April 05, 2011

The anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all by George Monbiot

George Monbiot UK Guardian - The anti-nuclear movement to which I [George Monbiot] once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

I began to see the extent of the problem after a debate last week with Helen Caldicott. Dr Caldicott is the world's foremost anti-nuclear campaigner. She has received 21 honorary degrees and scores of awards, and was nominated for a Nobel peace prize. Like other greens, I was in awe of her. In the debate she made some striking statements about the dangers of radiation. So I did what anyone faced with questionable scientific claims should do: I asked for the sources. Caldicott's response has profoundly shaken me.

First she sent me nine documents: newspaper articles, press releases and an advertisement. None were scientific publications; none contained sources for the claims she had made. But one of the press releases referred to a report by the US National Academy of Sciences, which she urged me to read. I have now done so – all 423 pages. It supports none of the statements I questioned; in fact it strongly contradicts her claims about the health effects of radiation.

For the last 25 years anti-nuclear campaigners have been racking up the figures for deaths and diseases caused by the Chernobyl disaster, and parading deformed babies like a medieval circus. They now claim 985,000 people have been killed by Chernobyl, and that it will continue to slaughter people for generations to come. These claims are false.

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) is the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Like the IPCC, it calls on the world's leading scientists to assess thousands of papers and produce an overview. Here is what it says about the impacts of Chernobyl.

Of the workers who tried to contain the emergency at Chernobyl, 134 suffered acute radiation syndrome; 28 died soon afterwards. Nineteen others died later, but generally not from diseases associated with radiation. The remaining 87 have suffered other complications, including four cases of solid cancer and two of leukaemia.

In the rest of the population there have been 6,848 cases of thyroid cancer among young children – arising "almost entirely" from the Soviet Union's failure to prevent people from drinking milk contaminated with iodine 131. Otherwise "there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure". People living in the countries affected today "need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident".

Caldicott told me that Unscear's work on Chernobyl is "a total cover-up". Though I have pressed her to explain, she has yet to produce a shred of evidence for this contention.

Like Vidal and many others, Caldicott pointed me to a book which claims that 985,000 people have died as a result of the disaster. Translated from Russian and published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, this is the only document that looks scientific and appears to support the wild claims made by greens about Chernobyl.

A devastating review in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry points out that the book achieves this figure by the remarkable method of assuming that all increased deaths from a wide range of diseases – including many which have no known association with radiation – were caused by the Chernobyl accident. There is no basis for this assumption, not least because screening in many countries improved dramatically after the disaster and, since 1986, there have been massive changes in the former eastern bloc. The study makes no attempt to correlate exposure to radiation with the incidence of disease.

Its publication seems to have arisen from a confusion about whether Annals was a book publisher or a scientific journal. The academy has given me this statement: "In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone else."

Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate-change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don't suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced.

The Review of the 985,000 death for Chernobyl Claim

George Monbiot provides references in the article on his website

journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry review of Chernobyl: consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment

In the Chernobyl Forum Cardis gives a figure of about 4200 for the lifetime excess cancer deaths in a 605 000 population of the highest contaminated areas in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. With the inclusion of a further 6.8 million people in other contaminated areas of Eastern Europe (average doses ∼7 mSv) the excess increased to about 9000. Background cancer deaths for comparison were given as 109 000 and 936 000, respectively. Greenpeace give numerous numbers for excess incidence and mortality of a wide range of diseases but in many cases it is not stated over what period the excess cancer risk is integrated. It is therefore not possible to easily compare on an equal basis the claims of the Greenpeace report with the predictions of the Chernobyl Forum but it is clear that Greenpeace's predictions are significantly higher—probably by a factor of 3–10.

Greenpeace describes their report as involving ‘52 respected scientists and includes information never before published in English. It challenges the UN International Atomic Energy Agency Chernobyl Forum report as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering’. The Greenpeace approach is primarily to link temporal changes in health statistics after 1986 in Belarus, the Ukraine and other countries with the Chernobyl accident. That is, all increases in disease, regardless of type, are assumed to be the result of the Chernobyl accident. The Greenpeace report covers many non-cancer illnesses that have not been observed as radiation-induced diseases even in studies of highly exposed radiation populations but they claim that the Chernobyl accident is ‘unique’ and, therefore, illnesses for which there is no known association with radiation may be the result of the radiation exposure from Chernobyl. Such an approach is also confounded by temporal and regional changes in health statistics that pre-dated the Chernobyl accident. During the production of the reports from the Chernobyl Forum and Greenpeace, a vast body of previously unknown data began to emerge in the form of publications, reports, theses, etc. from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, much of it in Slavic languages. Little of these data appears to have been incorporated into the international literature. The quality of these publications and whether they would sustain critical peer-review in the western scientific literature is unknown.

MW Charles, 2010. Review of Chernobyl: consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment. Radiation Protection Dosimetry (2010) 141(1): 101-104. doi: 10.1093/rpd/ncq185.

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