Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment" reliable?

Monday was the 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and the opponents of nuclear power have taken the opportunity to go on the attack. A previously obscure book, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences) has drawn significant attention. "Chernobyl Consequences" was written by Alexey V. Yablokov (Center for Russian Environmental Policy, Moscow, Russia), Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko (Institute of Radiation Safety, Minsk, Belarus). The study is in fact inaccessible to most people. It was published in an edition of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, although copies can be obtained by forking over considerably more that one hundred dollars to No scholarly reviews of this study have yet been published,

Yablokov has for some time argued what other researchers take to be extreme views on Chernobyl casualties, for example arguing that
Chernobyl is associated with the worst technical catastrophe in human history.
Yablokov has accepted without question, the debated linear no threshold (LNT) radiation safety hypothesis. He argued in 1999 that such theories are
tragically confirmed in the territories affected by small doses of radioactive emissions from Chernobyl. Official forecasts of merely a few additional cases of cancer by the end of this century have been disproved by a hundredfold increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer.
Thus one potential problem objective reviewers need to be alert for is that Yablokov and his associates may have a bias toward the confirmation of hypotheses that he believes to be true. A second danger is that of circular arguments. That is that Yablokov simply assumes what they were trying to prove, namely that the LNT hypothesis.

Now in order to test the LNT hypothesis given Chernobyl data, researchers must eliminate test illness and death data for non radiation causal sources. Only after all other potential causes are eliminated, can cause be attributed to Chernobyl related radiation. Yablokov seems to jump to conclusions, for example in 1999 he stated
Another unexpected consequence of human exposure to small radiation doses was a significant increase in the number of spontaneous miscarriages. Establishing the exact number is extremely difficult because of incomplete medical statistics, but individual observations seem to tell the story. Consider, for instance, that in Sweden the number of successful conceptions decreased by 600 in June and July of 1986. In Greece, the number of live births from January through March of 1987 was 2,500 lower than expected.6 The same decline was observed in Italy, Germany, Belorussia, and even in the United States.
This argument is an example of the post hoc proper hoc fallacy. A drop in the number of live birth occurred in a number of countries after the Chernobyl accident, but that drop might have been due to other causes, not related to Chernobyl. We would have to subject the birth rate data to a number of tests before we can decide if Chernobyl had any relationship at all to the decline. It is troubling for the argument that the decline of the American birth rate is mentioned, even though the United States received very little Chernobyl related fallout. Unless Yablokov applies far more rigorous tests to his argument, it would not appear to be sound.

Other Yablokok arguments seem to be equally problematic. in his 1999 essay he argued, he argues,
Another terrible consequence of Chernobyl’s low-dose pollution is the sharp increase in the number of retarded children. A comparison of 2,213 newborns in the polluted territories of Belorussia, Russia, and the Ukraine with 2,120 children born in nearby unpolluted territories has shown that more than half of the children born in the former regions display signs of retarded mental development.
Such tests should have been performed with children who were demographically matched to children in the polluted area, and further tests to children from the polluted area who were born prior to the Chernobyl accident. Thus test conditions as stated in 1999 by Yablokov would not have yielded valid conclusions.

From these appearantly invalid arguments in 1999 Yablokov concluded
These data confirm observations on fetal development made in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the years following detonation of atomic bombs. Clearly, small radiation doses do disturb the normal formation of the central nervous system of the fetus in certain sensitive stages of development.
in fact the rules of science and of logic have been violated in the arguments, so nothing has been demonstrated about the health effects of Chernobyl related radiation. Yabolkov adds,
During the decade following Chernobyl, the danger that small doses of radiation can harm humans has turned from an assumption to a scientific fact backed by dozens—or even hundreds—of scientific studies. These results also highlight the narrow focus of past research, which was mainly oriented toward increased incidence of leukemia. While leukemia is one untoward consequence of radiation exposure, other illnesses and abnormalities are equally as telling and should be emphasized in future studies.
Acceptance of the LNT hypothesis by the scientific community is har from unamous, and Health Physicists, the scientist who by training and experience are best qualified to judge the issue, have stated professionally, that
In accordance with the current knowledge of radiation health risks, the Health Physics Society recommends against quantitative estimation of health risks below an individual dose of 5 rem in one year or a lifetime dose of 10 rem in addition to background radiation. Risk estimation in this dose range should be strictly qualitative accentuating a range of hypothetical health outcomes with an emphasis on the likely possibility of zero adverse health effects. The current philosophy of radiation protection is based on the assumption that any radiation dose, no matter how small, may result in human effects, such as cancer and hereditary genetic damage. There is substantial and convincing scientific evidence for health risks at high dose. Below 10 rem (which includes occupational and environmental exposures) risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are non-existent.
Health Physicist, Bernard Cohen who studied the health consequences of exposure to high levels of natural background radiation concluded that even scientifically and logically valid studies of the health effects of radiation yielded at best circumstantial evidence, and that conclusions drawn from such studies are not true with mathematical certainty. Cohen included a discussion of common errors found in radiation related epidemiological studies.

