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How many deaths were caused by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe?

A number of studies apply that basic method – based on collective radiation doses and risk estimates – and come up with estimates of the Chernobyl cancer death toll varying from 9,000 (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 deaths (across Europe).

Map-Chernobyl_FALLOUT

unqualified claims that the death toll was just 50, should be rejected as dishonest or uninformed spin from the nuclear industry and some of its scientifically-illiterate (in this field if not in others) supporters.

And sadly, that has to include every last one of the self-proclaimed ‘pro-nuclear environmentalists’ – among them James Hansen, Patrick Moore, Mark Lynas, George Monbiot, Stephen Tindale and James Lovelock.

 Chernobyl – how many died?, The Ecologist,  Jim Green – Nuclear Monitor 26th April 2014“………Fifty immediate deaths

About 50 people died in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. Beyond that, studies generally don’t indicate a significant increase in cancer incidence in populations exposed to Chernobyl fallout.

Nor would anyone expect them to because of the data gaps and methodological problems mentioned above, and because the main part of the problem concerns the exposure of millions of people to low doses of radiation from Chernobyl fallout.

For a few fringe scientists and nuclear industry insiders and apologists, that’s the end of the matter – the statistical evidence is lacking and thus the death toll from Chernobyl was just 50.

If they were being honest, they would note an additional, unknown death toll from cancer and from other radiation-linked diseases including cardiovascular disease.

Best estimates

But for those of us who prefer mainstream science, we can still arrive at a scientifically defensible estimate of the Chernobyl death toll by using estimates of the total radiation exposure, and multiplying by an appropriate risk estimate.

The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates a total collective dose of 600,000 person-Sieverts over 50 years from Chernobyl fallout. [6] Applying the LNT risk estimate of 0.10 fatal cancers per Sievert gives an estimate of 60,000 deaths.

Sometimes a risk estimate of 0.05 is used to account for the possibility of decreased risks at low doses and/or dose rates (in other words, 0.05 is the risk estimate when applying a ‘dose and dose rate effectiveness factor’ or DDREF of two). That gives an estimate of 30,000 deaths.

On the other hand, LNT may underestimate risks. The BEIR report states that “combined analyses are compatible with a range of possibilities, from a reduction of risk at low doses to risks twice those upon which current radiation protection recommendations are based.”

Likewise the BEIR report states: “The committee recognizes that its risk estimates become more uncertain when applied to very low doses. Departures from a linear model at low doses, however, could either increase or decrease the risk per unit dose.”

 So the true death toll could be lower or higher than the LNT-derived estimate of 60,000 deaths.

9,000 to 93,000 deaths across Europe

A number of studies apply that basic method – based on collective radiation doses and risk estimates – and come up with estimates of the Chernobyl cancer death toll varying from 9,000 (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 deaths (across Europe).

UN reports from the IAEA and WHO (see also the ‘Chernobyl backgrounder‘) in 2005-06 estimated up to 4,000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations (emergency workers from 1986-1987, evacuees and residents of the most contaminated areas) and an additional 5,000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. [7]

The estimated death toll rises further when populations beyond those three countries are included. For example, a study by Cardis et al reported in the International Journal of Cancer estimates 16,000 deaths. [8]

Dr Elisabeth Cardis, head of the Radiation Group at the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, said:

“By 2065 (i.e. in the eighty years following the accident), predictions based on these models indicate that about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident and that about 16,000 deaths from these cancers may occur.

“About two-thirds of the thyroid cancer cases and at least one half of the other cancers are expected to occur in Belarus, Ukraine and the most contaminated territories of the Russian Federation.” [9]

Don’t forget the larger numbers exposed to lower doses

UK radiation scientists Dr Ian Fairlie and Dr David Sumner estimate 30,000 to 60,000 deaths[10] Dr Fairlie notes that statements by UNSCEAR indicate that it believes the whole body collective dose across Europe from Chernobyl was 320,000 to 480,000 person-Sieverts.

From this an estimate of 32,000 to 48,000 fatal cancers can be deduced (using the LNT risk estimate of 0.10). [11] According to physicist Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund:

“53,000 and 27,000 are reasonable estimates of the number of excess cancers and cancer deaths that will be attributable to the accident, excluding thyroid cancers. (The 95% confidence levels are 27,000 to 108,000 cancers and 12,000 to 57,000 deaths.)

“In addition, as of 2005, some 6,000 thyroid cancers and 15 thyroid cancer deaths have been attributed to Chernobyl. That number will grow with time.

“Much lower numbers of cancers and deaths are often cited, but these are misleading because they only apply to those populations with the highest radiation exposures, and don’t take into account the larger numbers of people who were exposed to less radiation.” [12]

Greenpeace – 270,000 cancers

2006 report commissioned by Greenpeace estimates a cancer death toll of about 93,000. [13] According to Greenpeace:

“Our report involved 52 respected scientists and includes information never before published in English. It challenges the UN International Atomic Energy Agency Chernobyl Forum report, which predicted 4,000 additional deaths attributable to the accident as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering.

“The new data, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl.

“The report also concludes that on the basis of demographic data, during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.”

Nuclear spin

Those are the credible estimates of the eventual death toll from Chernobyl. Another defensible position (or non-position) is that the long-term cancer death toll is unknown and unknowable because of the uncertainties associated with the science.

The third of the two defensible positions, unqualified claims that the death toll was just 50, should be rejected as dishonest or uninformed spin from the nuclear industry and some of its scientifically-illiterate (in this field if not in others) supporters.

And sadly, that has to include every last one of the self-proclaimed ‘pro-nuclear environmentalists’ – among them James Hansen, Patrick Moore, Mark Lynas, George Monbiot, Stephen Tindale and James Lovelock. http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2370256/chernobyl_how_many_died.html

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April 28, 2014 - Posted by | Belarus, EUROPE, health, radiation

1 Comment »

  1. I was fascinated by a recent UK report health Atlas hotspot of liver cancer in North West England and pondered on a connection to Chernobyl Caesium 137 fallout. Having looked at cancer mortality across all cancers in the UK I have found a very close overlay of the two maps. http://www.ncin.org.uk/cancer_information_tools/eatlas/

    Comment by Chris Forster | April 30, 2014 | Reply


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