Conflicting reports over impact of Chernobyl: Miles O'Brien on PBS NewsHour


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.


  1. SO interested in what you find, Maggie! I’ve also been confused by the seemingly contradictory reports.

  2. If you brought Maggie and Xeni into direct contact with one another I’m pretty sure that it would result in their conversion to an amount of energy equal to their total mass times (9 x 10^16) joules. Or maybe the bow-chika-bow musing would start, I dunno.

    Either way, thank you so much for this type of coverage, Maggie. You are awesome.

    1. Before seeing this report, I didn’t know they were planning to turn Chernobyl into a *theme park.* What is that I don’t even.

      The portion of this piece, the interview with the “liquidator” was really rough. And at the same time, what struck me was how much his testimony, and so much of the rest of what’s in here about life forms mutating, adapting, struggling to contend with the remaining ambient rads, what all of that says about how the will to live is hard-wired into all living creatures. Ourselves included.

      Really makes me wonder how the ongoing situation at Fukushima will play out. For now, one can only hope, and look for reliable information.

  3. When I was a kid (early 90’s) there was a program where families would host children affected by Chernobyl so they could get medical treatment they couldn’t get at home. I also remember something about them being able to play in the fresh air instead of whatever they had at home.

    Anyway, it’s a vague memory. I’ll also be interested to see the results.

  4. Maggie, the continuing cancer toll from Chernobyl, particularly among children in the immediate area (but actually measurable across all of Europe) is so appalling that you can be sure you will never get anyone to believe it.

    You understand that Chernobyl’s getting ready to blow again, right? It was never actually controlled, just temporarily capped off. The area around Chernobyl will remain unsafe for humans long after we’ve evolved into birds that don’t care.

    All nuclear power plants will eventually chernobyl. Functionally speaking, it’s why they exist; the corporations will run them until catastrophe prevents running them any further. There is no other possible outcome without intervention, because the corporations have captured the regulatory processes formerly provided by governments. People are going to have to rebel, perhaps violently but hopefully not, in order to effect change. Any other narrative is a fairy story at this point.

    1. “All nuclear power plants will eventually Chernobyl.”

      Wait, what? Why couldn’t they be safely decomissioned when they become outdated or structurally near the end of their intended lifespans? I’d think that would be infinitely more likely than disaster after disaster happening. Even companies who only have concern for the bottom line would not want a horribly expensive accident like Chernobyl or Fukushima on their hands. Shares in Tepco have dropped a whopping 57%.

      1. “All nuclear power plants will eventually Chernobyl.”

        Wait, what? Why couldn’t they be safely decommissioned when they become outdated or structurally near the end of their intended lifespans?

        That is NOT HAPPENING ANY MORE, at least not in the USA. Everyone needs to understand this.

        The Bush administration re-permitted the reactors in the USA that were scheduled to be shut down due to having already gone past their safe operational lifecycle.

        Existing reactors exactly like Fukushima’s, which are already 20 years past their design lifespan, have been re-permitted and will be in production until at least 2034.

        Obama is “re-examining” these permits and will likely do nothing, if past performance is any guide (see telco immunity, extraordinary rendition, patriot act). His team simply hasn’t the balls to reverse Bush decisions, although Obama is smart enough not to make those bad decisions himself.

        Some of us believe these extremely long permits were given in order to allow nuclear plant operators to “ride out” anti-nuclear administrations like the Clinton regime. The strategy is probably to have the next nuke-friendly president re-permit them to 2058 during her presidency, and so on.

        Even companies who only have concern for the bottom line would not want a horribly expensive accident like Chernobyl or Fukushima on their hands. Shares in Tepco have dropped a whopping 57%.

        Every single US nuclear operator has a guaranteed government bailout waiting for them. Economically, a catastrophic accident is the best way for a nuclear power plant operator to dispose of the facility. Killing off a few thousand people who are not members of the corporate upper class is far cheaper than actually shutting down a nuclear plant for reasons of age or safety. Nuclear byproducts have to be managed forever, dead babies do not.

