Fallout The Legacy of Chernobyl
BBC Radio 4 26 April 2011 20.00 - 20.40
"Listen again"

We provide this almost complete transcript of the programme content as a research resource.
The only omissions are of material that is not contentious.

In our opinion the programme failed to meet the BBC's own standards for accuracy and impartiality.
Notes on BBC editorial standards are at the foot of the page.

Programme content:

The BBC continuity announcer calls the programme "the real and surprising story" of Chernobyl.
It begins with historical clips of news broadcasts from April 1986.

Comments

      Nick Ross: but has the emotional and political fallout from Chernobyl been more damaging than the radiation? Ever since what is indisputably the world's worst nuclear accident, scientists and doctors have found themselves embroiled in an angry debate between pro- and anti-nuclear lobbyists. Even now there's deep controversy over a fundamental question: how many people died or have yet to die because of Chernobyl.

 

      The drama started, as at Fukushima, with a broken steam pipe. Power stations can't explode like a nuclear bomb - their raw materials aren't volatile enough, but when they're shut down they take time to cool off and old designs need running water to act as a refrigerant. [emphasis added]

The nuclear industry and its apologists want us to believe that nuclear criticality accidents can't happen, and that the explosion at Chernobyl and the explosions at Fukushima were caused by hydrogen. But Arnie Gundersen disagrees, and Chris Busby explains the chemistry, including evidence that Chernobyl was a criticality event, as shown by the ratios of Xenon isotopes found in 1986.

      But Chernobyl was only 2 years old not 40 like Fukushima. There was no earthquake in the Ukraine and no tsunami, just incompetence and cheap design. On April 26 night staff at reactor number 4 carried out a test that should have been completed before the plant was opened. They let so much heat build up that the water cooling system burst. In searing temperatures and pressures H2O separated into hydrogen and oxygen causing an explosion of gas that blew off the roof. It all sounds so familiar.

 

     clips from recent broadcasts about Fukushima.

 

     Ross: But while the reactors in Japan had several layers of shielding, at Chernobyl the roof was all that separated the doomed reactor from the outside world. With that roof gone hot graphite around the core was exposed to air and caught fire. Smoke billowed high into the atmosphere spreading radioactive isotopes over 75,000 square miles of Europe.
Anti-nuclear campaigners, who are now focusing their attention on Japan, believe there has been a huge death toll from Chernobyl. It's been widely reported that half a million people have already died with many more likely to become victims in the future. The radiation has been blamed for a huge range of illnesses as well as still births and deformities two decades after the catastrophe.

Only 75,000 square miles of Europe? This is wrong. This article shows that the 75,000 square miles (195,000 square km.) is the area which the Chernobyl catastrophe contaminated at a level greater than 37,000 Becquerels per square meter of Caesium 137 (also expressed as 37 kiloBecquerels per square meter or 37kBq/sq.metre). 25% of the land contaminated at that level or more is outside the former Soviet Union - parts of northern Sweden, for example, were contaminated up to 120 kBq/sq.metre. UNSCEAR and UNESCO have published data for many countries - total area 30 million square miles - showing that Chernobyl fallout was effectively global in the northern hemisphere, so Ross was underestimating by a factor of 400 [30,000,000 / 75,000].
Anti-nuclear campaigners: This section sets in motion the dishonest claim that it's only anti-nuclear campaigners who believe the catastrophe has caused a serious decline in health. There are many epidemiologists, doctors and biologists who have seen the data, treated the diseases and done the research.

     Sound track with music and voice-over: "Baby Masha is fighting for her life She was born prematurely because her mother lives in an area contaminated by radioactivity. Thousands of people born after the disaster suffer from the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe."

If this was from a Greenpeace film, Ross didn't give its name nor a date. He did not say whether or not it cited any evidence to support its claims about the health impact of radioactive contamination - he dismissed it as fiction and anecdote.

     Ross: But is there evidence to substantiate the kind of claims made in that Greenpeace film? It's time to separate fact from fiction, science from anecdote. Not that the nuclear industry itself has been averse to propaganda of its own, but since Chernobyl it's been mostly on the defensive as I discovered by coincidence as I set off to travel to the Ukraine. Arriving at Heathrow I was next in the security queue to the emeritus chair of the UK Atomic Energy Agency, Lady Barbara Judge, and after hearing what I was up to she complained that Chernobyl was and remains the greatest stumbling block to the credibility of nuclear power.

It would be good to separate fact from fiction and science from anecdote but the programme failed, throughout, to give enough information to allow listeners to judge the status and credibility of any evidence of health effects other than thyroid cancer and acute radiation sickness.

     Barbara Judge: Chernobyl has closed down the nuclear industry for 25 years. We're continually fighting against the myth of Chernobyl. We're continually fighting against what people say happened in Chernobyl and what actually happened in Chernobyl.

 

     Ross: Alarmist stories about Chernobyl rankle with many doctors and scientists too. Professor Gerry Thomas is a leading medical scientist and expert in molecular pathology. She coordinates the Chernobyl tissue bank, a global project that monitors illness from the fallout. Talk to her about claims of malformed babies and 100,000 dead in Belarus alone and she gets outraged.

There are many studies and disease registry reports showing a wide range of effects including birth defects summarised in Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. (help with downloading)

      Thomas: That really is crazy. The fact that there has been cancer incidence in Belarus subsequent to the accident is not surprising because there is cancer incidence in this country (UK) and we weren't exposed to the radiation from Chernobyl. Cancer unfortunately is a natural consequence of life. A proportion of the population anywhere will die from cancer so to suggest that just taking baseline figures and deaths in a population from cancer and to equate that with radiation exposure is just quite simply wrong.

