Radiation harm deniers? Pro-nuclear environmentalists and the Chernobyl death toll

The dead have no voice: doll at Pripyat, near Chernobyl. Photo: Ben Fairless via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).

The dead have no voice: doll at Pripyat, near Chernobyl. Photo: Ben Fairless via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).

Just as climate change deniers leap from scientific uncertainty over the precise impacts of greenhouse gas emissions to certainty of little or no impact at all, so 'pro-nuclear environmentalists' conflate uncertainty of the mortality arising from Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters to certainty of few if any deaths, writes Jim Green. Their position is equally indefensible.
Pro-nuclear environmentalists are perfectly entitled to follow UNSCEAR's lead and argue that the long-term death toll is uncertain. But conflating that uncertainty with a long-term death toll of zero is indefensible.

With few if any exceptions, self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists peddle flapdoodle and tommyrot regarding the Chernobyl death toll.

Before considering their misinformation, a brief summary of credible positions and scientific studies regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll (for detail see this earlier article in The Ecologist).

Epidemiological studies are of course important but they're of limited use in estimating the overall Chernobyl death toll. The effects of Chernobyl, however large or small, are largely lost in the statistical noise of widespread cancer incidence and mortality.

The most up-to-date scientific review is the TORCH-2016 report written by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie. Dr Fairlie sifts through a vast number of scientific papers and points to studies indicative of Chernobyl impacts:

  • an increased incidence of radiogenic thyroid cancers in Austria;
  • an increased incidence of leukemia among sub-populations in ex-Soviet states (and possibly other countries - more research needs to be done);
  • increases in solid cancers, leukemia and thyroid cancer among clean-up workers;
  • increased rates of cardiovascular disease and stroke that might be connected to Chernobyl (more research needs to be done);
  • a large study revealing statistically significant increases in nervous system birth defects in highly contaminated areas in Russia, similar to the elevated rates observed in contaminated areas in Ukraine; and more.

So what else have we got?

Without for a moment dismissing the importance of the epidemiological record, let alone the importance of further research, suffice it here to note that there is no way that one could even begin to estimate the total Chernobyl death toll from the existing body of studies.

Estimates of collective radiation exposure are available - for example the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates a total collective dose of 600,000 person-Sieverts over 50 years from Chernobyl fallout. And the collective radiation dose can be used to estimate the death toll using the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model.

If we use the IAEA's collective radiation dose estimate, and a risk estimate derived from LNT (0.1 cancer deaths per person-Sievert), we get an estimate of 60,000 cancer deaths. Sometimes a risk estimate of 0.05 is used to account for the possibility of decreased risks at low doses and/or low dose rates - in other words, 0.05 is the risk estimate when applying a 'dose and dose rate effectiveness factor' or DDREF of two. That gives an estimate of 30,000 deaths.

Any number of studies (including studies published in peer-reviewed scientific literature) use LNT - or LNT with a DDREF - to estimate the Chernobyl death toll. These studies produce estimates ranging from 9,000 cancer deaths (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 cancer deaths (across Europe).

Pro-nuclear environmentalists are perfectly entitled to follow UNSCEAR's lead and argue that the long-term death toll is uncertain. But conflating that uncertainty with a long-term death toll of zero is indefensible.

Those are the credible estimates of the cancer death toll from Chernobyl. None of them are conclusive - far from it - but that's the nature of the problem we're dealing with.

Moreover, LNT may underestimate risks. The 2006 report of the US National Academy of Sciences' Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) states: "The committee recognizes that its risk estimates become more uncertain when applied to very low doses. Departures from a linear model at low doses, however, could either increase or decrease the risk per unit dose."

So the true Chernobyl cancer death toll could be lower or higher than the LNT-derived estimate of 60,000 deaths - a point that needs emphasis and constant repetition since the nuclear industry and its supporters frequently conflate an uncertain long-term death toll with a long-term death toll of zero.

Another defensible position is that the long-term Chernobyl cancer death toll is unknown and unknowable because of the uncertainties associated with the science. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) states (p.64):

"The Committee has decided not to use models to project absolute numbers of effects in populations exposed to low radiation doses from the Chernobyl accident, because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions. It should be stressed that the approach outlined in no way contradicts the application of the LNT model for the purposes of radiation protection, where a cautious approach is conventionally and consciously applied."

Pro-nuclear environmentalists

So there are two defensible positions regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll - estimates based on collective dose estimates (with or without a DDREF or a margin of error in either direction), and UNSCEAR's position that the death toll is uncertain.

A third position - unqualified claims that the Chernobyl death toll was just 50 or so, comprising some emergency responders and a small percentage of those who later suffered from thyroid cancer - should be rejected as dishonest or uninformed spin from the nuclear industry and some of its scientifically-illiterate supporters.

Those illiterate supporters include every last one of the self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists (PNEs). We should note in passing that some PNE's have genuine environmental credentials while others - such as Patrick Moore and Australian Ben Heard - are in the pay of the nuclear industry.

