Eighteen years ago, the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred. Newspaper reports at the time reflected the near-universal public hysteria: The Daily Mail filled half its front page with the words “2000 DEAD”; the New York Post claimed that 15,000 bodies had been bulldozed into nuclear waste pits. But the overreaction to the accident caused far more harm than the meltdown itself, as it mistakenly led to the halting of nuclear programs in most Western countries, including the United States.
As Chernobyl comes of age, now seems like a good time to take an adult assessment of the whole affair. UNSCEAR’s (the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) website tells a surprising story: At 1:21 a.m. on April 25, 1986, the reactor crew at Chernobyl’s number four reactor ran a test to see how long the turbines would spin following a power cut. It was known that this type of reactor was very unstable at low power, and automatic shutdown mechanisms had been disabled before the test. The flow of coolant water diminished, power output increased, and when the operator tried to shut down the reactor from its unstable condition arising from previous errors, a peculiarity in the design caused a dramatic power surge. The fuel elements ruptured and the resultant explosive force of steam lifted the cover plate off of the reactor, releasing fission products into the atmosphere. A second explosion threw out fragments of burning fuel and graphite from the core and allowed air to rush in, causing the graphite moderator to burst into flames. The graphite burned for nine days, releasing a total of about 12 x 1018 becquerels of radioactivity–about 30 to 40 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It just could not be any worse: Corners had been cut from the very inception of the reactor’s design, right through construction, operation, and maintenance. Training and safety procedures were negligible. The Supreme Soviet that routinely disregarded human life was as negligent in nuclear-reactor policy as it was in everything else. Even The Simpsons’s woeful nuclear power-plant owner, Mr. Burns, would have been ashamed of it.
The complete destruction of the reactor killed 31 people, including 28 from radiation exposure, most of whom were firefighters working on the roof. A further 209 people on site were treated for acute radiation poisoning and 134 cases were confirmed (all of whom recovered). Since then, an increase in childhood thyroid cancer has been reported, although it is not certain that this is not due to increased surveillance. There has been no other increase in radiation-induced disease, congenital abnormalities, or adverse pregnancy outcomes.
If this had been an ordinary industrial accident, safety standards would have been improved, and that would have been the end of the story. For instance, who (apart from those directly affected) remembers the explosion at a fertilizer plant in Toulouse, France, in September 2001? It killed 30 people, injured more than 2000, and damaged or destroyed 3000 buildings.
No, the biggest tragedy of Chernobyl was that radioactivity was governed by preposterous safety regulations that forced the authorities to take extreme and damaging action against the very people they were trying to protect. Until very recently, radiological protection (and chemical regulations) depended on the linear no-threshold (LNT) theory. This says that, because high levels of exposure can cause death, there is no safe lower limit. If this sounds like a reasonable level of precaution, consider this: 750º F will cause fatal burns, while 75º F is a lovely summer’s day. Vitamin A is an essential trace chemical in our diet but is toxic at high levels. The dose makes the poison, for chemicals and for radiation.
On the basis of this false assumption, nearly 400,000 people were forcibly evacuated from areas around Chernobyl where radiation was actually lower than the normal background levels in Cornwall and five times lower than at Grand Central Station in New York. To these poor unfortunates, there was damage done. Psycho-social effects among the evacuees are emerging as a major problem. Zbigniew Jaworowski, a medical adviser to the U.N. on the effects of radiation, estimates that nearly five million people in the former Soviet Union have been affected by severe psychological stress, leading to psychosomatic diseases. These include gastrointestinal and endocrinological disorders and are similar to those arising from those that accompany other major disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and fires. Perhaps saddest of all is that as many as 200,000 “wanted” pregnancies ended in abortion, in order to avoid non-existent radiation damage to the fetuses.
It may seem crass to talk about money in this context, but according to the UNDP and UNICEF, over $100 billion was spent just in the Ukraine on post-Chernobyl “public health” measures. Just imagine how much real good could have been done with that much money. Furthermore, Jaworowksi says that the cost to Belarus was about $86 billion. These are astonishing sums for relatively poor former Communist countries.
Apportioning blame between the media and the Supreme Soviet is a difficult task. But unfounded Western fears based on the LNT hypothesis undoubtedly encouraged the Soviet mass evacuation program. Yet that inaccurate LNT hypothesis still forms the basis of radiation thinking–and it’s past time that was changed. Nuclear power has dangers, which are less in terms of actual deaths per unit energy produced than most other forms of energy generation. But as long as this exaggerated image of Chernobyl endures, people will continue to imagine the costs of nuclear energy to be far higher than they really are.
–Roger Bate is a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.