        Under the current regulatory and operational stance, every US nuclear reactor will eventually chernobyl. We simply will not stop running them until it is no longer physically possible. That is how things stand today, 3/31/11.

      2. Almost every plant in the USA will be run until there is an “accident” that makes it inoperable. Why? Simple: the Price Anderson Act removes responsibility for damages from the power companies, it externalizes any “accident” costs.

        — It is extremely rare for a plant to close and the NRC grants extensions to
        operating permits to every plant that asks for one.

        — 100,000’s MW of additional power have gone online in the US, (coal, gas, water, wind) yet very few nukes close. The argument of “build new nukes and close old ones” is false. They will run the new nukes and the old ones too.

        — Getting electric generating revenue from an old unsafe plant vs. expensive shutdown and cleanup (estimated at billions for each reactor). If an “accident” happens the costs to the company are less. Free land buffer zone like a 50 mile radius is no problem and FREE.
        Killed people? Free. Some cement and lawyer costs? a lot less than the billions to properly close a plant and the environment standards of closing a plant are far lower for an “accident”.

        — NRC fines for unsafe operation could cost a few million vs. known billions for proper shutdown and cleanup.

        Conclusion: EVERY plant will run until inoperable because of accident.

  5. Death is not the be all and end all of suffering from irradiation, and in some ways it isn’t even the worst.

    Go google images of mutated children post Chernobyl….. being alive they won’t show up in statistics of the number of dead, but try telling anyone with a heart that they aren’t victims.

  6. Maggie, thanks for some of the best, most consistently level-headed reporting on the Fukushima nuclear issues on any medium.

  7. The Battle of Chernobyl, which I believe was a Discovery channel documentary, is really interesting too and paints a decidely grim picture of the potential deaths directly attributable to the disaster including the indisputable deaths of the firemen, the miners who tunneled under the reactor, the workers who shoveled graphite off the roof, as well as the residents of Chernobyl who weren’t evacuated in time, and the residents of Pripyat. Includes appearances by a very young Hans Blix, former premier Gorbechev and some really damning accusations against the Soviet coverup, highly politicized UN review that downplayed the literal and figurative fallout, the planned sarcophagus to cover the crumbling existing shield, and much more…

    Quite interesting. Quite scary. For one, I didn’t realize how close they were to losing the radioactive slag through the bottom of the reactor and into the water table potentially polluting the water for the majority of the region.

    1. Which reminds me, the most upsetting part of this piece for me was: the “sarcophagus” enclosure around Chernobyl has freakin HOLES in it. Contamination is leaking out. They need money to build a new one, which, best case scenario, is good for a hundred years. Half-life of the material they’re trying to contain? 25,000 years.

      Human beings just do a really shitty job thinking, designing, and acting in ways that are mindful of the long, long future.

      1. That the other neighboring reactors at the plant were, until relatively recently, still in use is mind boggling! The Discovery documentary I mentioned above includes video from within the crumbling original sarcophagus that show literal waterfalls within it due to the holes. The state of that sarcophagus is part of what is making the building of the new one so difficult and expensive as it not only has to be built at a distance and adequate protection given to those assembling it, but then wheeled into place and then finally sealed. I haven’t heard or read anything from the design and engineering perspective about how that last portion of supposedly sealing the new sarcophagus is to be accomplished.

      2. Human beings just do a really shitty job thinking, designing, and acting in ways that are mindful of the long, long future.

        As Douglas Hofstadter might point out, it’s not humans that are bad at this as much as it’s societies that are bad..

          1. That seems like an odd distinction. Societies are made of people, usually. Right?

            Yes, but group behaviour is always different from individual behaviour. This is well documented if not completely understood. Unthinking mobs are a commonplace phenomena, and governments frequently perform acts against the wishes and best interests of the people who make up the society that encompasses that government.

