond that. It wasn’t stopped until long after it became evident it wasn’t working—that’s the criticism of it. Damage was done to patients just as damage was done with the first external fast neutron radiations, because radiobiology wasn’t that well understood. Heinrich vs Sweet, et al, 44 F. Supp. 2d 417, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5824 (1999). The plaintiffs successfully argue that they could not reasonably have known about the connection between the injury and BNCT until 1995, when the President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments disclosed the facts about the BNCT experiments. The court found that reasonable diligence to discover the claims does not require plaintiffs to scour medical journals such as The Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology or The American Journal of Roentgenology: Radium Therapy and Nuclear Medicine after their loved ones die of terminal brain cancer. The 1986 Markey Report Then there are events like The Tunguska event, or Tunguska explosion an enormously powerful explosion that occurred near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, at about 7:14 a.m. KRAT (0:14 UT) on June 30 [O.S. June 17], 1908. Estimates of the energy of the blast range from 5 to as high as 30 megatons of TNT (21–130 PJ),[6][7] with 10–15 megatons of TNT (42–63 PJ) the most likely[7]—roughly equal to the United States' Castle Bravo thermonuclear bomb tested on March 1, 1954, about 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, and about one-third the power of the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.[8] The explosion knocked over an estimated 80 million trees covering 2,150 square kilometres (830 sq mi). It is estimated that the shock wave from the blast would have measured 5.0 on the Richter scale. An explosion of this magnitude is capable of destroying a large metropolitan area. Not every nuclear plant can experience a tsunami but any nuclear plant anywhere could experience a Tunguska at anytime. Then there are the human dimensions, Wars are not unknown. Israel has threatened to bomb the Iranian nuclear complexes. There has been talk of the US using nuclear bunker busters on Iran's nuclear complex. Much more likely than terrorists but terrorists could plan to make dirty bombs of how many are there? spent fuel rod pools all over the world. Then there is the more day to day of just human error, human greed, human corruption. I know I have days where I've seen something going wrong and it just happens despite my best efforts. Yes, the engineers can fix it so that if Fukushima Dai-ichi happened in a year it would have been more like the Dai-ini plant. But the next time will be for a different reason just like Chernobyl was different than Fukushima. As for new designs, just ask any software designer how much real world testing is needed to show you the problems you didn't think of. Khystem, Windscale, TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima in less than 60 years Denial is not just some river in Egypt. - M Twain Does the power of the nuclear power industry stem from its connection to the nuclear bomb? Is that why Obama is still talking about nuclear power making a comeback in the US? Wall Street says nuclear power plants are not a good investment unless the government gives them certain guarantees. Ask George Monbiot if the nuclear power industry loves the idea of Anthropogenic Global Warming - but that is another long story.

Alexis Comment left 13th February 2013 07:07:34
OMG I had no idea it was this bad!

Isaac Comment left 22nd September 2016 23:11:35
Why does no one want to see this? it's like we're in a fake world.