Image for Pro-nuclear environmentalists and the Chernobyl death toll

Tas Uni academic Barry Brook and other self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists peddle misinformation regarding the death toll from the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.

Before considering their misinformation, a brief summary of credible positions and scientific studies regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll (detailed elsewhere 1 and for the most up-to-date scientific review see the TORCH-2016 report written by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie 2).

Epidemiological studies are of course important but they’re not much use in estimating the overall Chernobyl death toll. The effects of Chernobyl, however large or small, are largely lost in the statistical noise of widespread cancer incidence and mortality.

Estimates of collective radiation exposure are available ‒ for example the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates a total collective dose of 600,000 person-Sieverts over 50 years from Chernobyl fallout. 4 And the collective radiation dose can be used to estimate the death toll using the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model.

If we use the IAEA’s collective radiation dose estimate, and a risk estimate derived from LNT (0.1 cancer deaths per person-Sievert), we get an estimate of 60,000 cancer deaths. Sometimes a risk estimate of 0.05 is used to account for the possibility of decreased risks at low doses and/or low 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.

Any number of studies (including studies published in peer-reviewed scientific literature) use LNT ‒ or LNT with a DDREF (or LNT with statistical ‘confidence intervals’) ‒ to estimate the Chernobyl death toll. These studies produce estimates ranging from 9,000 cancer deaths (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 cancer deaths (across Europe).1

Those are the credible estimates of the cancer death toll from Chernobyl. None of them are conclusive ‒ far from it ‒ but that’s the nature of the problem we’re dealing with.

Moreover, LNT may underestimate risks. The 2006 report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) 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.“4

So the true Chernobyl cancer death toll could be lower or higher than the LNT-derived estimate of 60,000 deaths ‒ a point that needs emphasis and constant repetition since the nuclear industry and its supporters frequently conflate an uncertain long-term death toll with a long-term death toll of zero.

Another defensible position is that the long-term Chernobyl cancer death toll is unknown and unknowable because of the uncertainties associated with the science. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) states (p.64): “The Committee has decided not to use models to project absolute numbers of effects in populations exposed to low radiation doses from the Chernobyl accident, because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions. It should be stressed that the approach outlined in no way contradicts the application of the LNT model for the purposes of radiation protection, where a cautious approach is conventionally and consciously applied.” 5

Pro-nuclear environmentalists

So there are two defensible positions regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll ‒ estimates based on collective dose estimates (with or without a DDREF or a margin of error in either direction), and UNSCEAR’s position that the death toll is uncertain.

The third of the two defensible positions ‒ unqualified claims that the Chernobyl death toll was just 50 or so, comprising some emergency responders and a small percentage of those who later suffered from thyroid cancer ‒ should be rejected as dishonest or uninformed spin from the nuclear industry and some of its scientifically-illiterate supporters.

Those illiterate supporters include every last one of the self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists (PNEs). We should note in passing that some PNE’s have genuine environmental credentials while others ‒ such as Patrick Moore 6 and Australian Ben Heard 7 ‒ are in the pay of the nuclear industry.

James Hansen 8 and George Monbiot 9 cite UNSCEAR to justify a Chernobyl death toll of 43, without noting that the UNSCEAR report 5 did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths. James Lovelock asserts that “in fact, only 42 people died” from the Chernobyl disaster. 10

Patrick Moore, citing the UN Chernobyl Forum (which included UN agencies such as the IAEA, UNSCEAR, and WHO), states that Chernobyl resulted in 56 deaths. 11 In fact, the Chernobyl Forum’s 2005 report estimated up to 4,000 long-term cancer deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations 12, and a follow-up study by the World Health Organisation in 2006 estimated an additional 5,000 deaths among people exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. 13

Tas Uni academic Barry Brook says the Chernobyl death toll is less than 60. 14 Ben Heard 15, a self-styled Australian ‘ecomodernist’ but in fact a uranium and nuclear industry consultant, claims that the death toll was 43. 16

In 2010, Mark Lynas said the Chernobyl death toll “has likely been only around 65.” 17 Two years earlier, Lynas said that the WHO estimates “a few thousand deaths” (actually 9,000 deaths) but downplays the death toll by saying it was “indiscernible” in the context of overall deaths. 18 Yes, the Chernobyl death toll is indiscernible ... and the 9/11 terrorist attacks accounted for an indiscernible 0.1 percent of all deaths in the U.S. in 2001.

