Hearts and minds

16 February 2006

In the 20 years following the accident at Chernobyl, perhaps no problem has posed more difficulties than providing accurate information to those in areas affected by the accident. In April 2005, the Chernobyl Forum, a group of more than one hundred scientists representing eight United Nations agencies and the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, reported: “The mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date.” Reinforced by misinformation that has repeatedly plagued the population, it observed: “Misconceptions and myths about the threat of radiation persist, promoting a paralysing fatalism among residents.” Studies have shown “exposed populations had anxiety symptom levels that were twice as high as controls and they were 3-4 times more likely to report multiple unexplained physical symptoms and subjective poor health than were unaffected control groups.” In one study, suicide was reported as the leading cause of death among cleanup workers from Estonia. Other studies reported by R F Mould in his book, Chernobyl Record, have shown that “up to 90% of persons living in contaminated territories thought they had, or might have, an illness due to radiation exposure, compared with up to 75% of the populations living in clean territories.”

These difficulties are compounded when the misinformation comes from those with ostensible authority, those supposedly ‘in the know’, an archetype of which is the award winning documentary Chernobyl Heart. Since receiving the Academy Award for ‘Best Documentary Short Subject’ in February 2004, it has garnered international accolades, has been uncritically quoted in major newspapers including the New York Times and The Baltimore Sun, and is being recommended for America’s classrooms on the National Education Association’s website. It has been running continuously on the HBO network since September 2004. Yet while presented as a documentary on Chernobyl, it relies to a shocking extent on claims that lack scientific support and are, in too many cases, simply false.

Produced in 2002 by Maryann DeLeo, it features the work of the Chernobyl Children’s Project International, a New York based charity founded in Ireland which provides aid to those in areas affected by the Chernobyl accident. It is a well produced, heart-wrenching film with pictures so graphic it is hard to watch: a child with its brain growing outside its head, another with a kidney tumor so large the child cannot be moved, it goes on and on. DeLeo later told an interviewer it was the hardest film she ever had to make. Yet without an adequate scientific basis for linking these horrifying scenes to Chernobyl, the film harms the very people it is claiming to help, those in areas affected by the accident.

While many had forecast tens and hundreds of thousands of fatalities, the Chernobyl Forum reports a better estimate of the total number of deaths among the population of emergency workers and those in the most contaminated areas is around 4000 – less than the annual death toll from routine coal plant operations in the USA, estimated to exceed 25,000 per year. The most noticeable effect has been an increase in thyroid cancers among children, with survival rates fortunately greater than 98%. Otherwise, they concluded, there have been no detectable effects of the accident among the general population: no increase in infant mortality, no increase in birth defects, no increase in cancers, and no effects on immune system function.

The larger concern, it reports, is the despair felt by residents of the area and the way it has affected their lives. People in these communities “exhibit strongly negative attitudes in self-assessments of health and well-being” associated with “an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation.” The result is a fatalism that has led to a “loss of initiative to solve the problems of sustaining an income and to dependency on assistance from the state.” An added consequence has been a “neglect of the role of personal behavior in maintaining health,” with the adoption of destructive lifestyles. The answer, they stress, is better, more accurate information about the accident and its actual consequences.

Despair, death, destruction

It is a solution made far more difficult by Chernobyl Heart. Rather than offering a message of hope, it only reinforces the ongoing sense of despair. Beginning with scenes from the exclusion area, Adi Roche, executive director of the Chernobyl Children’s Project, provides a running commentary. With the shadow of Chernobyl holding the viewer in its grip, she intones, pointing to the remains of the plant: “That building has caused the destruction of nine million lives, half of which are children… The children know themselves they have no hope.”

She then sets out to legitimise this lack of hope with claims that have been deliberately contrived to make the situation appear worse than it is. Consider, for example, the title. The condition ‘Chernobyl Heart’ is claimed to be a defect in the heart caused by the accident, yet there is no reference to a condition known as Chernobyl Heart in any major study of the consequences of the accident. When I posed a question about this to Fred Mettler who chaired the Chernobyl Forum’s expert group on health, he told me: “The issue of cardiac defects does not appear as a radiation related effect in either human or animal data I am aware of over the last century.” He added: “None of the three governments presented any such data as being Chernobyl related.” He concluded: “It sounds as if they are improperly attributing spontaneously occurring congenital cardiac diseases to radiation.” Since heart disease affects one percent of all children throughout the world and is the leading cause of birth defects, it is not surprising that cardiac disease is found in infants born in these areas.

As the documentary opens, factual misrepresentations begin with the accident itself. To add dramatic effect, Roche tells us that the 1986 accident “only spewed out about 3% of its full potential and the balance is actually still remaining inside, which is a very scary thought. And the scientists [unnamed] say that the next Chernobyl will be Chernobyl itself.”

While it is true that only about 3.5% of the fuel materials were released, these were not the main sources of radioactivity inside the reactor. Considering actual releases and radioactive decay since the accident, a closer estimate is that 1-5% of the original radioactivity remains. And those materials are the most stable, which is why two explosions and a fire lasting ten days left them behind.

