Twenty years after the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant turned areas of Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine into apocalyptic wastelands, disagreements over the disaster’s long-term death toll continue to make it difficult to put a human value on the catastrophe.
“Complete evaluation of the human health consequences of the Chernobyl accident is…likely to remain an almost impossible task, such that the true extent of morbidity and mortality resulting may never be fully appreciated,” reads a report published this month by Greenpeace International.
The Greenpeace report, issued to rebut a World Health Organization (WHO) report, also published this month, claims that 4,000 people are currently afflicted with thyroid cancer caused by the Chernobyl meltdown and that 9,000 will eventually succumb to the illness brought on by radiation poisoning. Greenpeace alleges that the WHO report and a second report released by the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAAE) underestimate the mortality resulting from the meltdown. The Greenpeace document offers a death-count of at least 93,000 and possibly far higher, an estimate derived from Russian and Belarusian research.
According to Greenpeace campaigner Ivan Blokov, the narrow focus of the WHO and IAEA reports reveal a lack of sensitivity to the problem, as well as a self-serving desire to underplay the dangers of nuclear power.
“An outcome [of underreporting casualty data] is that people can feel that nuclear energy is safe,” Blokov said. “However, nuclear energy is not safe, and an accident similar to Chernobyl can happen at any moment. It’s not a question of whether it happens or not, it’s a question of when it happens and where.”
Greenpeace cites several other problems with the WHO and IAEA reports. For one, the environmental group says, the WHO and IAEA reports only include data from papers published in English and in peer-reviewed journals. Secondly, Greenpeace claims those reports did not take into account the 20-year latency period for thyroid cancer, the biggest radiation-induced killer in the areas affected by Chernobyl, and therefore the number of potential future deaths were underreported by a large degree. The difficulty of tracking other fatal conditions such as immune system disorders and cardiovascular illnesses also put the WHO statistics into question, according to Greenpeace.
Lastly, Greenpeace’s attack claims the WHO report focuses on people living in very close proximity to the disaster, while the report emphasizes the broad scope of the fallout, looking at research from across Europe.
A spokesman for the WHO, Gregory Hartl, said in a press statement that the two sets of data simply provide answers to two different questions and are not comparable.
“The Greenpeace report is looking at all of Europe, whereas our report looks at only the most affected areas of the three most affected countries,” he said. “The WHO felt it had recourse to the best national and international scientific evidence and studies when it came up with its estimates of [up to] 9,000 excess deaths for the most affected areas. We feel they’re very sound.”
Originally published April 25, 2006