Radiation, welfare and Chernobyl
When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded the world held it’s breath. We were told that a major catastrophe had taken place. Greenpeace, 10 years after the 1986 disaster said that the accident is “blamed for the deaths of some 2,500 people, has affected millions and displaced hundreds of thousands, many of whom have still not been able to return to their homes.” (1) Greenpeace called nuclear power “the most dangerous energy source yet devised by humankind”. (2)
Since that claim was made another long eight years have passed. But now the United Nations has released a new report disputing these claims. First we learn that results of the accident were not nearly as deadly as was originally projected. Second, we find that while the accident was horrific the official response made things worse for large numbers of people. Chernobyl also has some lessons on the detrimental effects of welfare.
And we will see that even after hundreds of scientists produce an exhaustive report on the matter the environmental ideologues refuse to change their tune and instead denounce the scientists.
The myth-busting report Chernobyl’s Legacy was published by the Chernobyl Forum which is a collection of supranational organisations like the World Health Organisation, the UN Development Programme, the World Bank, the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and a host of other groups. It was formed in 2002 to study the effects of the disaster and the official response to it.
In 1986 when Reactor #4 exploded it was predicted that tens of thousands would die. The UN report notes that “Claims have been made that tens or even hundreds of thousands of persons have died as a result of the accident.” But, these “claims are exaggerated”. (3)
This doesn’t mean no one died. But the numbers directly attributed to the accident are much lower than most would assume. In 1986, the year of the accident, 28 people died from exposure to radiation. All of them had been emergency workers at the reactor. From 1987 until 2004 another 19 died and “long term radiation-caused illness may have led to the deaths” of additional emergency workers. (4)
The main problems found among the general population was with young children who drank milk that was produced by cows that ate contaminated grass. For them there was a clear increase in thyroid cancer. But this cancer is very treatable. The report noted: “For the 1152 thyroid cancer cases diagnosed among children in Belarus during 1986–2002 and treated, the survival rate was 98.8%.” (5)
Except for these two groups the direct medical impact of Chernobyl was minimal. The UN report says: “Among the general population affected by the Chernobyl radioactive fallout, however, the radiation doses were quite low, and ARS (acute radiation syndrome) and associated fatalities did not occur.”(6)
Chernobyl took place in 1986. The socialist system collapsed in 1989. In the years immediately following the collapse living standards dropped. The economy was a total disaster and health care had become almost non-existent. People all across the region saw life expectancy decline. And among this general increase in death rates and illnesses the results of Chernobyl have to be found. But Chernobyl’s effects were tiny in comparison to the larger picture. The 50 some deaths are firm numbers. But the projections of possible other deaths are estimates. The UN said: “the number of deaths over the past 20 years that may have been attributable to the accident are only estimates with a moderately large range of uncertainty. The reason for this uncertainty is that people who received additional doses of low-level radiation have been dying from the same causes as unaffected people. Moreover, in all the groups studied, of both emergency workers and resident populations, any increase in mortality as compared to control groups was statistically insignificant or very low. Estimates related to projected deaths in the future are even less certain, as they are subject to other major confounding factors. In reality, the actual number of deaths caused by the accident is unlikely ever to be known with precision.” (7)
The New York Times reported, “for the millions who were subjected to low levels of radioactive particles spread by the wind, health effects have proved generally minimal.”(8) They reported that there was no rise in leukaemia rates except for a small number of plant workers. Nor has any increase in birth defects been noticed nor decrease in fertility rates.
The reason for this is simple. Only people in the immediate vicinity of the accident were exposed to sufficient radiation to cause problems. Radiation is a natural phenomena and we are all exposed it through day to day living. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commissions puts it this way: “Radiation is all around us. It is naturally present in our environment and has been since the birth of this planet.”(9)
People seem mostly unaware that radiation is a natural phenomenon and that we are all exposed to low levels of radiation every day. The average American is exposed to 300 millirems of radiation per year and over 80% of that is from natural sources. But residents of Denver receive a dose of about 1000 millirems just because of the altitude of the city. A person working in a nuclear power plant is exposed to about 300 additional millirems per year while regulations limited occupational exposure per year to 5000 millirems. But pilots, airline crew members and frequent flyers can be exposed to an additional 500 to 600 millirems. That’s quite a bit when you consider that living next door to a nuclear power plant only increases exposure by 1 millirem per year. But if even that worries you then remember that the human body produces about 40 millirems per year entirely on it’s own.(10)
Levels of exposure as a result of the accident, for most, was lower than what many people experience naturally. Chernobyl’s Legacy stated, “that the average doses received by residents of the territories contaminated by Chernobyl fallout are generally lower than those received by people who live in well known areas of high natural background radiation in India, Iran, Brazil and China.” (11)
Dr. Burton Bennett, chairman of the Chernobyl Forum said: “This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer. By and large, however, we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with a few exceptional, restricted areas." (12)
But at the time entire regions were evacuated—due more to panic than anything else. Dr. Fred Mettler, of the Chernobyl Forum, said, “People were evacuated from areas that now have dose levels lower than where I live in New Mexico.” (13) And the evacuation caused many problems and possibly harmed far more people than the accident itself.