At roughly this point a graphic appears on the screen:

The people of Chernobyl were exposed to 90 times greater radiation than that from the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima

This somewhat startling claim is also false. In fact, there were some 20,000 human casualties from radiation exposures at Hiroshima and Nagasaki within the first two to four months, compared with 28 during a similar period at Chernobyl. The claim arises from a comparison of radioactive fallout between the two events, but fallout was not the primary source of radiation exposure at Hiroshima. The primary source was the direct burst of gamma and neutron radiation from fissioning within the bomb itself. It is both callous and irresponsible to even suggest the two events are comparable.

As we move out of the exclusion zone, another graphic tells us:


While Chernobyl was a terrible accident, no one is served by misrepresenting its consequences

600,000 liquidators were exposed to massive doses of radiation

The term ‘liquidator’ refers to recovery operation workers who began work the day after the accident and is intended to distinguish them from emergency workers on the day of the accident who did receive very high radiation doses. As the Chernobyl Forum reports, most recovery operation workers “received relatively low whole body radiation doses, comparable to background radiation levels.” According to UNSCEAR 2000, a report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation to the General Assembly in 2000, of the approximately 226,000 liquidators who received the highest exposures, 63% received doses less than 100mSv and none received doses exceeding 500mSv. The National Academy of Sciences considers doses below 100mSv to be ‘low’. In various parts of the world, people routinely accumulate a radiation dose during their lifetime from natural sources that varies from 100-500mSv.

The next graphic adds to the impact by stating:

Over 13,000 liquidators have died

The obvious implication is the death rate is unusually high due to their radiation exposures. The liquidators were males, ages 20-45, and deaths would naturally be expected during the 15 year period following the accident. The relevant question is how many of these deaths would reasonably be related to radiation exposures. In one study of a group of 61,000 liquidators who received some of the highest exposures, the Chernobyl Forum estimated that perhaps 5% of the fatalities reported between 1991 and 1998 for this group, representing about 0.4% of the entire group, might have been radiation related. While it is a non-trivial impact, it is a quite different picture than the sinister graphic implies.

These exaggerations – comparisons to Hiroshima, exaggerating the risks associated with the materials remaining in the sarcophagus, misrepresenting the exposures and deaths among the liquidators – merely set the stage for the central premise of the documentary. It’s about children who are deformed and suffering and the claim that these are a consequence of Chernobyl. As we tour facilities exploiting tragic pictures of these children, more graphics flash across the screen:

Infant mortality is 300% higher in Belarus than the rest of Europe

Followed shortly by another:

Birth defects have increased 250% since the Chernobyl accident

While it is true that infant mortality in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine is higher than the rest of Europe, that was the case both before and after Chernobyl. In fact, as the Chernobyl Forum found: “After the accident, infant mortality rates progressively decreased in both contaminated areas and non-contaminated areas.”

As for birth defects, the claim in the graphic is flatly contradicted by the Chernobyl Forum, as well as earlier studies of the accident. As UNSCEAR 2000 reported: “So far, no increase in birth defects, congenital malformations, stillbirths, or premature births could be linked to radiation exposures caused by [Chernobyl].” Chernobyl Forum scientists reviewed these conclusions and concurred, finding no evidence of “a radiation related increase in malformations or infant mortality as a direct result of radiation exposure.” While they acknowledge “a modest but steady increase” in reported congenital malformations, they found it to be “of equal magnitude in both contaminated and control areas since 1986.” For that reason they concluded: “This does not appear to be radiation related and may be a result of increased reporting.”

The same is true for claims of damage to immune systems that are anecdotally reported in the documentary. For example, one doctor states: “Of course radiation had an effect. It’s noticeable that the number of illnesses increased after Chernobyl. Children get sick more often after they’re born. Their immune system is weakened.”

But it is not noticeable if one examines the scientific data. It is known that exposure to radiation at high doses can damage immune systems, but the exposures following Chernobyl were too low to produce those effects. Here too Chernobyl Forum scientists agreed with UNSCEAR 2000, which concluded: “Immunological effects in the general population could not be associated with Chernobyl and, when observed, were likely due to other causes.”

While Chernobyl was a terrible accident, no one is served by misrepresenting its consequences, least of all people who live in areas affected by the accident. Documentaries distorting the truth pose a special problem because they have a stamp of authority and are trusted. Here that trust was betrayed, not just by the Chernobyl Children’s Project in releasing Chernobyl Heart full of mangled facts, but also by Hollywood in granting it an Academy Award with apparently no effort to check them. The Chernobyl Children’s Project should be given credit for its charitable work, but its documentary should be condemned rather than applauded.

Author Info:

Paul Lorenzini, 8927 NW Rockwell Lane Portland, Oregon 97229, USA

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Do-it-yourself approach

We were concerned from the outset that CoRWM was adopting a ‘do-it-yourself’ approach rather than the oversight role specified in its terms of reference (ToR). The management has repeatedly denied this. Who is correct and does it matter?

