It was reported recently that President Clinton has promised seventy-eight million dollars to help close down the nuclear reactor that survived the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. This produced a spate of stories that included highly inflated figures on the number of people that died as a result of the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. A New York Times front page article on June 6 stated that the accident caused “untold thousands of deaths and illnesses.” The Washington Times put the number as high as fifty-five thousand, fifty percent more than the number killed by the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
An international conference held in Vienna in 1996, found that very few deaths had resulted from the accident. The conference was sponsored by the European Commission, the World Health Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency and held in cooperation with several United Nations departments and organizations and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The conference report stated that three workers died quickly from burns suffered in the accident. Acute radiation syndrom was diagnosed in 134 of the personnel who were rushed into to fight the fire and stem the release of radiation. Of these, 28 died soon after. Of the other 106, only 14 had died in the ten years following the accident. Although significant amounts of radiation were released, no evidence was found of deaths from radiation sickness caused by fallout, and only three possible deaths from cancer were recorded. That brought the total deaths to 48.
The report states that thyroid cancer in children under the age of fifteen at the time of the accident was the only cancer that was shown to have increased in areas of heavy fallout. Over two million children under fifteen lived in the affected area. Five-hundred and sixty-five of them developed thyroid cancer, but only three died from it, bringing the death toll to forty-eight.
The conference secretariat reported, “Apart from thyroid cancer, there has been no statistically significant deviation in the incidence rates of other cancers attributable to radiation exposure due to the accident. In particular, to date, no consistent attributable increase has been detected in the rate of leukemia?” The absence of leukemia is important because leukemia develops more quickly than most other forms of cancer and is thus a good indicator of the incidence of other cancers in the years to come.
The media have ignored this good news. They use exaggerated numbers to create a horrific picture of the dangers of nuclear power. This has blocked expansion of nuclear power here and it is used to justify our spending seventy-eight million dollars to help encase the Chernobyl reactors in concrete. These numbers are accepted without question because many people think that Chernobyl was a nuclear explosion. Wrong! It was a steam explosion that released some radiation that caused less than fifty deaths.