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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Nuclear nightmares with strange bedfellows

The Fukushima nuclear "event" in Japan has now been categorized as a Level 7 accident on the INES scale. The only other instance for this rating was the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Many engineers, however, do not believe the latest accident will be as devastating as Chernobyl because of the specific circumstances surrounding the different accidents. The BBC story I linked explains the rationale.

In any event, anti-nuclear analysts have been referencing Chernobyl a great deal in the past month -- and the implications of their arguments are disturbing.

Noted lefty climate skeptic Alexander Cockburn offers the most frightening summary:
In 2009 the New York Academy of Sciences published Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, a 327-page volume by three scientists, Alexey Yablokov and Vassily and Alexey Nesterenko. It is the definitive study to date.

In the summary of his chapter 'Mortality After the Chernobyl Catastrophe', Yablokov says flatly: "A detailed study reveals that 3.8–4.0 per cent of all deaths in the contaminated territories of Ukraine and Russia from 1990 to 2004 were caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe...

"Since 1990, mortality among the clean-up teams has exceeded the mortality rate in corresponding population groups. From 112,000 to 125,000 liquidators [members of clean-up crews] died before 2005 - that is, some 15 per cent of the 830,000 members of the Chernobyl clean-up teams.

"The calculations suggest that the Chernobyl catastrophe has already killed several hundred thousand human beings in a population of several hundred million that was unfortunate enough to live in territories affected by the fallout."
Long-time anti-nuclear crusader, Dr. Helen Caldicott, has likewise referenced this report in her recent writings about the Japanese accident.

However, environmental journalist George Monbiot has been attacking Caldicott for sloppy use of scientific evidence -- including reference to the study cited also by Cockburn. He quotes other comprehensive studies and reviews of studies, including one completed by UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear), which he calls "the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."
Of the workers who tried to contain the emergency at Chernobyl, 134 suffered acute radiation syndrome; 28 died soon afterwards. Nineteen others died later, but generally not from diseases associated with radiation(6). The remaining 87 have suffered other complications, included four cases of solid cancer and two of leukaemia. In the rest of the population, there have been 6,848 cases of thyroid cancer among young children, arising “almost entirely” from the Soviet Union’s failure to prevent people from drinking milk contaminated with iodine 131(7). Otherwise, “there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure.”(8) People living in the countries affected today “need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident.”(9)
Those parenthetical numbers in the text are citations to original sources, which I have included below.

Monbiot points to a published "devastating" review of the Yablokov, Nesterenko, and Nesterenko study, authored by Monty W. Charles of University of Birmingham. I cannot gain access to the full review, but Monbiot writes that
"the book achieves its figure by the remarkable method of assuming that all increased deaths from a wide range of diseases – including many which have no known association with radiation – were caused by the accident(15). There is no basis for this assumption, not least because screening in many countries improved dramatically after the disaster and, since 1986, there have been massive changes in the former eastern bloc. The study makes no attempt to correlate exposure to radiation with the incidence of disease(16).
Monbiot also says that the New York Academy of Sciences published the book without peer review, which is certainly odd if true.

I found the first page of the Charles review on-line, and it does note that the literature on Chernobyl includes a vast rage of findings about the harms. "This book," he writes, "covers the high cancer mortality tail of the distribution of predictions of health effects from Chernobyl." Moreover, Charles says that the range of findings makes it difficult even for scholars in the field to have a good feel for the evidence: "how can professional scientists—such as most readers of this review—arrive at an informed opinion on the radiation-related adverse health effects from the Chernobyl accident? The answer is with great difficulty!"

Monbiot does not quote from a somewhat more sympathetic review by Ian Fairlie of the same research published in the same issue of the journal. Nonetheless, even Fairlie finds some troubling flaws in the book's methodology:
However, one major difficulty in interpreting Chernobyl mortality studies is the large recent decrease in average male life spans in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine in all areas not just contaminated ones: this deserves more attention in eastern studies.

....Also greater efforts should be made in reconstructing doses (and resources be made available for this), and in estimating individual and collective doses and discussing their implications for both eastern and western Europe.
Based on the physical evidence he has reviewed, Fairlie has argued elsewhere that the deaths attributed to Chernobyl are significantly underestimated by many scientists. For example Fairlie and David Sumner found that "about 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths are predicted, 7 to 15 times greater than the figure of 4,000 in the IAEA press release."

Obviously, even 60,000 cancer deaths would be only a fraction of 900,000 as estimated by the Yablokov et al study.

I am not 100% sure what to make of this debate, but it does seem clear that official estimates of Chernobyl's effects may be on the low end of the continuum -- and that high end estimates may have some serious methodological flaws. An environmentalist like Monbiot seems to be dismissing radiation threats tied to the nuclear industry (at least in part out of concerns for global warming), while lefty writer Cockburn is extremely worried about nuclear radiation -- but is quite skeptical about global warming. In fact, he's a denialist who sees conspiracy.

Whatever the truth, I suspect that nuclear power will have a difficult time politically for the foreseeable future and it will thus not be a viable near-term solution to climate change.

Appendix: Monbiot's sources.
6. United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, 2011. Volume II, Annex D: Health effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident. This is the latest section of the 2008 report Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation: Report to the General Assembly. See Paragraph 2, page 1 and Figure VII and paragraph 63, page 14.

7. Para 33, page 8 and para 4, page one. As above.

8. Para 99, page 19. As above.

9. Para 100, page 19. As above.

15. MW Charles, 2010. Review of Chernobyl: consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment. Radiation Protection Dosimetry (2010) 141(1): 101-104. doi: 10.1093/rpd/ncq185.

16. The authors announce that they reject this method in the introduction to the book. Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko and Alexey V. Nesterenko, as above, page 2

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