            Personally, I believe there are many individual human beings who could be trusted to run a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, men are mortal, and their ability to think and act cogently is limited in time, so only a group with changing membership can live long enough to deal with nuclear fission.

            But there are no groups of humans who can be trusted to run a nuclear power plant. We don’t have the right organizational capacities, at least not today. Perhaps the confucian system would work, but I think it would be a better idea to shut down all terrestrial nuclear plants, since they are an unprofitable and inefficient boondoggle anyway.

            Biotechnology is the future. Oil trees that can grow in provence, France, perhaps, or charcoal bushes that will thrive in Japan? Algal biofuels in countries like the USA that are blessed with large desert wastelands. Cellosic ethanol from grasses. That sort of thing.

      3. Is Russia. We have lots of land. Radiation is leaking? No problem. Go somewhere else. I hear Siberia is nice this time of year.

  8. I haven’t read every single link, but as an epidemiologist, there IS a lot of gray area, because people like to think of ‘deaths’ as acute events with a clear, obviously observable casual link. Our brains are simply not wired to immediately attribute environmental radiation exposure and cancer mortality — not when it may take ten, twenty, forty years for those cancers to develop, as well as a carefully conducted (and perhaps expensive) cohort study.

    For example, the study cited in EHJournal above states that while there was measurable change in hematologic markers (RBC / WBC counts), those markers *improved* over time. Will those kids recover fully? Did mutations get put into their blood stem cell line, so that when they’re 60 they’ll all develop leukemia or some other cancer? Unknown.

    Here’s a hard-and-fast answer, though: ain’t nobody gonna be moving INTO the areas poisoned by Chernobyl for a long long time. And if all those long-lived powerful isotopes DO start getting into the water table, then a lot more morbidity & mortality WILL start becoming apparent very quickly.

  9. I’m very pleased to hear this Maggie. Not knowing the answer to this question, and discovering that I didn’t know it, has been nagging at me for weeks now, and stymieing a lot of conversations I find myself in.

    There are two related questions really: how many people died, and how many people had their lives shortened or degraded? I’ve seen just a wild range of answers to both.

  10. It’s not like they ran a control. This would be roughly the opposite of the placebo effect. If you tell people that they’ve been exposed to high radiation(even if they hadn’t been) and then look for tumors 30 years later, it’s possible you could cause a legitimate phenotype.

  11. My very unscientific research, based on reporters showing footage and pictures of towns around Chernobyl, indicates a near 100% reduction in population. Everyone died.

    I mean this tongue in check as an example of how sampling and interpreting data can give very different results. Even correct data can be misleading and/or misinterpreted.

  12. It’s a thorny issue Maggie, good luck to you. To call it contested would be an understatement.

    Historically, nuclear safety limits and risk estimates have been very much an ‘in house’ matter by the nuclear industry. This extends up to the IAEA which handles such matters at the UN level, and is mandated to promote nuclear power as well as dealing with proliferation of weapons-grade materials.

    Whatever your final conclusions, you should certainly take a look at this:

    Tangential, but also of interest is the KiKK study in Germany which looks at cancer clusters around nuclear power stations. Happy reading. Very much look forward to any conclusions you might come to…

  13. “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.”

    That could be because we get reports from two sources: one that reports a “human toll” and has compelling reasons to report numbers as small as possible, and the other, doctors that have to treat actual humans. Our imagination extends only to cases that are missed by both those sources.

  14. The **demonstrable** effect of Chernobyl is small. This is because it’s very hard to say which cancers globally are attributable to chernobyl and which aren’t.

    So the deaths caused are probably huge, but there’s no way to prove it.

    Source: ecotoxicologist father who works for a chemical industry watchdog. No, you’re not getting a name, he works for the industry.

  15. Here in Europe, occurrences of thyroid cancer increased dramatically after Chernobyl.

    However, human toll may be quite low, as thyroid cancer is usually not deadly. I don’t know about other kinds of diseases.