At first the Soviet Union covered up the accident and tried to hide it from the world. This meant that people in the immediate vicinity were unnecessarily exposed to risk. This was especially true of the children who now suffer from thyroid cancer. As Bronwen Maddox of the Times of London said: “Better warnings in the first week could have averted this. But the Government’s desire at first to cover up the explosion meant that it delayed warning people or moving them to safety.” (14)
But later, when the disaster became public knowledge, the Soviets exaggerated the health effects. Maddox wrote: “The underlying level of health and nutrition [in the region] was abominable; there was every interest in exaggerating the impact to get aid money; the Soviet culture had never been shy of using science for political ends.” (15)
Of course environmental activists and antinuclear ideologues also had reasons to exaggerate the consequences hence the predictions of hundreds of thousands of deaths as a result of the accident. Add to that the natural tendency of the media to prefer the sensational aspects of any story and it is no wonder that people around the world were in an induced panic about the accident. Individuals who lived in the general vicinity suddenly found themselves being relocated, often against their will. They lost their homes and were subjected to regular medical check ups which had to raise their anxiety levels. Many of these people simple came to assume that they had been exposed and were doomed.
Yet fear itself is detrimental to health. Dr. Fred Mettler who lead the UN team said: “People have developed a paralysing fatalism because they think they are at much higher risk than they are, so that leads to things like drugs and alcohol use, and unprotected sex and unemployment.”(16) The Chicago Sun-Times reported that “anxiety caused by fear of the radiation is causing serious mental health problems, and worries and ‘shows no signs of diminishing and may be even spreading,’ the International Atomic Energy Agency said...” (17) And the Washington Post noted that the report said “that lifestyle disease, such as alcoholism, among affected residents posed a much greater threat than radiation exposure.” (18)
The Guardian newspaper of Britain said that while “the accident had a severe impact ‘the situation was made even worse by conflicting information and vast exaggerations—in press coverage and pseudoscientific accounts of the accident—reporting for example, fatalities in the tens or hundreds of thousands,’ said Tomihiro Taniguchi, a deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.” Taniguchi said that “many of the 350,000 people evacuated and resettled by authorities would have been better off staying home.” (19)
The evacuated “came to view themselves as ‘helpless, weak and lacking control over their futures, [Taniguchi] said. ‘Their circumstances were exacerbated by severe economic hardship... and the prevalence of misconceptions and myths regarding health risks.”(20) The UN report itself says “individuals in the affected population were officially given the label “Chernobyl victims”, thus frequently taking on the role of invalids. It is known that if a situation is perceived as real, it is real in its consequences. Thus rather than perceiving themselves as “survivors,” the affected individuals have been encouraged to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future.” (21)
Kalman Mizsei, a director of the UN Development Programme, said that “an industry has been built on this unfortunate event” (22) which has a “vast interest in creating a false picture”. (23) Different groups, for different reasons, exaggerated the fears. The Soviet Union, after the cover up failed, exaggerated the problems because it was of way of gaining hard currency when the system was on the verge of collapse. Ideological environmentalism and antinuclear activists used the disaster to push their political agenda. And millions of people were paid benefits on the basis of being victims of Chernobyl.
Pillar and Rubin noted: “That contributed to misinformation and fear among the local population, who believed they were on the verge of being diagnosed with fatal diseases. Those countries then spent large amounts of money to help putative victims, helping to create ‘a dependency culture,’ Mizsei said.” (24)
The UN Report said that radiation tended to get the blame for any problems people experienced. Yet “it is far more likely they are due to increases in smoking, drinking, poor diet and stress, UN experts said.” The LA Times reported that Mettler “said some government programs have unwittingly exacerbated that anxiety.” (25) Mizsei said: “Fear of radiation is a far greater threat to affected individuals than radiation itself,” and that the relocations imposed by Soviet authorise was a “deeply traumatic experience.” (26)
In fact the UN says that people who defied the government and ‘remained in their villages (and even more so the ‘self-settlers,’ those who were evacuated and then returned to their homes despite restrictions) have coped better psychologically with the accident’s aftermath than have those who were resettled to less contaminated areas.” (27)
But the negative consequences of welfare for Chernobyl “victims” is real. Seven million people received various benefits from the Russian government due to their exposure. And it is destroying the economy and incentives. In Ukraine in 1991 there were 200 people who were considered permanently disabled due to Chernobyl. The effects of radiation diminish with time but the numbers claiming to be disabled are climbing. In 1997 there were 64,500 permanently disabled and by 2001 it was 91,219. The report, according to the New York Times, “says huge compensation programs for people in the Chernobyl region have become ‘a major barrier to the region’s recovery,’ by by creating a culture of dependency and by soaking up a high percentage of the region’s resources. It recommends that the compensation programs be cut back.” (28) The UN is very blunt: “The dependency culture that has developed over the past two decades is a major barrier to the region’s recovery.” (29)
"The extensive system of Chernobyl-related benefits has created expectations of long-term direct financial support and entitlement to privileges, and has undermined the capacity of the individuals and communities concerned to tackle their own economic and social problems," the report concluded. (30)
Once programs for “victims of Chernobyl” were created they grew like Topsy. “By the late 1990s, Belarusian and Russian legislation provided more than seventy, and Ukrainian legislation more than fifty, different privileges and benefits for Chernobyl victims, depending on factors such as the degree of invalidity and the level of contamination. The system also guaranteed allowances, some of which were paid in cash, while others took the form of, for example, free meals for schoolchildren. In addition, the authorities undertook to finance health holidays in sanatoria and summer camps for invalids, liquidators, people who continued to live in highly contaminated areas, children and adolescents. In Belarus, almost 500 000 people, including 400 000 children, had the right to free holidays in the early 2000s. In Ukraine, the government funded 400 000–500 000 health holiday months per year between 1994 and 2000. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the number of people claiming Chernobyl-related benefits soared over time, rather than declined. As the economic crisis of the 1990s deepened, registration as a victim of Chernobyl became for many the only means of access to an income and to vital aspects of health provision, including medicines.” (31)
In other words the disaster at Chernobyl become profitable to many people and groups. The consequences were exaggerated because they increased the rewards. More and more people found it advantageous to be a “Chernobyl victim” and so the number of victims grew each year and grew well beyond what the science shows to be the real results.
