The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Radiation and Risk

September 6, 2005

Dan Drezner writes a post I considered and rejected for the Duck.

Today’s Washington Post has a story entitled “Chernobyl’s Harm Was Far Less Than Predicted, U.N. Report Says.” Here’s what Dan writes about it:

Good news about Chernobyl

Peter Finn reports in the Washington Post that twenty years after the disaster at Chernobyl, the health effects have been much less than prior estimates would have suggested:

The long-term health and environmental impacts of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, while severe, were far less catastrophic than feared, according to a major new report by eight U.N. agencies.

The governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, the three countries most affected by radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, should strive to end the “paralyzing fatalism” of tens of thousands of their citizens who wrongly believe they are still at risk of an early death, according to the study released Monday.

The 600-page report found that as of the middle of this year, the accident had caused fewer than 50 deaths directly attributable to radiation, most of them among emergency workers who died in the first months after the accident. In the wake of the world’s largest nuclear disaster, there were numerous predictions of mass fatalities from radiation.

The report said that nine children had died of thyroid cancer, but that the survival rate among the 4,000 children in the region who had developed thyroid cancer has been 99 percent. An expected spike in fertility problems and birth defects also failed to materialize, the study found….

This is, in a sense, good news. Obviously, when the death rate of any accident is lower than expected, we should be pleased. But in the aftermath of Katrina, I thought it wasn’t quite right to celebrate an estimate of 4,000 deaths. As Finn goes on to report:

U.N. scientists predicted about 4,000 eventual radiation-related deaths among 600,000 people in the affected area, including emergency workers and residents. That is consistent with predictions in the aftermath of the accident by scientists in the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were then a part.

It also important to remember a few things about cancer terminology. In cancer research, “survival rate” refers to people who are still alive after a period of time, typically five years. So it is entirely possible that many of these children will be among the 4,000 projected deaths from the accident.

The real story here, actually, is a bit different than how pleased we should be about the emerging information reflecting the true magnitude of the disaster; these numbers are more indication of the irrationality of the American public’s fear of nuclear power. This is one area I agree with the Bush administration: if we want to tackle a whole host of issues, including air pollution, global warming, and oil dependency, then nuclear power must be an increasingly vibrant part of our energy portfolio. The true magnitude of the Chernoybl disaster reflects how nuclear power is less deadly and dangerous, if we consider its effects over time, than many fossil fuels.

I’m surprised Dan didn’t pick up on this. After all, he did a good job of publicizing a similar point about the true risks of terrorism (and other catastrophic events) compared to ongoing, lower-level risks such as auto accidents.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.