BBC programming has featured Professor Thomas many times since the Fukushima disaster. They regard her as an expert on radiation and health but here she denies that Britain was affected by Chernobyl. In fact the average land contamination in the United Kingdom was 1,400 Becquerels per square metre radioactive Caesium 137 (data from UNESCO and UNSCEAR). Sheep on some 300 farms are still subject to tests.
Professor Thomas has some expertise on thyroid cancer so she might be expected to know about a paper in the European Journal of Cancer (May 2001) showing a significant increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl accident. In Cumbria, the area receiving the heaviest fallout in the UK reported up to 40 kBq/sq.metre, the increase in incidence was much greater (more than 12-fold). The fact that Cumbria had some contamination levels at 40 kBq/sq.metre means that it was within Nick Ross's questionable definition of where the radioactivity settled.

     Ross: But if the reporting on Chernobyl has been inaccurate or fanciful some of the wilder claims have been fuelled by suspect science. Pr Thomas speaks for many when she voices frustration at what she sees as poor and alarmist research, some from official authorities in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Intense health monitoring is finding problems that look new but were almost certainly there unnoticed in the past.

Ross: But if the reporting on Chernobyl has been inaccurate or fanciful some of the wilder claims have been fuelled by suspect science. Pr Thomas speaks for many when she voices frustration at what she sees as poor and alarmist research, some from official authorities in
Which official authorities? Can the BBC, with all its resources and its Charter requirement to be balanced, not offer a single example?

     Thomas: You're talking about flawed experimental design, and therefore leading to bad science and the wrong conclusions being drawn. It's very important that in a scientific study you always have a control group to use as a comparison, then you can tell if there are real differences or if the differences you're seeing are just by chance, and in some of those studies certainly what they've seen is not a real difference. It isn’t statistically viable, it just happens to be an incidental finding.

in some of those studies? Which ones? Professor Thomas' statement suggests that some studies do show a real difference, but she doesn't discuss what significance this might have for public health.
To insist on control groups, as Thomas did, is to deny the utility of studying an event like Chernobyl at all. Professor Alexey Yablokov wrote in Chernobyl Consequences,

In independent investigations scientists have compared the health of individuals in various territories that are identical in terms of ethnic, social, and economic characteristics and differ only in the intensity of their exposure to radiation. It is scientifically valid to compare specific groups over time (a longitudinal study), and such comparisons have unequivocally attributed differences in health outcomes to Chernobyl fallout.

     Ross: What isn't in dispute is that 4 years after the accident doctors in the region began to notice an increase in the numbers of children and teenagers developing thyroid cancer. The increase was so fast and so alarming it couldn't just be due to better screening and diagnosis. Russian pathologist Dr Alexandr Abrosimov is a member of an international group of specialists which gathers regularly to examine thyroid tumors taken from children who were growing up near Chernobyl at the time of the disaster.

There is no dispute about the thyroid cancer increase, but there is a point to make about the phrase it couldn't just be due to better screening and diagnosis which the script writer has inserted here. One of the techniques nuclear apologists use to downplay Chernobyl's health impact is to claim that increased surveillance has led to increased diagnosis - look harder, find more. It is a standard response; it was made explicit in the 2006 BBC Horizon documentary Nuclear Nightmares, which had the same agenda as this radio programme and was found to be biased in a BBC Trust ruling. Further down this page you can see Viktor Sushko and Dmitri Bazeka tentatively suggesting that Chernobyl-related cancers might eventually become apparent in the general population (though Ross interviewed no-one who would speak to the rates of disease already found). Since Sushko and Bazeka are employed to monitor the health of the emergency workers, the look harder find more idea, already planted in listener's minds, appears to weaken their position.

     Abrosimov: invasive growth - typical folicular cancer.

 

     Ross: The Chernobyl tissue bank is coordinated from London and stores thousands of cancers removed from patients in Belarus Ukraine and parts of Russia. It’s a scientific treasure trove.

The tissue bank may be scientific treasure but in this context it's just a chance for the script to use the word "scientific" suggesting, as a propaganda technique, that the bank and its associated staff are scientific while everything else is anti-nuclear posturing.

     Virginia Livolsi: I thought that there would be an increase in thyroid lesions because of the radioactive Iodine.

 

     Ross: Dr Virginia Livolsi, who's an internationally acclaimed pathologist from the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

 

     Livolsi: We had Three Mile Island in the late 1970s and it was very interesting that immediately the Department of Health started to mobilise themselves to give children potassium iodide to saturate their thyroids […] That was not even thought of in Chernobyl.




Pr. Livolsi goes through an uncontentious account of the reasons for potassium iodide prophylaxis.

     Ross: In Poland I believe they did give the children …

     Livolsi: I believe they did but in Ukraine they didn't.

 

     Ross: It should have been a basic response to a nuclear accident. Radio iodine is short-lived but even small amounts can get concentrated in cows' milk which is why in Japan they quickly dispensed iodine tablets to children near Fukushima but in much of the Soviet Union childen were left without protection. Some who drank milk in 1986 became ill, with girls more vulnerable than boys. New York endocrinologist Professor Mike Tuttle specialises in thyroid cancer

 

     Tuttle: (summary) In Belarus I saw more children in one day than in my whole career.

     Ross: If the children had been given iodine as a preventive measure would they have got cancer?

     Tuttle: The short answer is no.

 

     Ross: the thyroid cancer epidemic has now been closely monitored for 20 years and is the starkest evidence of how far reaching radioactive pollution can be. At the Academy of Medical Science in Kiev, 60 miles south of Chernobyl, Prof. Mikhailo Tronko, Director of the Institute of Endocrinology, assembled a panel of doctors and researchers for me and delivered a presentation to lead me through what they now know.