There doesn’t appear to be a single example of a PNE ‒ or a comparable organisation ‒ providing a credible account of the Chernobyl death toll. They’re perfectly entitled to follow UNSCEAR’s lead and argue that the long-term death toll is uncertain, but conflating or confusing that uncertainty with a long-term death toll of zero clearly isn’t a defensible approach.

The Breakthrough Institute comes closest to a credible account of the Chernobyl death toll (which isn’t saying much), stating that “UN officials say that the death toll could be as high as 4,000”. 19

However the Breakthrough Institute ignores: the follow-up UN/WHO study that estimated an additional 5,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states 13; scientific estimates 1 of the death toll beyond ex-Soviet states (more than half of the Chernobyl fallout was deposited beyond the three most contaminated Soviet states); scientific literature regarding diseases other than cancer linked to radiation exposure 2; and indirect deaths associated with the permanent relocation of over 350,000 people after the Chernobyl disaster.

Tas Uni Barry Brook’s propaganda

Evidence of PNE ignorance abounds. For the most part, they had a shaky understanding of the radiation/health debates (and other nuclear issues) before they joined the pro-nuclear club, and they have a shaky understanding now.

Barry Brook is an example of someone whose understanding was shaky before and after he joined the PNE club. Brook says that before 2009 he hadn’t given much thought to nuclear power because of the ‘peak uranium’ argument. 20 By 2010, Brook was in full flight, asserting that the LNT model is “discredited” and has “no relevance to the real world”. 14

In fact, LNT enjoys heavy-hitting scientific support. For example the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ BEIR report states that “the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.” 4 Likewise, a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states: “Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology.” 21

On Chernobyl, Brook said: “The credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60. The ‘conspiracy theories’ drummed up against these authoritative organisations rings a disturbingly similar bell in my mind to the crank attacks on the IPCC, NASA and WMO in climate science.” 14

But the WHO, IAEA and other UN agencies estimated 9,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states in their 2005/06 reports 22, and more recently UNSCEAR has adopted the position that the long-term death toll is uncertain.

Brook repeatedly promotes the work of Ted Rockwell from ‘Radiation, Science, and Health’, an organisation that peddles unhinged, dangerous conspiracy theories such as this: “Government agencies suppress data, including radiation hormesis, and foster radiation fear. They support extreme, costly, radiation protection policies; and preclude using low-dose radiation for health and medical benefits that apply hormesis, in favor of using (more profitable) drug therapies.” 23

Brook promotes 24 the discredited ‘hormesis’ theory that low doses of radiation are beneficial to human health (for a scientific critique see Appendix D in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ BEIR report 4).

Pity Brook’s students at Tas Uni. How would you approach writing an essay to be marked by Prof. Brook ‒ would you use conventional logic and draw on established science, or might you be better off writing ideological drivel drawing heavily on quack scientists and unhinged conspiracy theorists?

True to form, this is what Brook had to say on 12 March 2011 when nuclear meltdown was in full swing at Fukushima: “The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero. There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure. Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces. I am happy to be quoted forever after on the above if I am wrong ... but I won’t be.” 25

Brook claims that “nuclear power is the safest energy option”. 26 Safer than wind and solar? To arrive at that conclusion, Brook and other propagandists understate credible estimates of the death toll from Chernobyl (and Fukushima) by orders of magnitude. They conflate an uncertain long-term Chernobyl death toll with a long-term death toll of zero. They trivialise 27 or ignore 28 the greatest hazard associated with nuclear power ‒ its repeatedly-demonstrated connections to WMD proliferation ‒ and they trivialise or ignore related problems such as conventional military strikes against nuclear plants, nuclear terrorism and sabotage, and nuclear theft and smuggling.

And for comic relief, on his Tas Uni webpage Brook promotes his citation as one of the ‘Outstanding Scientists of the 21st Century’. But in fact the citation comes from the International Biographical Centre 29, an organisation that lacks any credibility and is listed on the WA Government’s ‘scamnet’ website 30. One of Brook’s academic colleagues nominated a squeaky toy lobster and Prof. Lobster was accepted for inclusion in the list of Outstanding Scientists.


12., p.16

*Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a version of this article was originally published. ( )