Chernobyl has taught us more about the industry and politics than radiation and health

Pripyat is still abandoned, and 25 years later the same mistakes are made and the same questions hang over the IAEA and nuclear industry.

A quarter century after the world’s worst nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Michael Parker finds a power generating industry happy to keep the public in the dark.

Old habits die hard. When reactor no. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine blew itself apart just before 1.30am on April 26 1986, it was natural for the Soviet government to deny it, even as the radioactive cloud swept far to the north and set Geiger counters shrieking in Finland and Sweden.

Denial, misinformation and cover-up were stock in trade for Soviet authorities, and a previous major accident – an exploding nuclear fuel dump at the Mayak processing site in 1957 – was not revealed until 1979. In the days after the Chernobyl disaster, Grigori Medvedev, the former deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl then working at the energy ministry, was put in charge of an investigation.

His 1991 book, The Truth about Chernobyl, lays bare the incompetence and negligence of staff who disabled safety systems, the lax safety culture, and the design flaws of the RBMK type reactors that were known but ignored. He records how the authorities issued no warnings to the population of Pripyat, the town which housed the plant’s workers barely two miles from the stricken reactor from which streamed radioactivity equivalent to 100 times that released from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. School children played outside and weddings took place.

When Pripyat’s 50,000 inhabitants were finally evacuated 36 hours later, the official line was that it was only for a few days – the town remains abandoned 25 years later. The official line still held on May 1, when Communist Party bigwigs came out to watch the parades knowing full well they, and all those marching, did so under the radioactive plume. There was even a show trial of senior managers, who were only freed from prison when the USSR collapsed.

The conniving did not stop there. Journalist and former politician Alla Yaroshinskaya dug out previously classified government documents which revealed how in the face of rising numbers of people diagnosed with acute radiation sickness, the ministry of health simply raised the safe acceptable radiation doses tenfold, redefining the sick as healthy. Without irony, the statement from May 8 1986 claims: “By these means the health safety of the public of all ages is guaranteed, even should the current radiation situation last for 25 years.” Doctors were banned from writing radiation-related causes on death certificates, and statistics were falsified.

However, since 1990 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organisation (WHO), UN Scientific Committee on the Effects Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and other UN agencies have produced numerous reports on the accident. But despite the involvement of the democratic western nations, a sense that the whole picture is not being revealed remains.

The Chernobyl Forum, set up by the IAEA and including the WHO and other agencies, reported in 2005 the controversial claim that around 50 had died, and 9,000 could be expected to die from radiation-related causes following the accident.

Given the scale of the disaster – a complete reactor meltdown, a radioactive fire burning in the open air for 10 days, a radioactive cloud across the continent contaminating hundreds of thousands of square kilometres – many felt this played down the consequences. The press release that accompanied the report’s publication even used the figure of 4,000 deaths, when the body of the report concludes the total is 9,000. There were other complaints: the tone seemed overly final, when any figures are only vague estimates, the report only examined the effects on Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and emphasised only cancer deaths, rather than the wide range of non-cancer effects such as heart disease, cataracts, nervous disorders and genetic genome instability reported from the former Soviet republics. It is very hard to accurately connect deaths among exposed populations to radiation – studies are inconclusive, data incomplete, possible other factors too numerous – but science demands an objective assessment.

Some scientists felt it was a familiar routine. Radiation biologist Dr Keith Baverstock headed the WHO’s European radiation protection programme, where in 1992 he investigated claims of high rates of thyroid cancer appearing in Belarus. “We were shown around 11 children, all having had recent thyroid operations,” he recalls. “Thyroid cancer is so rare there was no way it was possible to have that many cases in one hospital. “I had been put under pressure not to go, and when we published a letter of our findings, a senior WHO manager strongly suggested I withdraw the letter, which I refused.”

Thyroid cancers in Chernobyl-affected children stand around 7,000 and rising. Treatment is readily available and generally successful, but while only a handful have died, the standard treatment of removing the thyroid leaves the patient dependent on medicine for the rest of their lives. Scars from the operation are so common they have a name – the ‘Chernobyl necklace‘.

Ultimately funded by their member states, the IAEA, WHO and other UN organisations are inclined to ensure that governments hear what they want to hear, Baverstock says. The discovery that radioactive fallout from power stations could be dangerous would “not be welcome”. “The upper levels of UN organisations are not technically qualified people, and make decisions based on politics.”

Based on their findings, Baverstock and his colleagues drew up new safety guidelines that would ensure potassium-iodide capsules, which prevent the thyroid from absorbing cancer-inducing radioactive iodine-131, would be distributed at a radiation dose ten times lower than previously. On publication, the IAEA announced the guidelines were “draft”, and should be ignored.

“We were furious,” Baverstock says. “When we finally had a meeting it turned out there were no scientific objections to this, only financial ones – from France, who with reactors near so many large cities objected to the expense of all those capsules.”

Other organisations such as Greenpeace, Green Party-associated groups and environmentalists and scientists from the former Soviet Union issued their own reports, with death estimates ranging from 30,000 to one million. But if anti-nuclear groups could be said to have a vested interest in maximizing the Chernobyl bodycount, it must be said that the IAEA also has vested interests of a different nature. After all, this is a body set up to promote civil nuclear power, yet a 1959 agreement between it and the WHO gives it precedence in any nuclear-related matter – such as carrying out research to ascertain health risks of radiation and nuclear power. The conflict of interest is obvious, but Baverstock says in reality the agreement is irrelevant: the WHO and UN Development Programme sit on the UN Economic and Social Council, while IAEA with its role monitoring nuclear weapons sits on the more senior Security Council, and thus pulls rank.

Following the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, where partial meltdown in three reactors has yet to be brought under control after six weeks, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano stated the organisation is not the “nuclear watchdog” it is frequently described as. “Responsibility for nuclear safety lies with our member states. The IAEA acts as a hub for international cooperation, to establish safety standards and provide expert advice.” Applying and enforcing safety standards is up to national governments, he said.

Poor standards were to blame at Chernobyl, and perhaps also at Fukushima, where criticisms of the 40-year-old reactor design’s poor secondary containment – destroyed by the explosions last month – had been made since the 1970s, with recommended upgrades never rolled out. Tepco, the plant’s owner, was investigated for falsifying repair records in 2002.

Perhaps nuclear technology is incompatible with the profit motive? Not necessarily, Baverstock says. “What Fukushima has shown is that governments and the industry have not learned. There needs to be a watchdog with enforcement powers, perhaps even owning the plants,” he says.

“We still don’t fully understand radiation risks, and there is certainly irrational fear of radiation among the public. We are not always rational, but if there is incompetence and deception from the nuclear industry then that will, not unreasonably, colour the public’s view.”

At the birth of the atomic age nuclear power stations were the means to manufacture weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs. The industry grew up in an era of Cold War secrecy and the demands of the military over public interest. The state of the world has changed, but the institutional secrecy of the nuclear industry and the organisations created to excuse it remains.

The eventual acknowledgement of the link between iodine-131 and thyroid cancer meant Japanese authorities knew to act quickly and distribute potassium iodide capsules around Fukushima. This will have saved many lives and much suffering – yet were it not for the persistence of scientists like Baverstock and his colleagues, the link might never have been made. By trying so hard to fit the evidence to how they would prefer the world to appear, the industry’s cheerleaders run the risk of learning nothing from Chernobyl – and the accidents that will, and have, come after it.

Part two of the nuclear debate is here.

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, April 2011]