Yablokov was also a general editor of the 2006 Greenpeace report, The Chernobyl Catastrophe Consequences on Human Health.

Thus Yablokov is certainly in the orbit if not also the pay of Greenpeace and perhaps other like minded anti-nuclear organizations. This does not mean that what he says is untrue, but it does mean that before his arguments are credited, they should be be carefully vetted. And as I have noted Yablokov has in the past used argument which are on their face invalid and unscientific.

A New York State University professor Karl Grossman has published an account of some of the books findings in Counterpunch. How well Grossman is qualified to write anything like an objective review of a book on Chernocyl causalities is open to question. Mr. Grossman has written two previous books, both of which focused on some nuclear related threat. In Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, Grossman charged that a nuclear related conspiracy lay at the heart of the space program. Amazon reviews were decidedly mixed. One described "wrong stuff" as "Ignorance At Its Utmost." The reviewer added,
The Wrong Stuff clearly shows that uninformed Americans are apt to believe a gross distortion of the truth, so long as it sounds scary and apocalyptic. This book sounds good for a science fiction, conspiracy theory. The book definitely is a thriller, fictitious all the way, designed to scare and outrage the reader. Sadly, the book is poorly researched and has a very faulty logic
Another reviewer titled his review "Dumb," and added,
If you like raving paranoid conspiracy theories, this one might be for you. It seemed poorly researched with big gaps in logic to me. Not enough plot to be science fiction, not enough facts to be journalism.
Anothe Grossman book, "Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power," also received decidedly mixed Amazon reviews. One reviewer wrote,
I can't remember the last time I read a book with so little content.
While another reviewer added,
This book does not make any reasonable arguements. Nor does it support it claims.
Quite obviously the writings of Mr. Groosman belong on Counterpunch. But given the comments of the Amazon readers, it is not clear that we can count of him to offer us an accurate representation of any book on Chernobyl, or to offer an objective review of any book that cast nuclear power in a negative light.

Mr. Grossman makes the following statements:

* The book is solidly based—on health data, radiological surveys and scientific reports—some 5,000 in all.

* It concludes that based on records now available, some 985,000 people died of cancer caused by the Chernobyl accident. That’s between when the accident occurred in 1986 and 2004.

* the International Atomic Energy Agency . . . the new book shows, is under-estimating, to the extreme, the casualties of Chernobyl.

* That the IAEA is corrupt

* That an agreement between the IAEA and the World Health Agency "has muzzled the WHO, providing for the “hiding” from the “public of any information…unwanted” by the nuclear industry."

* that “hundreds of millions of curies, a quantity hundreds of times larger than the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” were released by the chernobyl accident.

* That before the accident, more than 80% of the children in the territories of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia extensively contaminated by Chernobyl “were healthy,” the book reports, based on health data. But “today fewer than 20% are well.”

And so on.

If Mr. Grossman's arguments accurately reflect both the book and the facts, they offer a shocking picture of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. But even given this picture, these facts do not enhance an objective case against nuclear power. The Chernobyl reactor used a core design that was know to be unsafe right from the dawn of the nuclear era. No current reactor project uses this unsafe design, and it is very unlikely, given the Chernobyl accident that any reactor using a similar design will ever be built again. Secondly, in addition to the dangerous core design, soviet reactor designers omitted two important levels of containment from the Chernobyl reactor. Had those levels been present, it is doubtful that the Chernobyl accident would have had such serious consequences. All reactors built today include these added containment levels. Thus given the safer core design of modern reactors, the addition of numerous additional safety features in new reactor designs, and the presence of the added levels of containment, the likelihood of an accident that would cause a single radiation related casualty would be a once in the life of the universe event. Thus even if the worse case argument about Chernobyl consequences proves true, it does not in the slightest support the case against nuclear power.