  16. Also note, Chernobyl was a contributing factor in the rise of Glasnost and the fall of the USSR. The decades long decline of industry this caused, almost certainly caused a global decrease in cancers. Of course, you can’t prove this either.

    1. There were around 10 million excess deaths from the collapse of the USSR. It was an unmitigated human disaster. The idea that it was somehow a good thing is really hard to comprehend. They went from having no democracy and a reasonable living standard to having a oligarchy and a horrible living standard. Things may be improving somewhat, but the interim was absolutely terrible.

      1. But less pollution and related cancers.

        More people died, due to poverty. However less people got cancer than would have, due to a decrease in industrial pollution.

        This decrease in industrial pollution possibly masked some of the effects of Chernobyl in the cancer stats.

  17. We’re not good at small differences in big numbers. It’s hard to hold in mind simultaneously (1) the high-end estimates for eventual additional cancers or deaths stretching through, say, 2055… and (2) the certainty that over that span, there will be many, many millions of “natural” cancer deaths among the 500-million-plus of Europe and western Russia. IOW, the toll could very well be both large and “lost in the noise” — statistically undetectable, except for a few types like thyroid cancer that are both rare at baseline and especially well linked to radiation exposure.

  18. Chernobyl-ians began leaving in contaminated vehicles, with contaminated possessions before the official abandonment of the local town(s). (Pribyat was the closest town abandoned.)

    This thing was a true disaster. Directly attributable deaths be scarce, but not everyone who dies from this dies in this generation, nor do they die in clearly linked fashions. We all know how open and honest Soviet society was in this era. Do you really think that either that government or a world organization (UN) that knows we need nuclear power is going to truthfully represent it as potentially lethal?

    The same material that caused this disaster is still in place. Some of it is nuclear, and some intellectual. The intellectually dangerous material is called hubris, ignorance, wishful thinking, carelessness, shortcuts, profit, arrogance. Mix these with radioactive materials, and you get disaster.

    We STILL do not know what to do with the waste, troops! We STILL do not know how to de-commission these things economically. We STILL overlook safer alternatives. We still co-locate these facilities near priceless cities and populations. The probabilities of problems may be low, but the consequences are rather high.

    Chernobyl only shows how serious a problem human error can be. That truth is undeniable. On the other hand, the potential disasters that await us in other nuclear sites around the world aren’t nonexistent just because they haven’t yet occurred. They will. Witness Japan. 25 years after Chernobyl and they were still counting on wishful thinking to safeguard the demon. “There probably won’t ever be a tsunami larger than the sea wall”, is something I’ll wager crossed someone’s lips.

    1. Wow Brother, that was So Very Well Stated & I just couldn’t agree more! Most of the planets Gov-Mints could give a (Insert Word) about its basic populations only the (So Called) Elite which I prefer to call our lowest forms of life as they do not care for other life especially here in the P!$$ Poor excuse for freedom I call AmeriGovCorp er I mean liarsville er uh, Douches with Cashbags, or is it Douches-for-Cashville or maybe Citizens Bullied 4 Milk Money, I mean Executive-Scumbags-r-us… Yea you get the point.
      While I do love the land of my country’s name I have ZERO use for our Losers, I mean (So Called) Leaders or Capitalism as it now has everything completely working in reverse.
      All is fair in love for profit. This nuke plant thing shows how Pure Stupidity reins supreme. Where decommissioning unsafe anything that generates profit is not to be heard or spoken. We do all of these completely ignorant & poisonous things to generate STEAM for crying out loud. Steam, a Centuries old idea made deadly. WTF?

  19. well one of my dad’s friends worked in agriculture in the Czechoslovakia (at the time)
    and he said he was out in the country with a geiger counter that was measuring quite high – in areas where dairy cows ate the grass and he knew the milk was going to be consumed by kids and yet he was forbidden to talk about it in public. He died of leukemia in 1989 and his wife of a brain tumor in 1990s. Of course there’s no way to prove the cancer was connected.