… evidence of how far reaching radioactive pollution can be: Yes, but the evidence goes beyond what this programme included. Increases were reported not only in Britain (above) but also in the USA. And it's not only thyroid cancer - infant leukaemia increased sharply in several European countries as well, presenting a challenge to ICRP risk modelling. This is one of the many papers in the scientific literature ignored by Ross's programme.

     Tronko: Here we present the incidence of thyroid cancer in those who were children at the time of the accident. Before the Chernobyl accident the incidence was 0.06 per 100,000. In some areas incidence was 2.3 after the accident so we are talking about multiplying by 10x the incidence of cancer.

 

     Ross: That still makes thyroid cancer rare but in a big population it leads to big numbers. So just how many children were affected?

     Tronko: In our database in our institute we have 6049 children with thyroid cancer.

     Ross: How many people have died as a result of thyroid cancer?

     Tronko: As far as we know we are talking about six people who died. It's a very small percentage.

 

     Ross: That was the consensus from everyone I spoke to; 6 deaths which can't be disassociated from Chernobyl. Each was a tragedy but I was surprised that the death rate was so low.

…but his "consensus" would have collapsed if he'd spoken to other scientists in meeting the requirement for BBC programming to be balanced where controversial subjects are concerned. There is no consensus.

     Tronko: Somehow, thyroid cancer, unlike other cancers seen in childhood, is more curable. It can be treated by surgery and later on if some lesions are seen as metastases in the lungs or lymph they also can be found and they can be treated by radioactive iodine.

 

     Ross: But even curable cancer is highly distressing and I wanted to meet some of the patients, like Olma who has just had a second operation.

     Doctor?: She was born before Chernobyl accident 27 years old. Papillary thyroid carcinoma. During 1986 she was in Kiev.

     Ross: How did you discover that she had thyroid cancer?

     Olma through translator: I had a high temperature and during the medical examination patient was referred to our clinic for ultrasound which discovered thyroid cancer here.

     Ross: It is possible that your cancer was related to the accident at Chernobyl, at the power plant. Does that make you angry?

     Olma: I don't [feel] angry but in my childhood I had a certificate that I was polluted from Chernobyl.

     Ross: So this is a little identity card you carry.

     Olma: certificate that child who suffer from Chernobyl accident.

 

     Ross: So 6000 cancers, 6 of them fatal. There are many experts who are convinced that thyroid cancer will turn out to be the only demonstrable long term health legacy of Chernobyl. Prof Livolsi again.

Many experts do not share this view. Where's the balance?
The word demonstrable is crucial to this denial. It encodes the point that ICRP (the standard model of radiation risk) does not predict an observable increase in any disease at the doses delivered to the general public by Chernobyl fallout (around 3milliSieverts, or roughly the same as natural background). Since there is no dose too small to cause genetic mutation, ICRP would admit to a theoretical increase but they would say the numbers of cases would be too small to be attributed to the radiation.
Professor Yablokov, a member of the European Committee on Radiation Risk and a critic of the ICRP, addresses this in Chernobyl Consequences, p 2. Asking Why are the assessments of experts so different? he says There are several reasons, including that some experts believe that any conclusions about radiation-based disease requires a correlation between an illness and the received dose of radioactivity. We believe this is an impossibility because no measurements were taken in the first few days. Initial levels could have been a thousand times higher than the ones ultimately measured several weeks and months later. It is also impossible to calculate variable and “hot spot” deposition of nuclides or to measure the contribution of all of the isotopes, such as Cs, I, Sr, Pu, and others, or to measure the kinds and total amount of radionuclides that a particular individual ingested from food and water. A second reason is that some experts believe the only way to make conclusions is to calculate the effect of radiation based upon the total radiation, as was done for those exposed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the first 4 years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, research was forbidden. During that time more than 100,000 of the weakest died. A similar pattern emerged after Chernobyl. However, the USSR authorities officially forbade doctors from connecting diseases with radiation and, like the Japanese experience, all data were classified for the first 3 years.

     Livolsi: It’s now been 25 years and it does not seem as though any other organ system is going to be affected by malignant tumours. If we were going to start to see an epidemic of like breast cancer for instance or lung cancer or the kinds of cancers that are difficult to cure we should have started to see that by now, and we haven't.

 

     Ross: I'm heading by car from Kiev to Chernobyl - a distance of 60 miles or so. And never having gone to the site of the accident before I'm naturally a bit concerned - just how dangerous is radiation? Beside me is Vadim Chumak from the Ukraine Research Centre for Radiation Medicine who's responsible for monitoring emissions from the plant.

 

     Chumak: Ok so we are still traveling in Kiev and we are ? Chernobyl and I have with me a survey meter which can measure gamma radiation. While I was talking it showed point ten micro sieverts per hour. I can tell you that's absolutely normal background.

Chumak: Ok so we are still traveling in Kiev and we are ? Chernobyl and I have with me a survey meter which can measure gamma radiation. While I was talking it showed point ten micro sieverts per hour. I can tell you that's absolutely normal bYes it is.

     Ross: Vadim knows his stuff; he has to. His health and that of all those still working at Chernobyl relies on his expertise. In Vadim's view, people who know most about radiation are least scared of it. And, as he points out, many whole populations in some parts of the world are subjected to quite high levels of background radiation.

knows his stuff … - as you can see in the next few paragraphs in this column, Chumak's expertise is in question, although his name appears on a list of advisers for the World Health Organisation's new Agenda for Research on Chernobyl Health (read it and despair).

     Chumak: As far as I know the highest is Kerala state in India and it is about 50 millisieverts per hour.

The emphasis on milli is on the tape. It differentiates milli from micro (1 milliSievert = 1000 microSievert). And he did say per hour - we checked in disbelief, because there's something very odd about this conversation.

     Ross: So that's 50 times the level here

No it’s not. Maybe he heard 50milliSieverts and thought he remembered the figure Chumak gave earlier as 1milliSievert, but Chumak actually said point ten micro sieverts per hour.