In addition to Grossman, an account of the Chernobyl book was recently published by The Environmental News Service. Groosman's account was largely detaile free, but the It added more details about the Environmental News Service account is more detailed. Among the claims reported was the claim that between 1986 and 2005 of the 830,000 people who had participated in the Chernobyl clean up. between 112,000 and 125,000 had died. Although this seems like quite a lot, it should be noted that between 1986 and 2005 the life expectancy of men in the former Soviet Union dropped dramatically. The life expectancy of all Ukrainian men was 62.6 years, while the life expectancy of Russian men, most of whom had not been heavily exposed to Chernobyl related fallout, was 58.8 years.

A United Nations Development Program report stated that the reason for the increased deaths included
rise in self-destructive behaviour, especially among men.
Among self destructive behaviors listed were alcoholism which basically doubled after the Soviet collapse, drug misuse and suicides. In addition the transition to a market economy in the former Soviet Union had produced a great deal of economic displacement, an a significant increase increase in poverty, lowering even further the already low standard of living in the former Soviet Union. Thus the reported deaths of people, mainly men, who died alleged consequence of the Chernobyl accident must be view within the context of the actual death rate of men in the former Soviet Union between 1986 and 2005. Thus a report that by 2005 15% of any group of men working in the former Soviet Union were dead, would probably be considered typical, and perhaps unexpectedly low.

I do not regard this post as a comprehensive review of the study Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, But I am suggesting, that before its arguments and conclusions can be relied on, they need to vetted by well informed, critical reviewers, who are not inclined to accept invalid and unscientific arguments.


donb said...

It would be interesting to use the same "methods" to see how many cancer-related deaths are caused each year by radiation released from fossil fuel power plants around the world. Oh, by the way, those releases are continuous (not one-time events), and mostly of long-lived isotopes, so one would need to total up releases for the past century or so. And don't forget to throw in releases of chemical carcinogens as well.

Robert Hargraves said...

is a presentation on "Fear" from my course. Page 61 starts an analysis of the Chernobyl Forum report -- the most credible source. I show results with and without LNT.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

I love your writing. Thank you and Charles for such interesting and well written articles.

Unfortunately, to my disappointment, the URL above doesn't work.


Charles Barton said...

Anon Robert;s link does work, but it is a very large file and it takes a good while to load.

neil craig said...

I think "Yablokov and his associates may have a bias toward the confirmation of hypotheses that he believes to be true" is unnecesarily courteous. We all have a bias of that sort & the best of us try to take account of it.

What this book has is, at the very best, cherry picking of random data & a complete ignorance of the subject. I say cherry picking "at best" since that assumes that the data whose sources don't appear to be given in a checkable form, actually say what they are claimed to in context. If that were not so it would certainly be very far from the first time "environmentalists" have faked figures. It is up to the author to provide the raw data - a point which we have also seen in the probably marginally more scientific global warming debate recently.

For him to claim equal figures from the US certainly shows a remarkable degree of ignorance of where the radiation went & suggests the effect if genuine is seasonal. On such "evidence" people used to burn witches.

The problem for the Luddite movement is that if the LNT theory were correct the predictions they made of 500,000 deaths would have happened & it would be one of the "worst technical catastrophe(s) in human history". In fact, as the UN report of 2000 makes clear total deaths were under 50 meaning that most days on the US roads there is a "worse technical disaster" than has at any time happened in human history!

The UN report of 2000 said was the main health effect was depression caused by the scare & by people being relocated & by the authorities encouraging 10s of thousands of needless abortions. Which means that in the "greatest technical disaster in human history" the deaths from the disaster were tiny compared to the deaths caused by the promotion of anti-nuclear hysteria.

Of which this book is part.

