April 26, 2019, marked the 33rd anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in the world, and the only one to kill anyone with radioactivity — the Soviet Union’s RBMK reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986.
On Monday, May 6, HBO showed the start of a miniseries, Chernobyl, that dramatizes the event. From the trailer, it might actually describe what happened inside the power plant and nearby surroundings pretty well. And it will certainly capture the fear very well.
But it will fail yet again to describe what happened outside and far away, sensationalizing and exaggerating the effects, and reinforcing the myth that many thousands of people died from radiation in Ukraine, Belarus and Europe.
It will not reveal that only the fear of radiation killed anyone outside the immediate area. All health and epidemiological studies have shown that the long-term mental health effects were the only significant public health consequence of the accident outside of the vicinity of Chernobyl. Fifty-thousand people died from depression and alcoholism and over 100,000 unnecessary abortions were performed out of fear.
In 2015, the National Institutes of Health declared that, “In spite of the best efforts of statisticians and epidemiologists, the claimed thousands of Chernobyl-induced cancers and mutations have yet to manifest themselves.”
And we have been looking really, really hard for 33 years.
Surprisingly, there were three other reactors at the same Chernobyl plant that kept running for many years. Three-thousand people went to work at the Chernobyl plant every day and had no problem with health or radiation effects.
And when humans left the area after the accident, wild animals and birds moved back in and thrived — wolves, elk, wild boars, white-tailed eagles, owls, cranes, black storks — and show no radiation effects. Chernobyl is now a growing tourist attraction with over 60,000 people visiting in 2018.
So how many people did die?
Well, 340,000 people were evacuated or resettled after the accident. Five million people live in what many consider contaminated areas in northern Europe, but no radiation-induced health effects have been observed in these groups and their resettlement is now considered a grave mistake that destroyed the lives of an entire generation.
The World Health Organization first raised concerns in 1989 that local medical personnel had incorrectly attributed various biological and health effects to radiation exposure.
Following this, the Soviet government requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to coordinate an international experts' assessment of the Chernobyl accident's radiological, environmental and health consequences.
The health effects, including deaths, were thoroughly documented by the Chernobyl Forum September 6-7, 2005 in Vienna in their resultant report.
Forum members included the IAEA, the UN Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Development Program, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Environment Program, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the governments of Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine.
They found that actual fatalities were:
▪ 2 immediate, non-radiation deaths
▪ 28 early fatalities from radiation within 4 months
▪ 19 late adult fatalities presumably from radiation over the next 20 years, although this number is within the normal incidence of cancer mortality in this group, which is about 1 percent per year
▪ 9 late child fatalities from radiation resulting in thyroid cancer
These last nine are an inexcusable tragedy since they were totally avoidable with warning from the Soviet government (which they intentionally failed to do in time).
In addition, almost a thousand emergency workers thrown into the fire in the first days of the accident by the Soviets received high doses of radiation, and about 50 died from cancer and other health issues.
But for the general public in these countries, as concluded in the 2008 report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation: “There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.”
I hope this new movie doesn’t just pile on, but I’m afraid it will.
Jim Conca is a longtime resident and scientist in the Tri-Cities, a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, and a science contributor to Forbes at forbes.com/sites/ jamesconca