It concerned me to read the anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott, writing in the Herald last week, citing a book that claimed 985,000 deaths could be linked to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear station explosion. Caldicott acknowledged this work lacked peer review.
I was born in the 1960s and grew up believing that the word “radiation” had an infinitely dangerous meaning. So I was sceptical about nuclear power. It wasn’t until 1992, when I started to study the health effects of the Chernobyl accident, that I began to question that view.
Starting my journey from science fiction to scientific fact, I established the Chernobyl Tissue Bank in 1998 with one of the world’s pre-eminent thyroid pathologists to give scientists access to properly curated and documented human samples. This would enable better understanding of the effects of a nuclear accident, with the aim of creating scientific evidence to guide our opinions of the risks and benefits of nuclear power.
Yet more than 30 years after the accident, some misguided individuals and organisations are still peddling conspiracy theories. Let’s start with some facts.
Human beings inhabit a naturally radioactive world. If we had not evolved protective mechanisms to deal with the effects of natural radiation, we wouldn’t be here.
We will all be exposed to between 2 and 3 milliSievert (mSv) of radiation every year from our natural environment. We all ingest about 2 micrograms of uranium every day, and uranium is present in shampoos and sea water.
While we accept the individual risk associated with the use of radiation for medical diagnosis and treatment, there seems to be less general acceptance of exposure to much lower levels of radiation when it is associated with nuclear power plant accidents.
While some of those who were children at the time of the Chernobyl accident did receive large doses of radiation to the thyroid gland, the average dose to residents in Belarus and Ukraine who lived in the areas closest to the reactor between 1986 and 1995 was 10mSv, or the equivalent of one whole body CT scan, over nine years.
In terms of health consequences directly caused by radiation exposure, 146 early responders received doses high enough to result in acute radiation syndrome, and 28 of these died as a result of their exposure.
A further 19 have died since, but many of these deaths were associated with lifestyle choices, such as smoking, drinking and driving cars.
It is estimated that some 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer in those who were exposed as children may eventually result. But thyroid cancer is curable, ironically using high doses of the same radioactive isotope that caused the cancer in the first place. We can predict about 160 deaths from these 16,000 cases.
The World Health Organisation estimated that there may be 4000 further cases of cancer in the workers involved in the clean-up of the Chernobyl reactor site. These workers received larger doses than the population living near the reactor.
However, 33 years after the accident, there has been no observed increase in solid cancers in these workers. There is a report of a slight increase in one form of leukaemia in one group of workers, but the numbers are small, and the increase is not significant and restricted to one of the four groups under study only. There is considerable discussion whether these cases are attributable to radiation exposure or some other cause.
The major difference between the scientific facts and the urban myths around Chernobyl is that the science is concerned with attribution, rather than association. Death is inevitable for all us, but what kills you can be attributed to many different things.
So why should we reallocate public funds towards properly conducted scientific studies, only to ignore them in favour of conspiracy theories?
If you want our planet’s future to be decided by scientific fact instead of urban myth, including using zero-emissions nuclear energy, it’s important to look at nuclear risks in a clear-eyed and objective way.
In the interests of reducing risk for current and future generations, it’s time to ditch the fear campaigns and get behind nuclear power.
Gerry Thomas is a professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London.