  20. A fact to bear in mind is that relatively sums of compensation were paid to anyone in the Chernobyl area claiming to have suffered health problems. Tens of thousands of people have not needed to work since the accident as a result of the compensation paid. The USSR had little reason to challenge these claims, partly for reasons of PR, partly because the cost was minor relative to the total cost of the accident. Additionally, large amounts of international aid was sent to the victims of Chernobyl.

    As a result of this, there are a great many people who have a strong incentive to swear blind that they are very ill as a result of Chernobyl. It is very easy for an NGO to send a researcher to Ukraine and find thousands upon thousands of people who will claim to have radiation-related health problems; After all, last time someone asked, they got a giant compensation check.

    All the peer-reviewed data indicates that the heath effects of Chernobyl are barely statistically significant, with the absolute maximum death toll being a few hundred. Some non-peer-reviewed studies sponsored by anti-nuclear organisations claim over 200,000 dead. Given a choice between *the entire body of the science on the topic* and individual reports by people with preexisting ideology, I think the matter of who to believe is obvious.

  21. A number of photographers have documented the human toll in Belarussian hospitals and orphanages. This fellow touches on it. His images are often disturbing. However, I recal seeing a photo-essay a few years ago that seemed more powerful, perhaps because of its tighter focus on the cost to children. Maybe someone else can help locate that one. But there is quite a bit of info still out there. I’m sort of shocked I can’t yet find the set I’m thinking of with Google.

  22. Tokyo (CNN) — The loss of two nuclear power plants means the Tokyo region will face the summer peak demand with a loss of about 20% of capacity, the plant’s owner said Thursday.

    Other utilities can supply only a limited amount of additional electricity to the Tokyo Electric Power Co. grid because Tokyo Electric runs power at a different frequency from the rest of the country, according to industry officials……………….. Building conversion facilities to share power from other grids would be almost as expensive as building a new power plant, a Tokyo Electric offical said Thursday.

  23. Xeni,

    one of the largest problems in Chernobyl is that the economy around it (that is, Ukraine) has collapsed. It’s not particularly difficult to build a better sarcophagus – but it is difficult to do so on the kind of budget available in Ukraine after economic madness that ensued after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    This was *much* worse than the Great Depression of the 1930ies! And continues to this day. Ukraine has a GDP of $2500 per capita and even that is more than twice as much as ten years ago. It’s on the level of Egypt. About half that of China. Rank 151 of 200 countries in the world or so.

    Given a healthier economy, the sarcophagus would not be an issue. And you could probably rely on people trying to remove the rest of the core by now. No way that’s going to happen in Ukraine.

    There are also a lot of factors contributing to the health damages that Chernobyl caused. One is the shear amount of radiation released. Another is delayed evacuation (it took almost two entire days after the reactor had exploded that people were told to evacuate). Then, there is the unfortunate fact, that the people in Ukraine have been and are still suffering from iodine deficiency, which contributed massively to the rapid take up of radioactive I-131.

    And finally, there were more than half a million liquidators who were *on average* exposed to the kind of radiation that the two workers who were recently caught in radioactive water were exposed to.

    That’s not to belittle Fukushima.

    It’s just that Chernobyl is *at the same time* much more and much less bad than most people think – entirely depending on the perspective in which they look at it (or are directed to look at it by the media).

    The same is true for Fukushima.

  24. OK, watched the PBS report. It’s interesting but really a somewhat short summary of the tragedy.

    The “Battle of Chernobyl” documentary (mentioned upthread) has more details. There were investigators who, after the fall of the USSR, located a variety of military and other documents that suggest much greater numbers of deaths. And clinics in the area are frequented by surviving “liquidators” suffering greatly.

    (caveat: that documentary seems to be circa 2006 or so. I also found it to be pretty shocking. Fair warning.)

  25. Back in the day, I remember hearing that in Germany alone they were going to have 50,000 additional cancer deaths.

    Has that happened? If it has, can we somehow prove it?