     Chumak: It is 500 times.

Well at least Chumak has remembered that he said 0.1, not 1, and his arithmetic is good enough to show 50 is 500 times greater than 0.1 BUT, he's forgotten that the 0.1 in Kiev was microSieverts and the 50 in Kerala was milliSieverts and that 50mSv divided by 0.1 microSv is not 500 but 500,000. This is the radiation professional who knows his stuff.

     Ross: Five hundred times ....

So Ross (apparently) accepted the correction. We must suppose he didn't realise Chumak had made two simultaneous errors, confusing not only the dose units but the time period as well. He has taken a dose per year and called it a dose per hour - an 8760-fold error.
But it gets worse. According to this study in Health Physics, median outdoor levels of radiation in the coastal strip of Karunagappalli, Kerala are "more than 4 mSv a year". This study of genetic anomalies in high background parts of Kerala has data from WHO showing mean levels of 650 millirad/year (mR/yr). This is 6.5mSv per year, in reasonable agreement with the Health Physics paper, and doses were also measured as part of the study.
So where did Chumak get his figure of 50 milliSieverts? It could be this pro-nuclear World Nuclear Association site, but the Health Physics paper above says "rates are as high as 70 mSy a year in some locations on the coast". That's a bit higher still, but it's not for the whole of Kerala, just the high background parts. On the other hand the chat between Ross and Chumak has given the impression that the whole Kerala population is subject to 50 millisieverts. If the mean is 6.5, then 50 or 70 are not representative values - in other words they are cherry-picked Mean doses are the parameter of interest in epidemiological studies, so this is not a trivial mistake - there is some consistent misdirection going on here. Once we correct for the time period mistake and ignore the cherrypicking, mean doses in the high background parts of Kerala turn out to be only 7 times Chumak's measurement at Kiev. (6.5 milliSv per year = 6500 microSv. Divide by 8760 hours in a year = 0.74 microSv per hour.)

     Ross .... and people are not showing any signs of elevated risk of cancer or other problems?
     Chumak: Surprisingly not.

 
 
Wrong again. The genetic anomalies study cited above compared a high Natural Background Radiation part of Kerala with a control region; it shows children in the more radioactive areas were three times as likely to have Down's Synrome and they had elevated rates of other genetic anomalies.
What is surprising is that this radiation protection professional (responsible for monitoring emissions from the plant and for the health of all those still working at Chernobyl) didn't seem to realise that
if people in Kerala truly were getting 50mSv an hour (which is what he said) then every year they'd get 22,000 times more radiation than the internationally recognised limit for exposing a nuclear industry worker (20mSv).
Even more questionable is the fact that the script writers let this nonsense be broadcast. It would be naïve to think there's an innocent explanation. There's so much nonsense in this programme and it's so consistent in its attempt to rubbish legitimate concerns that we have to conclude it's deliberate dishonesty.

     Ross: But nobody's now taking chances at Chernobyl. 20 miles before we get there we reach a barrier like an officious rural border crossing. No-one gets in without official passes, signed waivers and an escort, in our case an army officer. The exclusion zone even looks like a different world. We pass deserted hamlets where nature has reclaimed the streets and trees grow through the houses. Soon there's the first indication of [where] we're going - giant long-redundant power lines and then the abandoned facility. First, two never completed reactor buildings that were due to be numbered 5 and 6 and finally the unmistakable hulk of reactor 4. Its once iconic red and white tower is faded to grey. Its concrete sarcophagus is plainly crumbling. Construction teams are laying tracks so that a vast new enclosure can be rolled across to cover it.

 

     Ross on site: So this is about as close to the power station as we can get to Unit 4 without actually going in it. What's the reading now?

 

     Chumak: It's 1.28 microSv per hr. So 13 times higher than in Kiev.


That at least is plausible.

     Ross: And does that worry you?

 

     Chumak: Unless I stay for the rest of my life, not.

1.28 microSv per hour gives 11.2mSv per year, so not much more than half the annual maximum worker dose. Why would he worry? Perhaps he knows that this external gamma dose isn't the real source of the risks and that if he stayed in the Zone he'd be inhaling and ingesting Uranium and other internal hazards.

     Ross: I'm intrigued that Vadim isn't worried. He comes here time and again, often going into the stricken reactor itself. It's not that he discounts the dangers; he, more than almost anyone understands the perils of ionising radiation. But most of us over-estimate it, what one Ukrainian expert calls radiophobia. So how can we know if a few people were victims or thousands were?

 

     Chumak: My problem is that for instance each year a certain amount of people die from heart attacks. Every year a certain amount of people die from cancer and this number is quite large. Definitely we cannot point with our finger [and] say this guy died from Chernobyl and this guy died from a heart attack not related to Chernobyl. What we doing in our research we are trying to identify the small extra number on top of spontaneous effects and for some diseases we can do it, like for thyroid cancer in children because it was zero background, virtually zero background, it was quite a number of thyroid cancers; for children it's obvious. For leukaemia it's almost marginal so it's not statistically significant. That's my problem.

 

     Ross: So we will never know if hardly anybody died as a direct result of the radiation from Chernobyl other than the early victims, or whether thousands did.

 

     Chumak: Definitely some people die. There's no question but I can't tell you how many and I'm afraid nobody can tell you.



Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment shows 985,000 deaths attributable to Chernobyl by 2005.
Another approach is this method based on Martin Tondel's cancer study of the increase of cancer in northern Sweden. The finding in that study is that cancer increased in step with levels of fallout. For every 100 kiloBecquerels of Caesium per sq.metre, cancer increased by 11%. That was cancer incidence, but a factor for mortality could be found quite easily (perhaps use the 40% figure Cardis uses later in this broadcast). Then we'd need to extrapolate beyond the end of Tondel's study, because that cut off at 1996, ten years after the accident.

