“one of the safest ways of producing energy”
are many reasons for rejecting the nuclear option in the ‘low carbon economy’
as thoroughly reviewed in Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 
(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  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
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 .
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) . After his death, the directorship passed to his
son, Alexei Nesterenko, the third author.
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
. 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  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
Most estimates of the death toll are much higher than those
of IAEA. The TORCH report  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 . Yablokov also estimates that several
hundred thousand people in the territories have already died from cancer and
other conditions caused by Chernobyl . 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 .
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.
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) . 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 
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
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.
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  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 . For instance, there was a 49 per cent increase in Down’s syndrome in
the most contaminated districts of Belarus in 1987-188 . 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 , 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
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 
the long, detailed and carefully referenced account of the harm caused by the Chernobyl explosion  is a very sobering experience. It is in stark contrast to the
summary of the report of the Chernobyl Forum : “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
 (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 . There
are already dangers from the normal operation of nuclear power plants [19-21]
(see for example Old
Nuclear Cash Cows ExposedSiS 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.
Rory Short Comment left 21st June 2010 13:01:59 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 08:08:44 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 10:10:18 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 22nd June 2010 18:06:02 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 13th March 2011 18:06:50 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 08:08:14 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.
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), with 10–15 megatons of TNT (42–63 PJ) the most likely—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. 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 12th February 2013 20:08:34 OMG I had no idea it was this bad!