So how has the UN report been taken? The media finds it a fascinating story because it has the element of sensationalism that sell papers or boost ratings. But the beneficiaries of Chernobyl and the ideological groups that use the accident for their own agendas are furious. They refuse to accept the report and instead denounce the UN for producing it.
Greenpeace, in particular, is most upset. William Peden from the group said that the projection of maybe 4,000 deaths in total from the disaster “is ridiculous” and “many thousands more may die in the decades to come.” (32) Jan van de Putte, another Greenpeace activist says the UN was “denying the real implications” of Chernobyl and that is “insulting [to] the thousands of victims”. He also said it is dangerous because it may lead to “relocating people in contaminated areas”. (33)
But one clear example of how ideologues bend science around politics was when Greenpeace “said that the 4000 deaths only relate to a studied population of 600,000 whereas radiation was spread over most of Europe and the reports omits the impact on millions of Europeans.”(34) It omits it because there isn’t any. Most of the radiation fell within a few dozen miles of Chernobyl and the levels of radiation, to which the surrounding 600,000 people were exposed, was mostly within the range of normal exposure from natural sources. Beyond there, to the rest of Europe, exposure levels were below natural levels.
One antinuclear coalition is the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. They immediately attacked the report and repeated the Greenpeace argument. They argued that the 4000 projected deaths only take into account the 600,000 in the immediate vicinity and “given that tens of millions of people were exposed to Chernobyl radiation... [a study] among the entire affected population would be expected to find far greater casualties.” They report that there is “no safe exposure level to radiation.” (35)
So Denver is dangerous. The US Capitol Building is dangerous. In fact every human body is dangerous. Those international flights to environmental confabs around the world typically expose the activists to more radiation than they would get living next door to a nuclear power plant for a year. But it’s nuclear power they are wanting to stop so that risk gets exaggerated and blown out of proportion. And it is this type of scare-mongering that is ruining the lives of so many deemed to be “victims of Chernobyl”.
1. Chernobyl 10 Years After, Greenpeace.
3. The Chernobyl Forum, Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, p. 10.
5. Ibid., p. 12.
6. Ibid., p. 10.
7. Ibid., pp 10-11.
8. Elizabeth Rosenthal, “Experts Find Reduced Effects of Chernobyl”, The New York Times, September 6, 2005, posted at
9. US Nuclear Regulatory Commssion, Fact Sheet on Biological Effects of Radiation,
11. Chernobyl Forum, p. 9.
12. BBC News, “Chernobyl ‘likely to kill 4,000’, September 5, 2005,
13. Elisabeth Rosenthal, op. cit.
14. Bronwen Maddox, “Chernobyl’s fallout not as bad as first feared,” The London Times, September 7, 2005 posted at
16. Elisabeth Rosenthal, op. cit.
17. Susanna Loof, “Chernobyl deaths fewer than predicted, UN says,” Chicago Sun Times,
18. Peter Finn, “Chernobyl’s Harm Was Far Less Than Predicted, UN Report says,” Washington Post, September 6, 2005,
19. “False Information Said Worsened Chernobyl” The Guardian, September 06, 2005,
21. Chernobyl Forum, op. cit., p. 15.
22. Peoples Daily, “”Doubt cast over low death toll in Chernobyl disaster,
23. Charles Piller and Alissa J. Rubin, “A false picture of Chernobyl fallout?”, The Seattle Times posted at
25. Piller and Rubin, op. cit.
26. Gilbert Ross, The Chernobyl Catastrophe Reassessed, September 7, 2005, American Council on Science and Health .
28. Elizabeth Rosenthal, op. cit.
29. Chernobyl Forum, op. cit., p. 31.
31. Ibid., p. 33)
32. People’s Daily, op cit.
33. AlJazeera, “Activists dismiss UN Chernobyl report,”
35. Statement of Michael Mariotte, executive director of Nuclear Information and Resources Service (NIRS), on UN Chernobyl Report.