     Ross: We do know 2 people died in the explosion at Chernobyl. 134 engineers and emergency workers were exposed to extremely high dose radiation of whom 28 died within 4 months and 19 from various causes have died since. Add 6 deaths through thyroid cancer, that's 50 or 60 fatalities in total. Anything beyond 50 or 60 some say is simply speculation. But a group of local doctors and scientists insists new evidence is emerging. In the days that followed the accident the Soviet authorities created the 20 mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl and eventually evacuated 135,000 people. But over the last quarter of a century 200,000 workers have been drafted in to seal the doomed reactor and clear away the worst of the contamination. They're called liquidators. Doctors monitoring those who were there in the first few months say the proportion of those with health problms far exceeds the norm. At the Research Centre for Radiation Medicine I was introduced to liquidators attending a clinic run by Prof. Viktor Sushko. His first patient had been given the unenviable task of monitoring radiation levels on the roof of the wrecked reactor immediately after the accident. He was there for days, and then back on site routinely for several years.

 

     Sushko: This is Stradamov Valeri Mihailovich. He is 66 years old. He and his group were the first to estimate the radiation exposure.

     Ross: (to patient) Do you blame radiation for ill health since?

      [Professor Sushko? translating] Not all of them but part of them I'm sure it deals with the increase of radiation. (sic)

     Ross: what do you think was caused by radiation ?

      [translating] it was developed a cataract, and the lens was changed and the retina of the eye needs operation too … and thyroid goitre,…. and these diseases according to the opinion of our patient deals with the influence of radiation. And I agree with him …. From their group of about 13 persons today lived 6

     Ross: the 7 who died; what did they die of?

      [translating] one person from this 7 died from cancer. [For] others, the main reason was cardio vascular disease.

     Ross: Stradamov and his colleagues were high dose liquidators and there's broad agreement that excessive radiation can cause cataracts and leukaemia. There's less consensus about illnesses in general. Prof. Sushko's next patient was Vladimir Bori.

     Bori speaking in Russian or Ukrainian

     Ross: Vladimir tells me he was one of over a thousand bus drivers drafted in the night after the accident to evacuate the town of Pripyat, 2 miles from the stricken reactor.

      Sushko(?) translating: He understands that this is a risk for his health but he have to help these people and their families and so on.

     Ross: And what has your health been like since then?

      [translating] He very quickly begin to be tired. When he come for medical care he's typical liquidator, he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

 

      Ross: But Vladimir admits he's a heavy smoker - which is a much more likely cause of lung disease. And some western experts suspect that local doctors are more inclined to see a causal link with radiation than do scientists from abroad, who tend to be more sceptical.

Dismissing this man's respiratory disease as more likely caused by smoking is based on the flawed ICRP radiation risk model and ignores the evidence brought together in Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe … (p. 92). The summary of respiratory disease studies (section 5.5) shows increases immediately after 1986 in all age groups including new-borns. Rates generally correlated with levels of fallout. The only study where we can see a control group of smokers (see para.9 p.96) shows smoking is not as great a factor as radioactive pollution. Professor Yablokov concludes: "For children of the Japanese hibakusha who were not irradiated directly, the incidence of respiratory system illnesses was higher compared to controls some decades after the bombardments (Furitsu et al., 1992). If such an increase is observed after a single short-term irradiation, it is possible to assume that the Chernobyl irradiation will cause increased respiratory system illnesses over the next several generations." This is not smoking-related.

     Ross: Prof Sushko on the other hand insists there are correlations too.

Professor Sushko is a prolific researcher. Maybe people like him, who are on the ground, have a better feel for the reality than people who live thousands of miles away.

      He keeps tabs on 5000 liquidators comparing them with people who've never visited Chernobyl. He and colleagues are increasingly convinced that as the years go by more evidence is emerging of general malaise as well as leukaemia and other cancers.

     Sushko: Today our scientists find evidence-based excess. It's [ of ] breast cancer, all other kinds of solid cancers need more and more studies and of course the studies need funding.

 

     Ross: But you're saying there is some evidence of increased breast cancer?

     Sushko: Yes

     Ross: And there is a statistically significant increase?

     Sushko: Yes of course but when we speak about medical consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe it's not only cancer. It's a general decreasing of health of population who have undergone the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe firstly cardio vascular pathologies and of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

 

     Ross: Pr Sushko's view is widely held in Kiev. It was scientists at the Research Centre for Radiation Medicine there who first identified the problem of thyroid cancer among children. One of the researchers, Dmitri Bazeka is now deputy director of the centre and today he is trying to persuade the world that his unit is ahead of other scientists with their liquidator studies too.

 

     Bazeka: Now we have so-called statistical radiobiological data about the increase of leukaemia and some cancers like breast cancer in female clean-up workers, excess of cancer of the bladder and some data about the tendency to increase of lung cancer so in total the risks of all cancers increase 11%.

     Ross: Eleven - that's easily statistically significant then.

     Bazeka: Yes.

 

     Ross: Little of this has yet been accepted by the international scientific community. Pr Bazeka and his colleagues say time will prove them right. He points to survivors of the atom bomb at Hiroshima where raised incidence of leukaemia was later followed by higher levels of solid cancers too.

     Bazeka: So if the risks are the same for leukaemia there are in radiobiology some rules and one of these rules is if you have leukaemia then you will have excess of cancers. But I speak only about the clean-up workers. For the general population we haven't shown that.

 

     Ross: So what does he think about the claims by anti-nuclear groups who say that the radiation leak has already claimed thousands of lives throughout the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and that many more will die in the future?

