Dire Implications for the Victims of Fukushima: Public Safety Guidelines Based on the Flawed Reasoning of the United Nations’ Assessment of Chernobyl

Dire Implications for the Victims of Fukushima:
Public Safety Guidelines Based on the Flawed Reasoning of the United Nations’ Assessment of Chernobyl

For all of the 25 years since the Chernobyl nuclear accident, various UN organizations - the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association), the UNSCEAR (Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) and the WHO (World Health Organization) - have consistently denied that there were widespread, serious health effects from the disaster. The most they admit to are a few thousand deaths from thyroid cancer - which could have been prevented by temporary restrictions on drinking water and milk - a few cases of leukemia, and some cases of death and illness among the military personnel who received high radiation doses while working on the sarcophagus that sealed off the dangerous melted fuel in the plant. In the latest tally, the UN admits there have been a few thousand additional cancer cases and that there have been and will be a total of 9,000 deaths that can be attributed to the disaster.

So the interesting question to ask is this: why all the fuss over Chernobyl then? The UN has spent billions mitigating the disaster’s effects, while these casualty numbers are no more than small variations in the overall rate of illness and death. About 50,000 people die annually in Russia in automobile accidents, so the money spent on the Chernobyl aftermath - for soil decontamination, health care, relocation of victims, food monitoring, and construction of a new covering for the nuclear plant - could be spent more wisely on promoting traffic safety. Why not just ignore the disaster aftermath completely if it is indeed so inconsequential?

This is what betrays shameful record of deception perpetrated by these UN agencies. The individuals responsible for the UN position know full well the dangers of the fallout from Chernobyl. They have officially adopted the non linear threshold model that states that there is no harmless amount of radiation exposure. The optimists wouldn’t let their own children live in the contaminated zones or eat food produced in them. For twenty-five years the UN has spent billions of dollars on cleanup and assistance programs for Chernobyl while they hypocritically insist that health effects are minimal. In reality, this is probably a sign of the political compromises made within the UN. The pro-nuclear lobby gets to continue downplaying the health consequences while the anti-nuclear lobby gets the money for Chernobyl aid programs.

The UN denials began at the first international meeting on the Chernobyl disaster in Vienna in August 1986. The Soviets had done a terrible job of protecting and informing citizens in the first days of the disaster in April, but by August, President Gorbachev had assigned nuclear expert Valery Legassov to give a detailed and frank report on the accident to the UN. He spoke for three hours and finished by estimating that 40,000 cancer deaths would be caused by the fallout. That figure was flatly rejected by every Western nation, and for the final UN pronouncement a figure of 4,000 was reached through negotiation. Thus it was the ‘evil’ dictatorship, and not the Western democracies, that was willing to risk being wrong with a cautious, possibly overestimated view of the hazards of radiation.

Legassov’s estimate of 40,000 is now recognized as terribly low by many researchers, doctors and eye-witnesses to the tragedy over the years. Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment is the first English translation of a through study that compiled research done mostly in Slavic languages. While UN reports relied heavily on studies done in English, this report benefits from having been produced in the countries directly affected by Chernobyl, and the differing conclusions are striking.

In Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe..., the authors conclude their chapter on health outcomes by writing, “...there are many findings of increased ante-natal, childhood, and general mortality in the highly contaminated territories… significant increases in cancer mortality were observed for all irradiated groups... the Chernobyl catastrophe has already killed several hundred thousand human beings in a population of several hundred million... the number will continue to grow.” For every case of thyroid cancer they estimate there are 1,000 cases of diminished thyroid function that cause serious disruption of the body’s endocrine system. Both internal and external radiation exposure (the former often ignored in UN studies and safety pronouncements) are linked to many ailments other than cancer: higher rates of immune deficiency, allergies, diabetes, poor cognitive functioning, chronic fatigue, birth defects, and genetic mutations that are passed from one generation to the next. In UN reports, decades of human suffering from these ailments count for nothing because it is only deaths attributed to radiation that seem to be a concern in the reported statistics. 

For a demonstration of the convoluted lengths the UN has gone to in order to blame health effects on anything but radiation, see the diagram on page 13 of the UN report Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation (2008)Many of these ailments have been explained away by the UN as effects of the economic decline that began after the catastrophe, which lead to depression, smoking and alcohol abuse. The Soviet Union collapsed and decreasing health and longevity became the norm across all the former Soviet territories. The UNSCEAR reassures the world this way:

Although those exposed as children and the emergency and recovery workers are at increased risk of radiation-induced effects, the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences due to the radiation from the Chernobyl accident... from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.” I would find this easier to believe if the top people of these UN agencies went to live in the highly contaminated region of Lugini, Ukraine, and lived off the local produce for a few years, but I suspect that they would sensibly decline such an opportunity.