The evidence tagainst the LNT theory & for hormesis would be overwhelming if there were any actual evidence for LNT in the first place to be overwhelmed but there simply isn't. Professor Cohen, who you quote, found in his definitive study that the beneficial effect of radiation hormesis was more than half the damaging effect of smoking. Much of the evidence for hormesis is linked here & is being expanded as I find more (for balance there is also an empty space for evidence to support LNT awaiting somebody who can produce some)

P.Schockweiler said...

take into account an amazing piece of work, independent and strong document on the after effects of the Chernobyl accident

more reliable than the rigged WHO reports that claime "a dozen" deaths related to the Chernobyl disaster

Charles Barton said...

P.Schockweiler why should i believe a politically motivated, politically commissioned "Green" attack on scientific research, any more than I believe other politically motivated attacks on science?

carl said...


Robert- Thanks so much for sharing your work! Finally all the data in one place, and lo and behold, a URL in the bottom-left of almost every slide. Couldn't have done it better myself.

rui said...

I can't stand conspiracy "theorists" either.
But if I understand well, you think that the New York Academy of Science publishes some "obscure" and biased and flawed book (like that)... about which doesn't exist so far any scholarly review, but you know that it must be biased and flawed, not because you read it (its quite expensive...may be its another conspiracy to "hide the truth" from "the people"...) but because someone else( whom you despise -intellectually, I assume- and apparently not a schollar)found that it is valuable...
and one of the contributers of the book, well... it does not mean that everything he says is false, BUT... he probably is on the pay of Greenpeace...

Charles Barton said...

rui this review, raised questions about how claims of knowledge about Chernobyl casualties were being made, what the possible flaws in those knowledge claims might be, and some other evidence that those knowledge claims were mistaken. I used Dr. Grossman's very flawed review because no better was available. To the extent Dr. Grossman's review can be assumed to reflected the original text, it would appear that the original research, was seriously flawed.

Charles Barton said...

rul, Greenpeace would not pay for research which concluded that there were few Chernobyl related casualties. i have not argued that there is a conspiracy here, but Greenpeace ideology and money probably have played a role in the publication of this flawed work.

nikky said...


please bear with me citing the Preface to Fear from

The most significant obstacle to nuclear power is the public’s fear.

People fear

* invisible radiation, cancer, and mutations
* nuclear power plant melt-downs
* hazardous waste
* nuclear weapons, and
* terrorism.

None of these are totally unjustified, but the risks are very small, especially compared to life’s other risks.

I would like to submit that there's another important source of intense antagonism among the public, which is left entirely out of the equation:

* Severe and historically well founded distrust towards the people and organizations with vested financial or political interests in nuclear development.

Contrary to the risks mentioned in the document, this problem can't be simply waved away with half baked technological arguments. The industry's record as regards ethics - do not cheat, do not kill, do not conduct medical experiments on humans, do not get involved in political wheeling and dealing, don't do to others what you don't want done to you - is quite appalling, to put it mildly. Enthusiastic proponents' incessant denial doesn't do any good either.

I do contend that any treatise on above subject which fails to seriously take these considerations into account is doomed to futility. Naturally, if the presentation's goal is primarily propagandistic, it's a different matter.

Fran├žois R. said...

" Thus given the safer core design of modern reactors, the addition of numerous additional safety features in new reactor designs, and the presence of the added levels of containment, the likelihood of an accident that would cause a single radiation related casualty would be a once in the life of the universe event." : Interestingly, there was a second time in 25 years. Ask the people of Fukushima.

Rick K. said...

The Fukushima death toll from radiation is zero. Two or three workers were killed as a result of mechanical accidents from the tsunami, not radioactivity.

Even the black swan event of an earthquake 32 times larger than expected together with the largest tsunami recorded did not create a catastrophic release of radiation beyond the power plant fence.

The Soviets mishandled the aftermath of Chernobyl by not sequestering milk for a few months and not distributing iodine pills. The I-131 disintegrated a millon-fold in 50 days, so a short term intervention could have dramatically reduced thyroid cancers.

Azrudi Mustapha said...

Dear Francois,

I hope you forgot to read the phrase "new reactor designs" before you replied, because if you didn't, that would undermine your credibility.


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