It is certainly true that anti-nuclear groups draw attention to the kind of evidence Ross refers to, but this script repeatedly fails to say what the evidence is, who wrote it, what the scientific credentials of the authors are and where it's published. So the suggestion is that the campaigners are making it up.

     Bazeka: We can't see at the moment any statistical evidence on the increase of cancers in all the population. But if the years will come and we will have more statistical power we can make the proper conclusion in future.

 

     Ross: So even after 25 years, attempting to quantify the fatalities is still elusive. No-one likes uncertainty. Eight years ago the United Nations gathered a hundred experts from around the world and after 2 years that Chernobyl Forum did come up with figures, albeit cautious ones. The radiation leak might cause 4000 fatal cancers in the most contaminated areas. Looking at Europe as a whole the figures rise. One of the Forum's principal authors is Professor Elizabeth Cardis, an expert on the impact of radiation on public health at the Centre for Research and Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona. She acknowledged there are huge uncertainties in the figures. But extrapolating from atom bomb survivors Professor Cardis now predicts there might in all be 40,000 extra cancers leading to 16,000 premature deaths.

The Chernobyl Forum report is a desk review of a subset of the available evidence and its compilation by the World Health Organisation was subject to the constitutional and institutional bias of the International Atomic Energy Agency which holds a power of veto over the WHO. The Report admits that many health conditions have worsened since 1986 but says they cannot be attributed to radiation - an opinion which, of course, depends on the flawed ICRP risk model. It also admits that there have been few studies of non-thyroid cancers:- "... it must be concluded that, while there is no evidence of increased risk of non-thyroid solid cancers resulting from Chernobyl, the possibility of such increased risk cannot be ruled out." Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially when studies of cancer in Belarus and Sweden are omitted.
The BBC knows that many scientists are critical of the Chernobyl Forum report. For example, during LLRC's appeal to the BBC Trust about the BBC Horizon documentary Nuclear Nightmares an Editorial Adviser gave the Trust some extracts from a conference organised by the German Society for Radiation Protection:
Many physicians and scientists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, the countries worst hit, and from several other European countries at some distance from Chernobyl have come to entirely different conclusions [to those of the Chernobyl Forum]
The Adviser told the Trust these were two views which could not be reconciled or umpired, and therefore the decision would have to be on whether the BBC's impartiality standard required the programme to include an alternative view.

     Cardis: We've actually done a number of est … of guesstimations, basically … and these really were meant to give an order of magnitude of the potential impact. 40,000 cases of cancer sounds like a lot but if you compare it to the normal incidence of cancer in Europe it's less than 0.01% of all cancers that occur for other reasons in Europe.

Pr. Cardis here relies on the ICRP model.

     Ross: In that report, that you co-signed, you said that we've got to be careful about taking Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a baseline because the applicability of risk models derived from other populations with different backgrounds as well as being exposed to much higher radiation dose rates is unclear, and moreover small differences in the assumptions about risks from exposure to low level radiation doses can lead to large differences in the predictions of increased cancer burdens. So you're really hedging this around - these are guesses rather than predictions. Is that right?

     Cardis: Yes. They're educated guesses.

Those are among the most trivial of the problems with the ICRP risk model. We have already given others on this page. In essence, ICRP is based on Hiroshima and Nagasaki studies which are silent on the effects of internalised radioactivity and it uses absorbed dose quantities which all competent authorities recognise are virtually meaningless at the cellular and molecular level. Earlier complaints have made the BBC well aware of this problem and a BBC Trust ruling (responding to an LLRC complaint) admitted that the scientific debate about it must be accommodated.

     Ross: And I have spoken to some physicists and medics who say that low dose radiation may not harm us at all. In fact we've evolved to survive in a world and flourish in a world that is surrounded by radiation. What's your view of that? Is there a straight line increase - as the dose increases the danger increases?

Now he's talking about the other end of the debate - the people like Wade Allison who argue that ICRP are too cautious and should let us be exposed to 70 times as much radiation as the limit for members of the public defined by the European Basic Safety Standards Directive 96/29. They think there's a threshold dose below which no harm is done. Others believe that small doses are beneficial. We're not going into the arguments here; we'll just say that, if Ross is going to acknowledge one challenge to ICRP he must acknowledge the scientific evidence that risks are greater than ICRP predicts; this is demanded by the BBC's own editorial standards on impartiality and by the same BBC Trust ruling

The Committee, having considered the programme’s evidence for suggesting the possibility of a threshold to the LNT model, found that, while the programme provided a powerful presentation of the evidence on how health is affected at low levels of exposure to radiation, it failed to incorporate within its narrative an appropriate reference to alternative opinions to those expressed both to the individual items of research used as evidence by the programme and to the overall thesis.
In making this decision the Committee believed it was important to remind all programme areas that they had the same responsibility as news programmes to ensure impartiality, particularly when dealing with a controversial subject. It was, therefore, important for a programme to provide appropriate and proportionate opportunity to reflect those other views.

     Cardis: Well it's not clear at all. There is a big scientific debate and there are scientists who in good faith based on their experiments or work conclude that low doses of radiation do not increase the risk of cancer and might actually even protect us against the effects of radiation. I don't know but certainly from the epidemiological evidence we have, there's mounting epidemiological evidence that there appears to be a small risk of cancer even at low doses.

     Cardis: Well it's not clear at all. There is a big scientific debate and there are scientists who in good faith based on their experiments or work conclude that low doses of radiation do not increase the risk of cancer and might actually even protect us against the effects of radiation. I don't know but certainly from the epidemiological evidence we have, there's mounting epidemiological evidence that there ap.
but what did Professor Cardis say about the scientists who in good faith based on their experiments or work conclude that low doses of radiation increase the risk of cancer to a greater extent than ICRP predicts? Did Nick Ross cut out her comments?