James Hansen and George Monbiot cite UNSCEAR to justify a Chernobyl death toll of 43, without noting that the UNSCEAR report did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths. James Lovelock asserts that "in fact, only 42 people died" from the Chernobyl disaster.

Patrick Moore, citing the UN Chernobyl Forum (which included UN agencies such as the IAEA, UNSCEAR, and WHO), states that Chernobyl resulted in 56 deaths. In fact, the Chernobyl Forum's 2005 report (p.16) estimated up to 4,000 long-term cancer deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, and a follow-up study by the World Health Organisation in 2006 estimated an additional 5,000 deaths among people exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

Australian 'ecomodernist' academic Barry Brook says the Chernobyl death toll is less than 60. Ben Heard, another Australian 'ecomodernist' (in fact a uranium and nuclear industry consultant), claims that the death toll was 43.

In 2010, Mark Lynas said the Chernobyl death toll "has likely been only around 65." Two years earlier, Lynas said that the WHO estimates "a few thousand deaths" (actually 9,000 deaths) but downplays the death toll by saying it was "indiscernible" in the context of overall deaths. Yes, the Chernobyl death toll is indiscernible ... and the 9/11 terrorist attacks accounted for an indiscernible 0.1% of all deaths in the US in 2001.

There doesn't appear to be a single example of a PNE - or a comparable organisation - providing a credible account of the Chernobyl death toll. They're perfectly entitled to follow UNSCEAR's lead and argue that the long-term death toll is uncertain. But conflating or confusing that uncertainty with a long-term death toll of zero clearly isn't a defensible approach.

The Breakthrough Institute comes closest to a credible account of the Chernobyl death toll (which isn't saying much), stating that "UN officials say that the death toll could be as high as 4,000". However the Breakthrough Institute ignores:

  • the follow-up UN/WHO study that estimated an additional 5,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states;
  • scientific estimates of the death toll beyond ex-Soviet states (more than half of the Chernobyl fallout was deposited beyond the three most contaminated Soviet states);
  • scientific literature regarding diseases other than cancer linked to radiation exposure;
  • and indirect deaths associated with the permanent relocation of over 350,000 people after the Chernobyl disaster.


Cherry-picking is abundantly evident in PNE accounts of the Chernobyl death toll. In a review of Robert Stone's 'Pandora's Promise' propaganda film, physicist Dr Ed Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists writes:

"One after another, the film's interviewees talk about how shocked they were to read the 2005 report of the Chernobyl Forum - a group under of UN agencies under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine - and discover that 'the health effects of Chernobyl were nothing like what was expected.' The film shows pages from that report with certain reassuring sentences underlined.

"But there is no mention of the fact that the Chernobyl Forum only estimated the number of cancer deaths expected among the most highly exposed populations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and not the many thousands more predicted by published studies to occur in other parts of Europe that received high levels of fallout.

"Nor is there mention of the actual health consequences from Chernobyl, including the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers that had occurred by 2005 in individuals who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. And the film is silent on the results of more recent published studies that report evidence of excesses in other cancers, as well as cardiovascular diseases, are beginning to emerge.

"Insult is then added to injury when Lynas then accuses the anti-nuclear movement of "cherry-picking of scientific data" to support their claims. Yet the film had just engaged in some pretty deceptive cherry-picking of its own. Lynas then goes on to assert that the Fukushima accident will probably never kill anyone from radiation, also ignoring studies estimating cancer death tolls ranging from several hundred to several thousand."

Shaky understanding

Evidence of PNE ignorance abounds. For the most part, PNEs had a shaky understanding of the radiation/health debates (and other nuclear issues) before they joined the pro-nuclear club, and they have a shaky understanding now.

Ed Lyman writes: "When Lynas says that in his previous life as an anti-nuclear environmentalist he didn't know that there was such a thing as natural background radiation, or Michael Shellenberger [Breakthrough Institute] admitted to once taking on faith the claim that Chernobyl caused a million casualties, the audience may reasonably wonder why it should accept what they believe now that they are pro-nuclear."

James Hansen's understanding of the radiation/health debates is shaky, to say the least. He falsely claims there is a "generally accepted 100 millisievert threshold for fatal disease development." But the accepted scientific position is that there is no threshold. Thus a 2010 UNSCEAR report states that "the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates."

Barry Brook is another example of someone whose understanding was shaky before and after he joined the PNE club. Brook says that before 2009 he hadn't given much thought to nuclear power because of the 'peak uranium' argument. By 2010, Brook was in full flight, asserting that the LNT model is "discredited" and has "no relevance to the real world".

In fact, LNT enjoys heavy-hitting scientific support. For example the US National Academy of Sciences' BEIR report states that "the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and ... the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans."

Likewise, a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states: "Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology."

Conspiracy theories

On Chernobyl, Brook said: "The credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60. The 'conspiracy theories' drummed up against these authoritative organisations rings a disturbingly similar bell in my mind to the crank attacks on the IPCC, NASA and WMO in climate science."

