We’ve been hearing the word “disaster” in connection with the nuclear reactors in Japan, usually in the context of phrases such as, “Japanese teams work mightily to avoid looming disaster.”
But what is the definition of a disaster these days? Surely, by any reasonable measure, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami qualify as an enormous disaster. The death toll will run into tens of thousands and perhaps even a hundred thousand or so before the work of rescue and discovery is over, and the rebuilding will take years and eat up enormous amounts of money. The psychological toll on Japan is hard to overestimate, although the people are remarkably resilient. But in an instant, whole villages were wiped away, and the shock must be profound. It’s frightening even to view it from afar, reduced to a small computer or TV image.
But what of the nuclear power plant problems? That is a projected disaster, a feared and dreaded one. The word “meltdown” is another that’s constantly used in news stories as a likely possibility, and it conjures up images of something cataclysmic. The specter of Chernobyl is raised again and again, even though that plant’s design was profoundly different in critical ways.
Chernobyl was by far the worst accident in the history of nuclear plants, but the initial incident claimed 57 lives. This is tragic and horrible, but not usually the sort of thing that enters into “disaster” territory, if sheer numbers are the measure.
But what of its residual long-term effects? The main Wiki article on the subject notes, “Estimates of the total number of deaths attributable to the accident vary enormously, from possibly 4,000 to close to a million.” That would certainly constitute a disaster—but are those figures correct?
They do not appear to be. Chernobyl is not only a word that strikes fear into the heart, but it is one of the most-studied environmental incidents ever in terms of its possible effects. The following is what UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, has learned over the twenty-five years since Chernobyl occurred:
Among the residents of Belaruss 09, the Russian Federation and Ukraine there had been, up to 2002, about 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases are to be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding problems associated with screening, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The risk of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to its short latency time, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.
Wiki also notes that “thyroid cancer is generally treatable. With proper treatment, the five-year survival rate of thyroid cancer is 96%, and 92% after 30 years.” This is not to make light of the stress of having a child thus diagnosed, but in general we can say that the number of additional deaths beyond the original 57 that could be attributable to Chernobyl is small. We can be fairly certain of this because there has been no lack of effort to find them, and no dearth of studies that would be likely to have detected them if they had existed.
But such reports have not eradicated the idea that Chernobyl was a dreadful disaster that caused an enormous number of deaths. For example, Greenpeace jumped into the arena, speculating so wildly based on suspect and non-peer-reviewed studies that even Gregory Härtl, a spokesman for WHO, “expressed concern that the conclusions were motivated by ideology.”
There is little doubt that the accident had a negative effect on the flora and fauna in the area. But again, it was less than in the popular imagination.
Speaking of imagination: paradoxically, that is what has been responsible for a fair amount of harm. Not only has fear of nuclear power reduced our willingness to build nuclear power plants and continued the world’s dependency on imported oil from the Middle East and all its attendant woes, but this fear may have had an indirectly deleterious effect on the emotional health of the population around Chernobyl:
It also concluded that a greater risk than the long-term effects of radiation exposure is the risk to mental health of exaggerated fears about the effects of radiation:
“The designation of the affected population as “victims” rather than “survivors” has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future. This, in turn, has led either to over cautious behavior and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct, such as consumption of mushrooms, berries and game from areas still designated as highly contaminated, overuse of alcohol and tobacco, and unprotected promiscuous sexual activity.”
That is not to say that Chernobyl was nothing. It was most definitely something: a frightening event that shone a light on a large number of mistakes (especially in Soviet power plants) that needed to be righted, and a tragedy from which people and the environment suffered and many lives were lost.
But “disaster” is a word that has been too freely used. It is not exactly clear how best to define disaster—whether by number of deaths, amount of property destroyed, human suffering, environmental damage, or some complex combination of all or some of them. But on the worldwide scale of events, an argument could be made that Chernobyl only qualifies as a major disaster in its lasting legacy of hyper-fear bestowed by those who exaggerated its effects in order to further their own political ends.
[NOTE: For example, the NY Times today has a piece entitled "Scientists Project Path of Radiation Plume." And although the article makes it clear in the second paragraph that the radiation will be essentially negligible almost as soon as it begins to make that worldwide journey, the headline and the lede ("A United Nations forecast of the possible movement of the radioactive plume coming from crippled Japanese reactors shows it churning across the Pacific, and touching the Aleutian Islands on Thursday before hitting Southern California late Friday"), which is probably all many people read, are designed to stir up anxiety. Why not put the word "harmless" in the headline, right before the word "plume?" Funny question, I know. Perhaps the Times has stock in iodine pills.]
[ADDENDUM: The Christian Science Monitor also attempts to set the record straight. Good luck.]