While optimists say that Chernobyl victims are really only suffering from radiophobia, post-traumatic stress, and paralyzing fatalism, it would be difficult to explain why the health of plants and animals also declined because of their "radiophobia." Even if it were true that the poor health was caused by mental suffering, the victims would still deserve compensation for the mental anguish that the accident caused. Writing as a victim of weaker levels of Fukushima fallout (200 kms. south of the meltdown), I can speak for the sense of fatalism such a catastrophe induces in people. My worries are minor in comparison with the people closer to Fukushima, but my life plan has changed because I have come to doubt that the food supply will be safe, and I’ve had to contemplate evacuating my family and leaving behind a secure job and a mortgaged home. The situation doesn’t exactly make me feel like I am in control of my destiny. As for the victims of Chernobyl, for those who need to pass judgment on them there is only one way to really know whether they are just lazy or genuinely weakened by radiation. These critics would have to expose themselves to the same levels of internal and external radiation, live in the contaminated territories, and wait a few years to judge the effects subjectively.

The authors of Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe ... are aware of the common criticisms, and they insist that they have been accounted for in the research they cite. The studies they claim that when studies control for socioeconomic variables they still find that the increased morbidity correlates with the level of contamination in an area.

One critic of the pessimistic view of health outcomes blames the victims. Paul Seaman, a public relations expert who has worked for the nuclear industry (“Europe’s smart PR thinker” according to his website banner) puts it all down to the welfare dependency that developed when so much government and private assistance flooded into the contaminated zones. Welfare dependency probably is a factor in the problem, but before we blame the victims for not rebuilding their lives, we have to be realistic about the chances that business investment would take root in a zone contaminated with radioisotopes and a workforce with poor prospects for health.

Seaman claims that “...doctors felt obliged to help their impoverished patients by ticking the ‘right’ boxes.” He cites no empirical study of this massive systemic fraud. He assumes that researchers would not have been able to account for such factors and base their research on signs rather than faked symptoms, lab results and eye-witnesses accounts of the increased rates of suffering. After Fukushima Daiichi lost its cooling systems, and just before the catastrophic hydrogen explosions, Seaman wrote the sort of statement that would embarrass even his allies in the nuclear industry: “... core meltdowns do happen and... the evidence shows that they don’t matter much.

The disturbing thing about such dismissive accounts of the suffering is that they start to resemble Holocaust denials. As much as the questions about Chernobyl are a matter of empirical medical studies, they are also a matter of historical research. To challenge a Holocaust denier, one can never absolutely prove that the atrocities took place. They cannot be observed, and most of the witnesses are dead. One can only consider the photos, films, archeological remains, eye-witness accounts of victims, perpetrators, liberating soldiers and other observers, then concludes that yes, the evidence is overwhelming. It happened. The same is true of Chernobyl. The most convincing evidence of large-scale health impact is the story told in the medical files, the birth defects, the eye-witness accounts of thousands of medical personnel, documentary films, and the scarred necks of thousands of thyroid patients from Sweden to the Ukraine.

Gerry Thomas of London Imperial College attributes only 15 deaths to Chernobyl-induced thyroid cancer, which is an utterly distorted and callous way of evaluating the harm caused by Chernobyl fallout. If she doesn’t want to believe there is a causal connection, she can state whatever number he wants. No evidence will be convincing for such deniers. For most people, the accounts of doctors and patients living with the crisis will be evidence enough. There has been a documented spike in thyroid cancer all over the northern hemisphere that began after Chernobyl. People who live in the most contaminated areas know well that for every case of cancer there are hundreds of cases of thyroid dysfunction. In one region of Poland that received heavy fallout (pop. 21,000), thyroid pathology has been found in 70% of the inhabitants. (Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe... p.86) Thyroid dysfunction has a severe effect on health, especially on younger victims, and survivors of thyroid cancer must take hormone replacements and live with a diminished quality of life. But if you survive thanks to this therapy, you don't count as a victim. You have to die of cancer to have your suffering taken seriously.