     Ross: Maybe, and it still seems to be the leading theory. But even if it's right the risk for any individual is almost vanishingly small; far lower, for example, than ordinary urban smog which kills millions around the world each year. And there's a growing view that all this talk of radiation is itself a threat to health. Distrust of the authorities on the one hand and scare stories on the other led to anxiety, fatalism and depression among the local population. The abortion rate soared. Refugees evacuated from Chernobyl were stigmatised because people were frightened of them. This psychological trauma gets much less publicity than physical disease but it's palpable to doctors who visit the area routinely. American endocrinologist Mike Tuttle.

 
…. risk almost vanishingly small …; the same bias again, failing to acknowledge the other end of the radiation risk debate.

      Tuttle: When you begin to look at the medical consequences I think we're not to underestimate the psychologic consequences. I don't think we've seen a huge amount of cancers and tumours and death but was it still a medical disaster? Yeah. … because there are thousands and millions of people that were exposed to radiation that continue to live every day worried if they're going to develop another cancer.

 

     Ross: But are you saying the worst health consequence has been fear rather than actual disease?

The BBC used this as a sound-bite to advertise the programme many times over at least a week before it was broadcast. On the other hand there is Professor Dimitro Grodzinski, Chairman of the biology department of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences and Chairman of the Ukrainian National Commission on Radiation Protection. Describing Chernobyl's radiological impact on plants in Chernobyl 20 Years On: Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident he wrote that the gross deformities he had seen were not an example of radiophobia. (Like the irony, Dimitro)

     Tuttle: Yeah. This always gets you in trouble when you say that but the anwer I think is yes. The cancers that we've seen have been thyroid cancers they're very treatable as you've heard; and most people are going to survive that. We've haven't seen a big increase in other cancers and I think one of the biggest consequences was the individual people that were irradiated that are doing fine 25 years after, but if they get a cold or something hurts or they get a new lump a year from now or 2 years, 5 years from now they're worried that it was caused by the Chernobyl accident.

 

     Ross: Prof Tuttle is not alone in thinking Chernobyl has become a scapegoat within the region, a convenient metaphor for other problems since the fall of communism. Semyon Guzman is a psychiatrist and not afraid to speak against prevailing views. He's a former dissident who spent ten years in the Gulag for exposing Soviet abuse of psychiatry. And he's equally outspoken about what he regards as political abuse of Chernobyl, first by the Communists who tried to deny there was a problem. Now he says Chernobyl is blamed for every illness and everything that's wrong, He despairs that so many have vested interest in talking up the scale of the catastrophe and he's particularly incensed at what he sees as a new abuse of his own field, psychiatry, which claims that Chernobyl is responsible for widespread psychosis.

 

     Guzman: Some Ukrainian professors became very active to have grants - money - [to find out] that it will be schizophrenia, it will be everything but of course it's lie and this is myth and everybody in the western countries and and even majority psychiatrists in my country know that this is not so.

 

     Ross: Dr Guzman acknowledges that his scepticism doesn't always go down well in his native Ukraine. Along with the US psychiatrist Professor Evelyn Bromet he conducted a large study of the psychiatric health impact of Chernobyl and found that bad news was often more popular than good.

 

     Guzman: When we finished research I need to give real serious information to these guys and ladies that their health they don't want to have this information they want to have information that they have all diseases and every disease is from radiation.

 

     Ross: Why did they want to be told that?

 

     Guzman: Because people had poison from information. Now we have maybe every third person in the Ukraine is victim of Chernobyl officially. They have small money from this. Of course the biggest myth that we had every disease was from radiation. And I think that this myth is not dead.

So the suggestion is that some people are malingering in the hope of getting some money while some psychiatrists hope to get some money to do the research. There could be some truth in this but 5.8. Diseases of the Nervous System and the Sense Organs and Their Impact on Mental Health (p. 104 in Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe … ) shows structural changes in people's brains and nervous systems sufficient to explain their psychological symptoms. Many of the patients are children unlikely to be driven to fake their symptoms by the profit motive and in many cases suffering from conditions that would render them incapable of doing so.

     Ross: Whatever the uncertainties about the wider health consequences of Chernobyl there is no doubting the huge social and economic cost. They hit you most when you go beyond the plant itself to the city that’s 2 miles down the road.

 

     Chumak: So now we come to Pripyat. It's completely abandoned.

     Ross: This was once home to 50,000 people. And for many of them, as Vadim Chumak sees it, the radiation was the least of their problems.

     Chumak: In my eyes this is the main consequence for health, because elderly people who were forcibly extracted from their homes; they don't live for long. They were taken away from their orchards and their gardens and put in apartment houses and it's a tremendous shock for them and I think it’s a very big problem.

(Background noise of people talking and laughing)

     Ross: But some families did make their way back to their homes - quite a few within a year of the accident. The authorities, concerned that old people were more likely to die of broken hearts than radiation, allowed them to stay. Among them Ivan and Maria Semanyuk. Don't they worry about radiation?

     Chumak [translating]: He (Ivan) says that professionally he was like a guard for many years at Chernobyl power plant. So he had seen many stories and many things not so special here.

     Ross: What were the health problems that you've noticed in the community here?

     Chumak [translating]: No he didn't notice anything. They just tell that they are getting older and gentlemen is 75, the lady is 73.

 

     Ross: Some people are saying that thousands will die as a result of Chernobyl, maybe tens of thousands. What's your opinion of that?

Why is he asking this guy, rather than any number of professors, doctors and Academicians? He has moved his family back into the neighbourhood of Chernobyl, so he has a vested interest in denying there are any adverse health effects. Even if he had been an epidemiologist rather than an ex-security guard, he would have had a very small and extremely unrepresentative population to study. Given that Ross had earlier sneered at anecdotal evidence this section moved the programme's consistent bias into the realm of open mockery.