But the WHO, IAEA and other UN agencies estimated 9,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states in their 2005/06 reports, and more recently UNSCEAR has adopted the position that the long-term death toll is uncertain.

Brook repeatedly promotes the work of Ted Rockwell from 'Radiation, Science, and Health', an organisation that peddles dangerous conspiracy theories such as this: "Government agencies suppress data, including radiation hormesis, and foster radiation fear. They support extreme, costly, radiation protection policies; and preclude using low-dose radiation for health and medical benefits that apply hormesis, in favor of using (more profitable) drug therapies."

Brook promotes the discredited 'hormesis' theory that low doses of radiation are beneficial to human health (for a scientific assessment see Appendix D in the BEIR report). Lynas lends support to the hormesis theory and uncritically quotes a contrarian scientist who argues that the annual public radiation dose limit should be increased from 1 millisievert to 1,200 millisieverts!

And for comic relief Brook promotes his citation as one of the 'Outstanding Scientists of the 21st Century'. But in fact the citation comes from the International Biographical Centre, an organisation whose raison d'etre is to separate the gullible and the narcissistic from their money. One of Brook's academic colleagues nominated a squeaky toy lobster and Prof. Lobster was accepted for inclusion in the list of Outstanding Scientists.

Good for wildlife?

If Brook, Lynas and contrarian scientists are right, Chernobyl (and Fukushima) have been beneficial by spreading health-giving, life-affirming ionising radiation far and wide. And according to some PNEs, Chernobyl has been a boon for wildlife and biodiversity.

The region surrounding Chernobyl is one of Europe's "finest natural preserves" according to Stewart Brand. Lynas says the Chernobyl "explosion has even been good for wildlife, which has thrived in the 30km exclusion zone" and he says that restrictions on fishing around Fukushima "will improve the marine environment there".

James Lovelock says the land around Chernobyl "is now rich in wildlife" and - bless - he follows this asinine argument to its logical conclusion: "We call the ash from nuclear power nuclear waste and worry about its safe disposal. I wonder if instead we should use it as an incorruptible guardian of the beautiful places on Earth. Who would dare cut down a forest which was a storage place of nuclear ash?"

According to most PNEs, radiation exposure from Chernobyl has been harmless (except for those exposed to extremely high doses), and according to some it has been beneficial to human health. And Chernobyl has been good for wildlife and biodiversity (mutations aside). Follow the PNEs down these rabbit-holes and you come up with Hansen's claim that the nuclear industry's safety record is "superior to any other major industry", or Lynas' claim that nuclear power is "extraordinarily safe", or Brook's claim that "nuclear power is the safest energy option".

Nuclear power the safest energy option? Safer than wind and solar? To arrive at that conclusion, Brook and others understate the death toll from Chernobyl (and Fukushima) by orders of magnitude. They conflate an uncertain long-term Chernobyl death toll with a long-term death toll of zero.

They also trivialise or ignore the greatest hazard associated with nuclear power - its repeatedly-demonstrated connections to WMD proliferation - and they trivialise or ignore related problems such as conventional military strikes against nuclear plants, nuclear terrorism and sabotage, and nuclear theft and smuggling.

Psychological trauma

Finally, PNEs also trivialise Chernobyl by peddling the furphy that the psychological trauma was greater than the biological effects from radiation exposure. There's no dispute that, as the WHO states, the relocation of more than 350,000 people in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster "proved a deeply traumatic experience because of disruption to social networks and having no possibility to return to their homes."

How to compare that psychological trauma to estimates of the death toll, such as the UN/WHO estimate of 9,000 cancer deaths in ex-Soviet states? Your guess is as good as mine.

Perhaps the biological damage and psychological trauma can be compared and ranked if we consider the second of the two defensible positions regarding the long-term death toll - UNSCEAR's position that the death toll is uncertain. Does the psychological trauma outweigh the 50 or so known deaths, around 6,000 non-fatal thyroid cancers (with another 16,000 to come), and an uncertain long-term death toll?

The argument only begins to make sense if you accept the third of the two defensible positions regarding the death toll - the view that there were no deaths other than emergency workers and a small number of deaths from thyroid cancers. Thus Mark Lynas asserts that "as Chernobyl showed, fear of radiation is a far greater risk than radiation itself in the low doses experienced by the affected populations" and he goes on to blame anti-nuclear campaigners for contributing to the fear.

But the trauma isn't simply a result of a fear of radiation - it arises from a myriad of factors, particularly for the 350,000 displaced people. Nor is the fear of radiation necessarily misplaced given that the mainstream scientific view is that there is no threshold below which radiation exposure is risk-free.

Most importantly, why on earth would anyone want to rank the biological damage and the psychological trauma from the Chernobyl disaster? Chernobyl resulted in both biological damage and psychological trauma, in spades.

Psychological insult has been added to biological injury. One doesn't negate the other.



Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a version of this article was originally published. Nuclear Monitor, published 20 times a year, has been publishing deeply researched, often critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue!

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