Scientists conclude: Chernobyl killed nearly 1 million people

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A massively documented new book charges International Atomic Energy Agency with covering up the extent of the “worst technogenic accident in history”

Editor’s Note: This is a positive review of a controversial book. For a strong counter-argument, see the pro-nuclear blog Atomic Insights


Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. Edited by Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Nesterenko, and Janette D. Sherman-Nevinger. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 400 pages ISBN: 978-1-57331-757-3

reviewed by Karl Grossman
Op-Ed News, September 3, 2010

(Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and host of the nationally syndicated TV program Enviro Close-Up.)

This past April 26th marked the 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident. It came as the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear government officials in the United States and other nations were trying to “revive” nuclear power. And it followed the publication of a book, the most comprehensive study ever made, on the impacts of the Chernobyl disaster.

Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment was published by the New York Academy of Sciences. It is authored by three noted scientists: Russian biologist Dr. Alexey Yablokov, former environmental advisor to the Russian president; Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, a biologist and ecologist in Belarus; and Dr.Vassili Nesterenko, a physicist and at the time of the accident director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. Its editor is Dr. Janette Sherman, a physician and toxicologist long-involved in studying the health impacts of radioactivity.

The book is solidly based on health data, radiological surveys and scientific reports — some 5,000 in all.

It concludes that based on records now available, some 985,000 people died, mainly of cancer, as a result of the Chernobyl accident. That is between when the accident occurred in 1986 and 2004. More deaths, it projects, will follow.

The book explodes the claim of the International Atomic Energy Agency – still on its website that the expected death toll from the Chernobyl accident will be 4,000. The IAEA, the new book shows, is underestimating, to the extreme, the casualties of Chernobyl. Alice Slater, representative in New York of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, comments:

“The tragic news uncovered by the comprehensive new research that almost one million people died in the toxic aftermath of Chernobyl should be a wake-up call to people all over the world to petition their governments to put a halt to the current industry-driven “nuclear renaissance.’ Aided by a corrupt IAEA, the world has been subjected to a massive cover-up and deception about the true damages caused by Chernobyl.”

Further worsening the situation, she said, has been “the collusive agreement between the IAEA and the World Health Organization in which the WHO is precluded from publishing any research on radiation effects without consultation with the IAEA.” WHO, the public health arm of the UN, has supported the IAEA’s claim that 4,000 will die as a result of the accident.

“How fortunate,” said Ms. Slater, “that independent scientists have now revealed the horrific costs of the Chernobyl accident.”

The book also scores the position of the IAEA, set up through the UN in 1957 “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy,” and its 1959 agreement with WHO. There is a “need to change,” it says, the IAEA-WHO pact. It has muzzled the WHO, providing for the “hiding” from the “public of any information”unwanted” by the nuclear industry.

“An important lesson from the Chernobyl experience is that experts and organizations tied to the nuclear industry have dismissed and ignored the consequences of the catastrophe,” it states.

The book details the spread of radioactive poisons following the explosion of Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 26, 1986. These major releases only ended when the fire at the reactor was brought under control in mid-May. Emitted were “hundreds of millions of curies, a quantity hundreds of times larger than the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The most extensive fall-out occurred in regions closest to the plant – in the Ukraine (the reactor was 60 miles from Kiev in Ukraine), Belarus and Russia.

However, there was fallout all over the world as the winds kept changing direction “so the radioactive emissions “covered an enormous territory.”

The radioactive poisons sent billowing from the plant into the air included Cesium-137, Plutonium, Iodine-131 and Strontium-90.

There is a breakdown by country, highlighted by maps, of where the radionuclides fell out. Beyond Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, the countries included Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The radiological measurements show that some 10% of Chernobyl poisons “fell on Asia”Huge areas” of eastern Turkey and central China “were highly contaminated,” reports the book. Northwestern Japan was impacted, too.

Northern Africa was hit with “more than 5% of all Chernobyl releases.” The finding of Cesium-137 and both Plutonium-239 and Plutonium-240 “in accumulated Nile River sediment is evidence of significant Chernobyl contamination,” it states.

“Areas of North America were contaminated from the first, most powerful explosion, which lifted a cloud of radionuclides to a height of more than 10 km. Some 1% of all Chernobyl nuclides,” says the book, “fell on North America.”

The consequences on public health are extensively analyzed. Medical records involving children — the young, their cells more rapidly multiplying, are especially affected by radioactivity — are considered. Before the accident, more than 80% of the children in the territories of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia extensively contaminated by Chernobyl “were healthy,” the book reports, based on health data. But “today fewer than 20% are well.”

There is an examination of genetic impacts with records reflecting an increase in “chromosomal aberrations” wherever there was fallout. This will continue through the “children of irradiated parents for as many as seven generations.” So “the genetic consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe will impact hundreds of millions of people.”

