"Myth of Chernobyl Suffering Exposed"?

Philip Webber responds to an article by Anthony Browne in the Observer. The newspaper declined to print either this response or a condensed version.

Article from SGR Newsletter 24, March 2002

Anthony Browne's article: "'Myth' of Chernobyl suffering exposed" which alleged that "relocation and hand-outs have caused more illness than radiation, a new UN study concludes" (Observer, 6 January 2002) creates a very misleading and unfortunate impression of the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. Coincidentally with the UN report "The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident - A Strategy for Recovery" I have been reviewing the potential impacts of a nuclear accident or possible sabotage as part of my work with Scientists for Global Responsibility. Rather shockingly, after 4 days have elapsed, the radiation impacts of a serious nuclear accident resulting in the vapourisation and release of around half of the reactor core, are worse than the fallout from a one megaton nuclear bomb! This is because a reactor as part of its normal operation accumulates a large inventory of long lived radioactive isotopes.

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear plant accident we have had so far. As time goes on we should expect additional accidents, and now, with the reawakening of the realisation of the possibility of deliberate attack or sabotage, nuclear plant safety and risk is a key issue for modern society to seriously re-consider. The nuclear industry was trying to dismiss some of the effects of the Chernobyl release as "radiation phobia" as early as 1987 - that sort of loose talk is nothing new. However, the OECD themselves estimated the excess deaths due to Chernobyl radiation (in the Russian area) as around 670. Other estimates come up with figures towards the 5000 mark. This latest UN report (page 17) states that numbers of people designated as "permanently disabled" by Chernobyl now total 91,219 (2001 figure).

Applying the Chernobyl disaster to a nuclear plant in the UK would result in evacuation areas some 170 miles downwind and 60 miles across, or circular radiation evacuation zones of say 100 km (62 miles) across. However the fallout pattern would not be that tidy and could involve almost anywhere in the UK. Imagine such an area superimposed on the UK from one of over a dozen operating nuclear plants and the scale of the problem for a small island such as the UK is starkly visible and could require the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people for over a year (to where?).

Would anyone dare to suggest that if such a large number of people in the UK or perhaps the US felt "illness" as a result of this huge disruption, that this should be attributed to some kind of radiation "phobia"? That would be patronising in the extreme. Just imagine the lawsuits for damages. To suggest somehow that it would be better NOT to evacuate people is quite absurd.

In today's society you simply could not make people stay and they would have perfectly justifiable reasons for demanding to be evacuated and would have a prima facie case for claims for huge damages.

Nuclear plants - and even more so nuclear reprocessing plants such as Sellafield and Cap de la Hague on the North French coast, offer us benefits (electricity), at a cost and at a risk. The BNFL fiasco has shown very clearly that nuclear power is not only more expensive (due to massive decommissioning costs) but is also uninsurable by the private sector.

Turning to risk, a nuclear release such as Chernobyl has always been possible, it has just been thought so extremely unlikely as to not be worth planning for. The planes striking the twin towers should have changed that thinking for good.

The evacuation areas outlined above could apply to a successful act of sabotage of a nuclear plant. Deliberate sabotage or attack (and you don't need to crash a plane on a plant - there are lots of other very nasty sabotage scenarios which the nuclear industry are well aware of) could result in releases equivalent to a "Chernobyl" or in the case of a reprocessing plant such as Sellafield something up to 50 times worse and evacuation areas 7 times the length or diameter (see p1). The French have taken this threat very seriously and have deployed Crotale anti-aircraft missiles around their plant at Cap de la Hague - there is no similar approach being taken in the UK. And as reported only two weeks ago, as Sellafield is very near normal flight paths, a diversion to impact upon unprotected high level waste storage areas would be a matter of minutes - before any scrambled fighter plane could arrive.

In SGR we promote the appropriate uses of science and technology for an open and more fair society. As long ago as 1976, the Flowers Royal Commission on nuclear power concluded that nuclear safety required levels of security and secrecy that were in conflict with a democratic society. In 1981, Joseph Rotblat, now Nobel Laureate wrote in "Nuclear Radiation in Warfare" of the grave dangers of terrorist attack upon a nuclear plant.

Do we have to wait for another disaster, this time engineered deliberately or perhaps another "normal" accident, before we phase out nuclear power and urgently introduce low risk, low cost and environmentally beneficial renewable energy such as wind farms, solar, tide and wave energy? And other solutions to use energy more efficiently such as dispersed combined heat and power plants to replace polluting and wasteful centralised conventional electricity generation, more efficient public transport, better home insulation?

The other big international benefit on top of really dealing with the threat of devastating global climate change, is that gradually we would become less dependent upon on oil supplies controlled by potentially unstable states and thus increase energy security. We would also deal with a major contributor to world injustice - the primary use of the global atmosphere as a carbon dioxide dump by the US and the industrialised countries.

We have the technology, let's use it properly.

Phillip Webber is Vice-Chair of SGR.

Footnote: Only one letter (January 13) was published by the Observer in response to the original article. This was from the main author of the UN report Patrick Gray who made it clear that Anthony Browne's article was a "wholly misleading impression of the study's findings". Patrick Gray went on to say that what is needed is "a balanced and scientifically grounded debate on the implications of Chernobyl for humanity".