The ToR are crystal clear that CoRWM should be overseer of a review of options. They state: “It is not envisaged that committee members themselves will be responsible for day-to-day work activities but rather in deciding what these should be, overseeing their delivery, and reviewing and being responsible for the reports and other output delivered under CoRWM's name.” In his report Collier states: “Our perspective is that CoRWM in some senses operated during Phase 2 (October 2004 to July 2005) more like a consultancy project team with a near-full-time core than the ‘one day a week’ oversight and decision-making committee that appears to have been the original intent.”
An inspection of the number and nature of the documents written by CoRWM members confirms that CoRWM has failed throughout to adhere to this stipulation. The importance of this delineation may not be fully realised until CoRWM’s recommendations are put to the test of general acceptance. If challenged, as one must anticipate, CoRWM will not be able to appeal to expertise beyond its membership as support. Tarnish CoRWM acquires in presenting its own work will impugn its recommendations.
Collier was unable to say whether the course was the best or only option available as he was not involved early on, but noted: “We would expect to find evidence that the approach was thought through and debated so that the implications would be assessed and managed. It would be unfortunate if stakeholders were left to assume that it happened by default.” It is thus supremely unfortunate that CoRWM`s attention was repeatedly drawn to this departure from its ToR, and the drawbacks and likely consequences, throughout 2004, but that management did nothing.

Conflicts of interest

The Independent on Sunday reported conflicts of interest for four members of the committee; the chair did not deny them but said they did not matter. Was this inevitable and does it matter?

The Independent noted that contracts had been given to close associates of CoRWM members who had not declared their connections. This is confirmed by Collier who said: “Some members had close connections with consultancies that won significant contracts.”
The pool of expertise in the relevant areas is not unlimited but not so small as to be confined to close associates of CoRWM’s membership. Neither does the employment of expertise need to be confined to the UK. And as noted, some of the work commissioned was unnecessary, especially that for the elimination of options with no realistic chance of implementation. If an option fails on one criterion it is unnecessary to analyse it further but CoRWM was either unwilling or unable to appreciate this logic. Furthermore, as Collier noted in connection with some of this work: “Many (peer) reviews were critical, pointing out significant omissions.” He went on to note that by the time the peer reviews were available, decisions based on the work packages had already been made.
This is another aspect of the committee´s work where storms gather. The combination of ineptness and mismanagement in handling the science input to the decision making process, and the dubious procedures for commissioning that science, are hostages to fortune.

Method of decision making

The committee, on its own admission, has adopted an unusual method of decision making. Is it appropriate to use experimental and untried decision making processes on such an important issue?

CoRWM spent 16 months eliminating unrealistic options leaving 15 months for an options assessment on the shortlisted options followed by consultation and engagement with the public and stakeholders, decision making on the final options to be recommended, and preparation of its final report. The terms of reference (ToR) call for unrealistic options to be eliminated quickly and for an in-depth review of the shortlisted options. The elimination process could – had CoRWM adhered to the ToR, adopted an oversight modus operandum, and appointed an expert panel which addressed the issue in a logical way – have been completed in something of the order of 16 weeks, including public and stakeholder consultation. This would have left time for the required in-depth scientific and engineering review of the shortlist.
From the way CoRWM has approached the problem we conclude it takes the view that it is only necessary to recommend either some form of geological disposal, phased or not, or long-term storage. However, for recommendations to be useful CoRWM needs to be more specific in terms of appropriate geologies, packaging, and broad considerations about issues such as siting. Furthermore, a comparison needs to be made with the existing situation as a baseline. In the time now left it will not be possible to address these essential elements. Nor can they be addressed by the chosen strategy for the input of science and engineering knowledge, namely, on demand as and when public and stakeholder panels perceive a need.
Collier described the decision making process as ‘untried’. Blowers, a member of CoRWM, prefers ‘innovative’. Blowers made his remark in the context of a report which has belatedly appeared following a workshop on ‘deliberative democracy’ run by his colleagues at the Open University. We attended this workshop and were struck by the relativist approach underlying this form of decision making, which essentially relies on getting small groups of volunteers to put in a few weekends attending facilitated workshops in which, from a ‘cold start’, they try to reach consensus on a complex problem. We do not doubt there are issues that could be approached in this way, but we are highly sceptical about their meaningfulness where high consequence and complex technical issues are concerned. Attempts to get the workshop organisers to say how the utility of these activities for decision making could be assessed, failed totally. The primary criterion for success seemed to be that all had a good time; there would be ways of guaranteeing this without any group discussions. Some may find it extraordinary that a government department endorses this approach when the likely investment in the solution it yields is £50 billion ($90 billion) of taxpayers’ money.
Equally worrying is the lack of information (on the website at least) about exactly what the holistic decision making process, which will run alongside the multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA), will involve. This is said to be more intuitive. The excellent book Critical Mass by Philip Ball illustrates just how badly intuition can let us down when it comes to the complexities of such simple things as everyday life in the stock exchange or on the roads. We wonder whether a future generation left with the task of clearing up a mess intuited by this generation will be grateful.

Quote 1
The prevailing establishment view appears to be that it is too late to do other than soldier on

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