As to deaths, the list of countries and consequences begins with Belarus. “For the period 1900-2000 cancer mortality in Belarus increased 40%,” it states, again based on medical data and illuminated by tables in the book. “The increase was a maximum in the most highly contaminated Gomel Province and lower in the less contaminated Brest and Mogilev provinces.” They include childhood cancers, thyroid cancer, leukemia and other cancers.

Considering health data of people in all nations impacted by the fallout, the “overall mortality for the period from April 1986 to the end of 2004 from the Chernobyl catastrophe was estimated as 985,000 additional deaths.”

Further, “the concentrations” of some of the poisons, because they have radioactive half-lives ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 years, “will remain practically the same virtually forever.”

The book also examines the impact on plants and animals.

“Immediately after the catastrophe, the frequency of plant mutations in the contaminated territories increased sharply.”

There are photographs of some of these plant mutations.

“Chernobyl irradiation has caused many structural anomalies and tumorlike changes in many plant species and has led to genetic disorders, sometimes continuing for many years,” it says. “Twenty-three years after the catastrophe it is still too early to know if the whole spectrum of plant radiogenic changes has been discerned. We are far from knowing all of the consequences for flora resulting from the catastrophe.”

As to animals, the book notes “serious increases in morbidity and mortality that bear striking resemblance to changes in the public health of humans — increasing tumor rates, immuno-deficiencies, and decreasing life expectancy.”

In one study it is found that “survival rates of barn swallows in the most contaminated sites near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant are close to zero. In areas of moderate contamination, annual survival is less than 25%.” Research is cited into ghastly abnormalities in barn swallows that do hatch: “two heads, two tails.”

“In 1986,” the book states, “the level of irradiation in plants and animals in Western Europe, North America, the Arctic, and eastern Asia were sometimes hundreds and even thousands of times above acceptable norms.”

In its final chapter, the book declares that the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant “was the worst technogenic accident in history.” And it examines “obstacles” to the reporting of the true consequences of Chernobyl with a special focus on “organizations associated with the nuclear industry” that “protect the industry first — not the public.” Here, the IAEA and WHO are charged.

The book ends by quoting U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s call in 1963 for an end of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

“The Chernobyl catastrophe,” it declares, “demonstrates that the nuclear industry’s willingness to risk the health of humanity and our environment with nuclear power plants will result, not only theoretically, but practically, in the same level of hazard as nuclear weapons.”

Dr. Sherman, speaking of the IAEA’s and WHO’s dealing with the impacts of Chernobyl, commented: “It’s like Dracula guarding the blood bank.” The 1959 agreement under which WHO “is not to be independent of the IAEA” but must clear any information it obtains on issues involving radioactivity with the IAEA has put “the two in bed together.”

Of her reflections on 14 months editing the book, she said: “Every single system that was studied —whether human or wolves or livestock or fish or trees or mushrooms or bacteria — all were changed, some of them irreversibly. The scope of the damage is stunning.”

In his foreword, Dr. Dimitro Grodzinsky, chairman of the Ukrainian National Commission on Radiation Protection, writes about how “apologists of nuclear power” sought to hide the real impacts of the Chernobyl disaster from the time when the accident occurred. The book “provides the largest and most complete collection of data concerning the negative consequences of Chernobyl on the health of people and the environment… The main conclusion of the book is that it is impossible and wrong “to forget Chernobyl.'”

In the record of Big Lies, the claim of the IAEA-WHO that “only” 4,000 people will die as a result of the Chernobyl catastrophe is among the biggest. The Chernobyl accident is, as the new book documents, an ongoing global catastrophe.

And it is a clear call for no new nuclear power plants to be built and for the closing of the dangerous atomic machines now running — and a switch to safe energy technologies, now available, led by solar and wind energy, that will not leave nearly a million people dead from one disaster.


  • Comparing radioactive isotopes with electricity is dishonest. Electricity does not bioaccumulate in the body. Some radioactive isotopes, such as iodine 131, do bioaccumulate, and concentrate in particular areas of the body, which makes them more dangerous. Strontium-90, for example, concentrates in the teeth and bones of growing children. Isotopes also concentrate in livestock and in vegetable crops that we then consume.

    Potassium 40 does not bioaccumulate and does not concentrate in one area of the body. When you eat a banana, your body eliminates an equivalent amount of potassium, both radioactive and stable, and thus your exposure to K-40 does not increase over time, no matter how many bananas you eat. (The wikipedia-type calculations of radioactivity exposure from eating 365 bananas over the course of a year dishonestly suggest otherwise, by applying the same LNT theory that “djh” derides.) This makes it completely different from exposing the body to radiation from such things as emissions from nuclear reactors. Radiation dosage emissions from the Fukushima nuclear disaster have been reported at up to 100 rems (1 Sievert); a four- or five-hour exposure to such levels is lethal, even if the exposure is intermittent (e.g., one hour every three days for fifteen days). Unlike a series of electrical shocks, its effect is cumulative, even if it is not entirely linear.

