Society News Archive

26 April 2006

As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl reactor accident, it is natural that the question of the health and socioeconomic impacts of the accident takes the limelight in the public media. The coverage has primarily concentrated on two sources of conflicting information about the health consequences of the accident. These sources are a report by the Chernobyl Forum, a scientific panel consisting of the world's foremost scientific experts that was created in 2001 by the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct an exhaustive assessment of the health, environmental, and social impacts of the accident, and a report by Greenpeace, an international advocacy organization with a stated objective to end all nuclear power.

Regarding the health consequences of the Chernobyl accident, the Chernobyl Forum reported that "An international expert group has made projections to provide a rough estimate of the possible health impacts of the accident . . . The projections indicate that, among the most exposed populations . . . total cancer mortality might increase by up to a few per cent owing to Chernobyl related radiation exposure. Such an increase could mean eventually up to several thousand fatal cancers in addition to perhaps one hundred thousand cancer deaths expected in these populations from all other causes." (In its press release, the IAEA characterized the "several thousand fatal cancers" as "A total of up to four thousand people.") In contrast, Greenpeace cites that "The new data, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl."

The report by the Chernobyl Forum, Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine (pdf, 776.11 Kbytes), covers environmental radiation, human health, and socioeconomic aspects. The Chernobyl Forum describes its report "as the most comprehensive evaluation of the accident's consequences to date. About 100 recognized experts from many countries, including Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, have contributed. It represents a consensus view of the eight organizations of the UN family according to their competences and of the three affected countries." (The eight organizations of the UN family represented in the report are the IAEA, World Health Organization, United Nations Development Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, and the World Bank Group). A summary of the Chernobyl Forum report is available in a document that contains excerpts from the IAEA press release (pdf, 37.38 Kbytes) about the report, including the answers to 18 frequently asked questions about the Chernobyl accident's impact on health, the environment, and socioeconomic issues.

The report by Greenpeace, The Chernobyl Catastrophe: Consequences on Human Health (pdf, 1.77 Mbytes), only deals with the health impacts of Chernobyl and was authored in order to contradict the Chernobyl Forum report. Greenpeace describes the report as involving "52 respected scientists and includes information never before published in English. It challenges the UN International Atomic Energy Agency Chernobyl Forum report, which predicted 4,000 additional deaths attributable to the accident as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering." The report primarily consists of reported changes in health statistics for a wide range of diseases in Belarus, the Ukraine, and other countries with the implication that all increases in disease, regardless of type, are the result of the Chernobyl accident. Greenpeace did not appear to do an original scientific analysis of the data but relied on referenced publications by others. The estimated number of fatalities cited by Greenpeace are those contained in one report published in the Centre of the Independent Environment Assessment of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Greenpeace report covers many noncancer illnesses that have not been observed as radiation-induced diseases in studies of highly exposed radiation populations but they claim that the Chernobyl accident is "unique" and, therefore, illnesses for which there is no known association with radiation may be the result of the radiation exposure from Chernobyl.

The one thing that both reports agree on is the fact that trying to estimate the health consequences from Chernobyl is extremely uncertain and may not, in fact, be possible. The Chernobyl Forum states, "It is impossible to assess reliably, with any precision, numbers of fatal cancers caused by radiation exposure due to the Chernobyl accident - or indeed the impact of the stress and anxiety induced by the accident and the response to it. Small differences in the assumptions concerning radiation risks can lead to large differences in the predicted health consequences, which are therefore highly uncertain." Greenpeace notes, "It is widely acknowledged that neither the available data [nor] current epidemiological methodology allows holistic and robust estimations of the death toll caused by the Chernobyl accident."

Given the great uncertainty of assessing the rates and number of diseases that have been, and that may be, caused by the Chernobyl accident, the scientific approach of reaching consensus among the many scientists involved in the Chernobyl Forum report represents the best that can be agreed on at this time.