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25 years after Chernobyl, the nuclear debate at a dead end

Sébastien Miraglia was Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 24, 2011

    The 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and current concerns about the consequences of the nuclear accident in Fukushima act as a cruel reminder that nuclear energy – like any other industrial activity – presents an irreducible risk for the environment and human health. Yet, the full impact of nuclear accidents on the environment and public health remains unknown. Despite crucial differences in terms of accident causes, radioactivity releases and local demographics, Japan’s emergency evacuation plans in Fukushima are virtually identical to the contingency plans set by Ukrainian authorities in 1986. Beyond the technical and scientific challenges faced by public health surveys, this situation is favoured by two decades of debate about the pros and cons of nuclear energy, where both sides have been presenting misleading data to support their respective agendas.

    Since the mid-1980s public health surveys have attempted to determine the growth of cancer and newborn malformations in Europe after the Chernobyl disaster. But the lack of comparable studies before the accident makes it impossible to measure with certainty the actual number of victims and isolate the effects of the fallout from other environmental factors. Moreover, because of the sheer size of the European population and low levels of radioactive contamination, the rate of excess deaths may be too small to be statistically detectable, even if the ultimate number of premature deaths is large.

    In the absence of reliable methods to quantify the impact of the Chernobyl disaster on public health, supporters and opponents of nuclear energy have proposed different investigation methods adapted to their respective beliefs and political agendas. In its assessment of the catastrophe, the Soviet Union considered that only deaths caused by acute radiation poisoning within the first three months following the accident can be linked to the explosion of the reactor. Today, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are still providing assessments of the catastrophe largely based on figures from the Soviet era, and limit their communication about non-lethal diseases caused by radiation exposure to a strict minimum. While the figures presented by local authorities and nuclear supporters tend to underestimate the number of casualties from the Chernobyl disaster, the figures presented by anti-nuclear organisations are equally misleading. In some instances, ecologist organisations have been accused of keeping record of all casualties among emergency workers and rescuers on the accident site, even including every individual dying of natural causes unrelated to radiation. Among neighbouring populations, premature deaths were also systematically attributed to Chernobyl, regardless of other environmental factors, such as smoking, alcoholism, or professional diseases among miners and industrial workers.

    As a result of these specific surveys, both supporters and opponents of nuclear energy have presented rather absurd assessments of the Chernobyl disaster. During the 1990s, supporters of nuclear energy claimed that only 31 deaths could be directly attributed to the Chernobyl disaster – including two helicopter pilots who died in a crash on their way to the rescue operation. In a recent report, a scientific committee of the United Nations could only identify 64 deaths related to the nuclear accident, but acknowledged the possibility of 4,000 extra deaths due to the long-term effects of radiation poisoning. In contrast, Greenpeace believes that more than 200,000 people died directly from various causes related to the Chernobyl accident. Other ecologist organisations claim a staggering one million victims, including a questionable 170,000 deaths in North America.

    25 years after the Chernobyl disaster, the potential consequences of the nuclear accident in Fukushima are subject to similar disagreements. Among anti-nuclear groups, the recent nuclear accident in Japan is already referred to as a “nuclear apocalypse” and workers are identified as “nuclear kamikazes”. On the other hand, supporters of nuclear energy argue that there has not been a single casualty related to the Fukushima accident so far, and claim that the event produced only one tenth of the radioactivity released in Chernobyl. Moreover, the nuclear industry stresses that rescuers always worked below the maximum radiation exposure allowed for emergency workers by international regulations.

    For a quarter of a century, this battle of numbers and figures has contributed to the spread confusion about the environmental and public health risks posed by nuclear energy. Such a confusion is not only a major obstacle to a better debate about the pros and cons of nuclear energy, but it has also contributed to prevent the development of better contingency plans after Chernobyl. In contrast, a wider consensus about the potential effects of nuclear accidents is required in spite of the scientific limitations and uncertainties of current models. At stake is the financial compensation of previous victims, the construction of new power plants in more suitable locations and the management of future crisis situations.

    In this context, there are still important lessons to be learned from Japan. In a country plagued with systemic risks such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis, the occurrence of natural disasters and industrial accidents is considered as unavoidable. From this perspective, a key objective is to learn from previous disasters and develop accurate environmental damage models, in order to prepare local populations and improve contingency plans. Unless such an approach is adopted by the current nuclear debate, the management of nuclear risks by public authorities is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.’