This is something that I really want to look into over the next few months. I've been told by many sources, and read in several places, that the actual human toll from the Chernobyl accident was relatively small, compared to what we imagine. For instance, in a report for PBS on Tuesday, Miles O'Brien quoted the United Nations Chernobyl Forum as attributing only ("only") 4000 deaths to the disaster. O'Brien says:
the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, issued a report contending: "There is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of cancers or leukemia due to radiation in the exposed populations. Neither is there any proof of any non-malignant disorders that are related to ionizing radiation. However, there were widespread psychological reactions to the accident, which were due to fear of the radiation, not the actual radiation doses."
That's in line with what I've learned from multiple independent sources. But, it's apparently not the whole story. Other sources that O'Brien spoke with for his PBS report—mainly doctors and scientists from the Ukraine—say that there is evidence of much more widespread Chernobyl-caused health problems in human populations.
I can't promise I'll have answers on this quickly. But it's something that I'm going to look into. In particular, I'm really curious whether the different groups of people studying Chernobyl are coming up with wildly different data, or whether the data is similar but the conclusions are wildly different. Is one group relying too much on anecdote? Are the other group's results based on research that didn't go deep enough or last long enough? I've got no idea. But I'll be interested to find out.
You can watch O'Brien's full report from Chernobyl, and/or read the transcript, online. Fair warning, this is heart-wrenching stuff. Especially his interview with one of the Chernobyl liquidators—military and firefighting crews who were brought in to do hands-on cleanup of highly radioactive material.
Image: After visiting the Chernobyl site, Miles O'Brien is screened by a radiation detector. Photo taken by Catherine Buell. More images at PBS.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.