This debate would be slightly academic and irrelevant if Chernobyl were safely over and done with, but unfortunately the question must be settled one way or another because nuclear energy still has the potential to destroy the planet. In the first days of the disaster, firefighters poured water on the plant, to no avail, and the water that accumulated under the burning fuel threatened to create a hydrogen explosion that would have put all of the melted fuel into the atmosphere. Had this occurred, Europe would have become uninhabitable. This from just one nuclear reactor. We always thought that nuclear war was the greater threat to life on the planet, but the active and spent fuel of nuclear power plants might be the thing that does us in.

Chernobyl was supposedly our lesson, the "final warning" according to an American doctor who treated Chernobyl firefighters in Moscow. But presently in Fukushima there are three reactors in full meltdown, submerged in water and venting radioactive steam into the open air. The spent fuel pools are exposed to the air also. In terms of the number of reactors involved and the amount of uncontained fuel, Fukushima surpasses Chernobyl. The only difference is that most of the contaminants went into the Pacific Ocean. It is yet a theoretical question as to whether the deep, wide ocean can absorb this shock without it harming ecosystems.

Some of the fallout went west and northwest, and then southwest over Japan, and some of these areas now have contamination equal to the worst areas of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and this is why the two views of Chernobyl’s health effects are not just part of an academic debate. The optimistic interpretation of the IAEA, and its subordinate, the WHO, is determining the approach to the Fukushima disaster. Japanese authorities base their decisions on the rosy interpretations made by the UN of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Children in Fukushima have been exposed to contaminated food, soil, air and water, while the allowable level of annual exposure for children has been reset from 1 mSv to 20 mSv. There has been no plan to evacuate children to safer places, even on a temporary basis while authorities take time to determine whether Fukushima City (pop. 260,000) will be a viable place to live.

What is all the more disturbing is that the deception of the IEAE and the deception of the Japanese government seem to feed off one another. The Japanese government uses the IAEA interpretation to decide not to evacuate children from areas with 1 ~ 5 µSv/h (8 ~ 40 mSv/year), and the IAEA uses selective data from the Japanese government to declare on its website, “On 31 May the gamma dose rate reported for Fukushima prefecture was 1.5 µSv/h. In all other prefectures, reported gamma dose rates were below 0.1 µSv/h; with a general decreasing trend.”

This report indicates to an amateur like me that the UN experts following this issue are either incompetents or liars. Anyone who has done a little reading on this issue knows that the fallout landed unevenly, leaving a wide range of contamination over even small areas. The IAEA report of June 2, 2011 (the last one available on their website in August 2011) selected a low measure for each prefecture and reported that as the highest dose reported. I can walk out my door in Chiba Prefecture and measure 0.18 µSv/h with a consumer grade dosimeter, which happens to quite accurately agree with the professional grade equipment used by the municipal government. I can walk over to my children’s school yard and measure 1.0 µSv/h on patches of ground under drain pipes. 20 kilometers to the west the city of Kashiwa is a well-known hot spot with wide areas measuring 0.5 µSv/h. In Fukushima City there are places showing 5.0 µSv/h (see the map compiled from various government and non-government sources in Japan). Any amateur following the news in Japan can spot the error in the IAEA report, and these higher figures are in fact found and published by Japanese governments at various levels, so the IAEA isn’t even paying attention to what the Japanese report, let alone doing their own monitoring.

This direct, personal observation of the IAEA’s lax reporting leads me to doubt everything they say. They have no reliability, no enforcement powers, and not even an adversarial or sceptical attitude about the information supplied to it by member states. It is hard to find one constructive thing they have done during the Fukushima catastrophe. They may be trying to help the Japanese save face while they take a more aggressive approach behind the scenes, but this begs the question of why the public is not allowed to know what is really going on. 

The IAEA didn’t tell the world many things that every nuclear specialist knew with certainty in the first days of the crisis. They could have told the world directly that there were sure to be three full meltdowns. They could have told the Japanese government to look for hot spots outside the arbitrary, circular evacuation zone. They could have recommended a precautionary evacuation of children from a wider area. They could have told the Japanese government to tightly monitor animal feed and food distribution, and tell farmers not to plant crops this season. They could be telling the Tokyo City government right now to abandon its foolish plan to burn highly radioactive sewage waste. The IAEA has been worse than useless because it has done nothing while giving a false impression that adult supervision arrived to handle the crisis.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said recently said, “The international community has had 25 years to reflect on the tragedy at Chernobyl, but the tragic events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant demonstrate that there are still lessons that need to be learned.” The lesson indeed is that the UN agencies responsible for nuclear safety are unreliable and ineffective.

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