Reassessing the Chernobyl death toll

Dr Ian Fairlie argues that the health impacts of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are continuing and are not taken into account by governments and health agencies.

ResponsibleSci blog, 25 April 2016

April 26th marks the 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

In 2005, a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency /World Health Organisation (IAEA/WHO) had stated “The magnitude and scope of the disaster, the size of the affected population, and the long-term consequences make it, by far, the worst industrial disaster on record. Chernobyl unleashed a complex web of events and long-term difficulties, such as massive relocation, loss of economic stability, and long-term threats to health in current and, possibly, future generations…”

This year a new report, commissioned by Friends of the Earth Austria, funded by the Government of Vienna and authored by myself, indicates that the adverse effects from Chernobyl are continuing. 

This report is an update of The Other Report on Chernobyl, or TORCH, which had provided an assessment of the health evidence up to 2006, independent of the pro-nuclear IAEA. Since then, thousands of scientific articles have been published on these issues, as listed on academic databases such as PubMed, Medline, Science Direct, British Library and Science Citation Index. Hence my new report, known as TORCH-2016, (120 pages, ~200 references) updates the previous edition by drawing on this new evidence.

It is important to note that the accident had many consequences, including economic, ecological, social and political effects. TORCH-2016 focuses on the health effects, and clearly shows they were and are manifold, severe, widespread, and long-lasting – in a word, devastating – contrary to a recent article in Scientific American.

The main findings of TORCH-2016 are:

  • The Chernobyl accident will cause approximately 40,000 fatal cancers in Europe over the next 50 years.
  • The accident has caused 6,000 thyroid cancer cases to date, with 16,000 more expected.
  • 5 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia still live in areas highly contaminated by radioactivity from the accident (>40 kBq/m2).
  • 400 million people live in less contaminated areas (>4 kBq/m2).
  • 37% of Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout was deposited on Western Europe.
  • 42% of Western Europe’s land area was contaminated by this fallout.
  • Increased levels of radiogenic thyroid cancers are expected in Western European countries as a result of the accident.
  • Increased levels of radiogenic leukemias, cardiovascular diseases, and breast cancers due to the accident have been confirmed.
  • New evidence has come to light of radiogenic birth defects, mental health effects and diabetes due to the accident.
  • New evidence has also become available that children living in contaminated areas suffer radiogenic illnesses.

The headline estimate of 40,000 future cancer deaths is derived from the collective dose estimate of 400,000 person-sieverts by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). This is multiplied in TORCH-2016 by the currently accepted risk of fatal cancer from radiation, which is 10% per sievert, to arrive at an expected 40,000 fatal cancers in future. This is a valid routinely-used estimation method using the official linear no-threshold (LNT) model of radiation risks. The 40,000 figure is the same order of magnitude as other academic estimates, such as Cardis (2015).

Lessons from Chernobyl

The problem with nuclear power is that it is a supremely unforgiving technology: when things go wrong – as at Chernobyl (and Fukushima) – they can go very wrong indeed. Contaminating over 40% of Europe and causing the early deaths of an estimated 40,000 people are pretty disastrous.

It is vital that governments and international agencies learn from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. Regrettably, a few governments, including the UK Government, have decided to ignore the lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima and are planning or constructing more nuclear power stations.


In 2005, the IAEA/WHO stated “What the Chernobyl disaster has clearly demonstrated is the central role of information and how it is communicated in the aftermath of radiation or toxicological incidents. Nuclear activities in Western countries have also tended to be shrouded in secrecy. The Chernobyl experience has raised the awareness among disaster planners and health authorities that the dissemination of timely and accurate information by trusted leaders is of the greatest importance.”

While this is undoubtedly correct, it raises the vexed question of trust in governments and international agencies, which, for many people, does not exist or has been eroded after Chernobyl and Fukushima. To re-establish that trust will be difficult. At a minimum, it will require the following steps.

First, governments need to make clear to their citizens that they will consider safer energy options that do not have the potential for another Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Second, a formal dialogue needs to be set up between agencies such as IAEA, WHO and national governments on the one hand and various NGOs/health charities on the other for exchanges of views on radiation risks and energy policies.

Third, WHO should no longer be required to have its reports on radiation matters vetted by the IAEA, as presently required under the 1959 agreement between the two UN agencies. The particular concern here is that the IAEA is mandated to promote nuclear power.

Fourth, UN agencies WHO, UNSCEAR and IAEA should be required to have scientists independentof nuclear agencies, including those from environmental and health NGOs, as members of their main committees.

Fifth, these agencies should be required to consult on their draft reports, including the convening of meetings with scientists from environmental and health NGOs.

Dr Ian Fairlie is an independent consultant on radiation in the environment with degrees in chemistry and radiation biology. His doctoral studies at the Imperial College (UK) and at Princeton University (USA) examined the health effects of nuclear waste technologies. Dr Fairlie has been a consultant to the UK Government and was Scientific Secretary to the UK Government’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters. His website is

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