     Chumak [translating]: He says the main problem is stress because if they would not be affected by some rumours, by some pressures - it's a psychological pressure - it would be much better. It was a very great psychological discomfort[?] and that was the cause of many deaths.

 

     Ross: One irony of Chernobyl is that as human beings left, animals and birds recolonised the area, and while some scientists record a decline in biodiversity others have reported species not seen there for decades - wolves, moose, black storks. The exclusion zone is now one of Europe's most thriving wildlife sites and it wakes to a majestic dawn chorus as captured here by sound recordist Peter Cusak.

Ok, we really ought to put in a section on wildlife. Maybe we'll find time.

     Ross: Whatever the dangers of nuclear accidents they are undeniably small compared to other risks. Even the worst scientific projections from Chernobyl are dwarfed by the thousands killed each year in coal mining accidents, and millions of us will die prematurely from contaminants pumped out by coal-, gas- and oil-fired power stations let alone from vehicle exhaust fumes and emissions of industrial toxins like benzene and lead not to mention CO2. How to put this risk in context is a major preoccupation for many scientists. Among them is Britain's former chief scientific officer Professor Sir David King, who's been dismayed by the hysterical media coverage of Fukushima.

Ross: Whatever the dangers of nuclear accidents they are undeniably small compared to other risks. Even the worst scientific projections from Chernobyl are dwarfed by the thousands killed each year in coal mining accidents, and millions of us will die prematurely from contaminants pumped out by coal-, gas- and oil-fired power stations le
We need reliable theoretical models and evidence-based numbers to make such comparisons meaningful. For some really dodgy numbers see David King, below.

     King: The potential for exposing yourself to radiation if you take an airflight between London and New York is many many times greater than the potential to suffer from radiation drinking tap water in Tokyo or in fact walking around Fukushima. So I think the problem is as soon as radiation is detected we don't look at the tables of what is the dangerous level of risk , we simply see a risk.

Professor King should explain this statement. According to this source (BMJ citing the UK Health Protection Agency "Ionising Radiation Exposure of the UK Population: 2005 Review") an eight hour flight from London to New York would expose passengers to 0.01 mSv of cosmic radiation". That's 10 microSieverts, which means long haul flights confer 1.25 microSv per hour or very roughly 12 times natural gamma rates at ground level.
LLRC has measured 2 - 4 microSv/hr on long-haul flights.
The U. of Berkeley Dept. of Nuclear Engineering agrees with 4 microSv/hr (so for the London to New York trip that's 8 x 4 = 32 microSv), while the Japanese Government (last page) works out at 8 microSv/hr, which seems a bit high. In what follows we use 32 microSv - the U. of Berkeley calculation. IAEA gives dose rates more than 30 km from Fukushima on 25th April. They were very variable - from 0.1 (i.e. the pre-accident background, surprisingly) up to 13.6 microSv per hour. On the same day Japanese Government data show as high as 52 microSv per hour outside the 20 km exclusion zone.
If, on the other hand, Sir David King meant … walking around at the Fukushima Daiichi plant itself, dose rates on 27th April were in the tens, the hundreds, and as much as 2000 microSv per hour.
So the eight hour flight doesn't give doses many many times greater than […] walking around Fukushima. Of course it depends how long a walk Sir David was thinking of but, if we assume an eight-hour stay at least 20 km from Fukushima, the dose could be anywhere between 0.8 (if you were lucky enough to be somewhere that got no fallout at all) and 416 microSv. In places where (allegedly) there is no fallout the dose is one fortieth of the plane trip; in other places it's up to 13 times as much. At the plant itself, the dose would be 2000/32 = 62.5 times as much.
Note, we are only talking about gamma here. Honshu is certainly contaminated with hard-to-detect alpha- and beta-emitting radionuclides. Once ingested and inhaled, these cannot be validly compared with cosmic rays.

      Ross: In fact almost every specialist I spoke to - physicists doctors, even undoubted victims of Chernobyl accepted that everything has some risk and the great majority expressed support for nuclear power. Yet it's hard to think of any singular industrial event that caused the dislocation of Chernobyl or the political fallout (sic). To this day people in Ukraine talk of pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl as though they were two different epochs. The accident ravaged the economy, it wrecked the last vestiges of Soviet self-confidence and public trust in communist authority. It almost certainly contributed to the collapse of the communist regime. And here in the west, whatever the truth, the fallout from Chernobyl chilled the nuclear debate for a whole generation. It looks like Fukushima might have the potential to do same.

Ross: In fact almost every specialist I spoke to - physicists doctors, even undoubted victims of Chernobyl accepted that everything has some risk and the great majority expressed support for nuclear power. Yet it's hard to think of any singular industrial event that caused the dislocation of Chernobyl or the political fallout (sic). To this day people in Ukraine talk of pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl as though they were two different epochs. The accident ravaged the economy, it wrecked the last vestiges of Soviet self-confidence and public trust in communist authority. It almost certainly contributed to the collapse of the communist regime. And here in the west, whatever the truth, the fallout from Chernobyl chilled the nuclear debate for a whole generation. It looks like Fukushima might have the potent
Perhaps that's only sane.


Complaints should be lodged with the BBC within 30 days of transmission. In our opinion the grounds for complaint are that the programme failed to meet BBC editorial standards on accuracy and impartiality.

The BBC claims to aim to achieve accuracy by:

"In practice, the BBC's commitment to impartiality means:
  • we strive to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range and conflict of views so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under represented.
  • we exercise our editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so.
  • we can explore or report on a specific aspect of an issue or provide an opportunity for a single view to be expressed, but in doing so we do not misrepresent opposing views. They may also require a right of reply.
  • we must ensure we avoid bias or an imbalance of views on controversial subjects."
See
how to complain to the BBC here.

13th May 2011


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