One Million Chernobyl Fatalities?

A new book claims that almost one million people died between 1986 and 2004 from exposure to Chernobyl accident radiation. The claim, based mainly on a survey of scholarly literature in Slavic languages, is orders of magnitude higher than the most authoritative previous estimates. Yet the book is published by the New York Academy of Sciences, which says that earlier estimates "have largely downplayed or ignored many of the findings in the Eastern European scientific literature and consequently have erred by not including these assessments."

The book, "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment," is by Alexey Yablokov of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow and Vassily and Alexey Nesterenko of the Institute of Radiation Safety in Minsk.

Global assessments made ten years after the accident and reported at an IAEA conference in 1996 estimated that in the long run, the toll from Chernobyl in terms of premature or "excess" deaths would come to about 8,650. But because the number of "background" cancer deaths in the population most severely affected--the 600,000-800,000 involved in clean-up operations--would come to 825,000, most of the excess cancer deaths would  be "hard to detect epidemiologically," said Elizabeth Cardis, probably the world's leading expert on the subject.

Cardis's detailed predictions were discussed in an IEEE Spectrum article that appeared in November 1996, reporting on the IAEA conference. Though that article is not available online, the general picture it presents remains largely valid, according to the most recent update of Cardis's analysis. Thyroid cancer incidence among children was found to be much higher than models would have predicted, but leukemia incidence was lower. Mortality and mobility associated with psychological stress might exceed casualties attributable to radiation exposure.

In 2005, the Chernobyl Forum a consortium of global health agencies and governmental organizations, including the IAEA and World Health Organization--put the death toll at about 4,000. That still makes Chernobyl the worst industrial accident in history. As such the consequences of the accident are not to be minimized or trivialized, but bear in mind that hundreds of thousands of people die yearly from exposure to emissions from coal-fired power plants.

I have not seen the new book and am not predisposed to give much credence to its claims. Any such treatment of Chernobyl health effects would have to somehow rigorously distinguish consequences of the accident from consequences of the general public health catastrophe that has engulfed Russia and some of the Soviet successor states in recent decades. I draw attention to the book here mainly, as said, because it carries the imprimatur of the New York Academy.

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