    The LNT theory has been shown to be unreliable in very low dosage situations. But in catastrophic releases of radiation like Chernobyl it holds up very well.

    The Banana Equivalent Dose is a propaganda fraud perpetrated by the nuclear industry that “djh” works for. The “radiation is everywhere” message is designed to reassure the public that the industry’s operations are nothing to worry about. They exaggerate the amount of radiation exposure from bananas in order to make nuclear wastes and radioactive emissions sound harmless.

  • Jeff White will not get a pass on his attempts to discredit Ted Rockwell’s very salient rebuttal to the contents of this book. I am not published, but am a radiation health physicist in the nuclear industry. Much of the hysteria concerning radiation is the result of the linear no-threshold theory applied to radiation induced biological damage. The LNT says that, since a lot of radiation can fry you, then even a little tiny bit is harmful. This is akin to saying that, since 1.21 gigawatts of electricity can fry you, then exposure to even the smallest amount of electricity could cause a cancer. Most of the horrible predictions you read about like “million killed by Chernobyl” are based on “fun with MATH” and have no basis in reality. Here’s the logic. Since a 2-v battery might have the potential to mutate a few cells in your body (which is true), a billion people holding 2-v batteries will kill hundreds of thousands of people based on the cancers that will be produced from the billions of cells that can be damaged. The 6,000 member Health Physics Society has issued a paper stating that, risks of health effects to people receiving less than 10 rad (half the annual dose allowed in the US for a radiation worker) are too small to be observed or are nonexistent. In a recent poll of radiation protection professionals conducted by RADSAFE, experts voted 118 to 12 against using LNT. A recent joint study by the French Academy of Medicine and the French Academy of Sciences strongly condemned the use of LNT…and the list goes on. No other potential mutagen is held to LNT. If they were, you’d be reading about the million deaths due to house paint and cheeseburgers. Here’s a great web to bring perspective to this idiocy
    Accordingly, most of the cancer victims in this study didn’t recieve as much dose from Chernobyl as they would have from eating a couple of bananas. Yes, K-40 is a gamma emmitter just like I-131.

  • Thanks for great effort of the trio of the book. I’ve been currently seriously interested in the NPP issue because the Thai government is planning to build the 1st one in my hometown. So I desperately need to search for the information from both sides, the official ones and the independent analysis.
    Though I haven’t yet read the book, the information inside might give a lot of hints for my understanding about the NPP stuff. So I’ll be then able to tell my nation fellows about it.

  • For as long as the IAEA has oversight over any WHO report on radiation health effects, we can not rely on WHO reports alone. In fact, this situation is medically unethical.

  • Thank you for posting this review of what is undoubtedly an important work. The nuclear industry is very active in Asia and this has become a serious concern. The long comment posted by David Walters quoting a Theodore Rockwell is useful, however no mention is made of the health data appaently referred to by the book’s authors. Whatever the scale of the Chernobyl impact on populations near and far, the problem’s longevity is because of its public health aspect. There are industrial disasters whose impacts are still becoming known. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy (in India) took place earlier and was chemical in nature – 26 years later it is still a very current public health problem in India. The notion that Chernobyl’s footprint over the years may have diminished is neither good in science nor in public health research.

  • This would be the same Ted Rockwell who is a noted fan of parapsychology and a devout climate change skeptic? The same guy who has been shilling for the nuclear industry for the last 60 years?

  • This is from Ted Rockwell who is a NYAS member. The below letter first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Nuclear News of the American Nuclear Society:

    The Recently Published section of the June issue of Nuclear News (p. 20) included the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, published by the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS). Your readers should be warned that this book is not what they would expect from the academy. As a member of NYAS, I’ve asked the academy to repudiate it, and a panel of independent scientists is now investigating, the “only legal way” to that end. I expect that they will carry out this process fairly.

    I do not consider the book a legitimate academy report for a number of reasons:

    1. It is not a new study and does not bring any new or unpublished information to light. It is a translation of a book by the same authors that was published in 2007.

    2. The preface of the report states that the writing was undertaken “with the initiative of Greenpeace International”. The acknowledgement states that the authors “provided original material or reviews of specific topics to Greenpeace International,” and ends by saying, “This English edition would have been impossible without Dr. Janette Shennan-Nevinger, who tirelessly scientifically edited our very rough translation.” Sherman-Nevinger is known for, inter alia, her work with Alec Baldwin and Ernest Sternglass on the discredited Tooth Fairy Project ( ).