    I mean, I am sure a lot of people has died from cancer since the Chernobyl explosion. How can we tell if it was caused by Chernobyl?

    1. By comparing the development of cancer death figures in areas that are roughly comparable in terms of society and life-style but were affected by different degrees.

      E.g. Northern Germany (almost no fallout) and Austria (quite a lot). (Figures are available online and not hard to find.)

      Another possibility is comparing Ukraine with Moldavia, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan which didn’t suffer from fallout, but similar effects from economic breakdown of the Soviet Union (and especially healthcare).

      Which, btw, is one thing that was strictly avoided in a Greenpeace study that claimed to have found 100,000 excess cancer deaths in the Chernobyl region after 1990 or so.

      TORCH (The Other Report on CHernobyl) expects between 33,000 and 65,000 dead all told. Which rests on a more reasonable basis and is comparable to the Bhopal disaster – it’s extremely high and mustn’t be repeated.

      Compared to other forms of energy … well, the number of people who died in the Banqiao Dam disaster was three to six times higher. None of which should be repeated either.

      However, there are many large dams around the world that are half a century old or older and nobody quite knows how well they will stand up in the coming decades (or centuries?) and especially in the USA there are worries of some of them not being maintained in any significant way at all.

      And then of course, there are slow killers coal and oil – and I’m not even talking about global warming.

  26. In support of the previous post about the documentaries on the effects of Chernobyl in the belarussian countryside, you could check out ‘Chernobyl Heart’. It one of such documentaries, with some heartbreaking footage.

    While they don’t go into too many statistics or hard science to back the correlation, there is some hard to ignore evidence. And they claim over 90% (maybe they say 99%, I forgot) of Belarus was contaminated. I would say it will help your research to not limit yourself to optimistic scientist-historians who put 4,000 as the death toll.

  27. for first hand accounts from affected people after the accident, read Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

  28. My only child was born on the day of the Chernobyl explosion. We were on the other side of the world, fortunately, but Chernobyl is always something I pay attention to.

    When he was aged seven at school, I clearly remember children from the Chernobyl area being at the school for a period of time. We were told this was so they had an opportunity to get away from the radiation for their health’s sake. Even though they were only at the school for several weeks, it was seen as essential for their health.

    Those kids were reed-thin and pale as ghosts.

    Maggie it would be worth finding out more about the program that brought those children to Australia.

  29. I am concerned an opportunity for viewers to weigh opposing views about aftermath has been missed on this NewsHour episode (which I find too industry friendly–including accepting sponsors in need of PR green-washing).

    The public and policy makers need to fairly weigh all the data, as they can, themselves, at such a critical period in global energy policy and environmental fragility.

    4,000 casualties secondary to the Chernobyl reactor tragedy appears to be a very low estimation–especially compared to higher estimates that are as high as 2 million potential casualties (not including flora and fauna.

    And what of those who are not dead–still sick or with cancer (recovered or not),with sperm and ovum problems, birth defects, lowered IQ, in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. And wild life, like birds and fish, and mushrooms, and produce, that harbors radionuclides?
    Can the evidence be so well defined as ton negate further debate? This is an ongoing epidemic, is it not?

    A reasonable nod to the cumulative analysis of several thousand Slavik studies was not achieved during this NewsHour episode or reportedly by the UN Chernobyl Forum, but hopefully that is scheduled during this 25th anniversary.

    Seems it will be essential to understand the potential implication of Fukushima,for yourself. Accordingly, I’ve linked some historical information below.

    Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” Volume 1181 of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, published online in November 2009

    Chernobyl disaster effects – Controversy

    A Nuclear Reactor Disaster Rivaling Chernobyl?

    I strongly urge those interested to listen to one of the leading Slavik scientist’s, here:

    Be patient & listen carefully.

    Wide variety of foods still being screened for Chernobyl fallout, e.g.,

    Radioactive Boar A Quarter Century after Chernobyl,1518,709345,00.html

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