    3. The report makes unsubstantiated claims, calling the incident “the largest technological catastrophe in history … No citizen of any country can be assured that he or she can be protected from radioactive contamination. One nuclear reactor can pollute half the globe.” More specifically, the report claims, “Prior to 1985, more than 80 percent of children in the Chernobyl territories … were healthy; today fewer than 20 percent are well. In the heavily contaminated areas, it is difficult to find one healthy child.”

    4. The report’s version of the Chernobyl incident is dramatically different from the scientific consensus. Possible reasons include the following:

    a. The introduction to the report states the reason that it is not an acceptable voice for science: It blatantly denies the legitimacy of the scientific method. “Some experts believe that any conclusions about radiation based disease require a correlation between an illness and the received dose of radioactivity. We believe this is an impossibility. … It is not necessary to calculate standard errors … Today’s ‘scientific protocols’ with, for example, ‘confidence intervals’ and ‘case control’ are not perfect. … It is correct and justified for the whole of society … to use the enormous database collected by thousands of experts.”

    In other words, one can report a much larger number of “Chernobyl victims” if not limited by the usual scientific practice of using only direct correlation of statistically significant data. That is certainly true. The data cited in this report were accumulated by stumbling across correlations of various illnesses of symptoms, regardless of where such symptoms have ever been known to result from irradiation. Most have not. Conceding that such post hoc pattern building is generally discouraged by scientists, the authors argue that in the Chernobyl situation, it is required. There is no attempt to replicate or peer-review the data. The need for statistical significance is specifically denied.

    b. The author’s theory of radiation damage is bizarre. “One physical analogy can illustrate the importance of even the smallest load of radioactivity: Only a few drops of water added to a glass filled to the brim are needed to initiate a flow… We simply do not know when a only a small amount of additional Chernobyl radiation will cause an overflow of damage and irreversible change in the health of humans and in nature.” Water flow in a toilet works that way because it has a siphon; a glass of water does not. But more important, no evidence is offered to support this unorthodox theory of radiation damage. “Exposed to radiation” does not necessarily mean injured, as implied.

    c. Fear of radiation was rampant and deep seated, and government actions were confusing and contradictory. Several of the medical specialists who investigated the aftereffects of Chernobyl noted that fear of radiation could by itself explain the spread of depression, alcoholism, absenteeism, drug abuse, sleeplessness, and the symptoms that such ills create and sustain. One example: Prior to 1986, the rate of abortions downwind of Chernobyl was fairly constant. The following year showed an additional 50,000 to 100,000 abortions, which thereafter returned to nearly the previous level. This is presumably because physicians advising pregnant women were ill-informed about the after effects of low-dose radiation and added to the problem, rather than alleviating it. It was repeatedly reported that fear of radiation was more destructive than the radiation itself.

    d. The Ukrainian government offered incentives for citizens to declare themselves “Chernobyl victims.” The original contract with the Soviet government promised that any person injured by the reactor would be fully taken care of, at the expense of the Russian government. This provision came to include housing, hospitalization, and other medical care and cash. The program became so lavish and expensive that resentment grew against the “victims,” who were judged to be parasites. There were even fund-raising tours through the United States and elsewhere by malformed ‘Chernobyl victims” who didn’t even all live in or near Chernobyl.

    e. Radioactivity does not possess all the scary properties attributed to it in the report. The report claims as “damage” a wide range of symptoms extending far beyond those previously shown to result from irradiation. In addition, it describes the effects as extending far into the future.:

    “Nearly 400 million human beings have been exposed to Chernobyl’s fallout, and for many generations they and their descendants will suffer the devastating consequences. … In 400 years (20 human generations), the local populations in the Chernobyl-contaminated areas can be less radiosensitive than they are today. Will individuals with reduced radioresistence agree that their progeny will be the first to be eliminated from populations? … The overwhelming majority of Chernobyl-induced genetic changes will not become apparent for several generations … Apparently, impaired immunity triggered by Chernobyl radionuclides adversely affected all of the individuals, without exception, who were subjected to any additional radiation.”

    There is no credible science in the vast literature of radiation effects that would support such statements. The authors completely ignore the hundreds of times greater variations in radiation levels that we repeatedly encounter through everyday living.

    Theodore Rockwell
    Chevy Chase, Md.

  • The science that supports the conclusions in this book is bad.

    The premise that the IAEA, the Chernobyl Commission, the World Health Organization, multiple governments, and others have conducted a massive conspiracy to hide the truth is unsupported and ridiculous.

    The only way the numbers in this book add up is if the very large number of humans that die of cancer each year are attributed to the effects of the Chernobyl accident. Why not 1 billion deaths? More?

    Where is the science in this?

    The New York Academ of Science should be ashamed and embarrassed that their imprint on this horrible non-scientific book.