Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with physicist Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists about her new study on the likely number of cancer deaths caused by Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Download MP3
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Lisa Mullins: People in Ukraine and neighboring countries are commemorating a grim anniversary today. It was on this date, 25 years ago, that a botched safety experiment at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine went terribly wrong.
Sound byte: The Soviet Government reports an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine, resulting in damage to one of the plant’s nuclear reactors …
Mullins: An explosion had blown the roof off the Chernobyl Plant. The whole world knows what happened next. Huge amounts of radiation spewed into the air. It spread across the western edge of The Soviet Union, farther afield into Europe, and beyond. At least 28 emergency workers died of radiation sickness, and millions more people were exposed to elevated levels of radiation. And yet, 25 years later, nobody can say for sure how many people may ultimately die as a result of Chernobyl. A widely quoted figure from a United Nations study put the number at roughly 4,000, but others have said that that is way too low. Now a physicist with the watchdog group, the Union of Concerned Scientists has taken a fresh look at the question, and come up with what, she hopes, will be a more reliable figure.
Lisbeth Gronlund: My best estimate of the number of cancers that have, or will occur, is 53,000. And the number of those that will result in death are 27,000.
Mullins: Lisbeth Gronlund says that’s more than six times the U.N.’s estimate.
Gronlund: The official numbers have been lower, but it’s because they’ve only looked at a smaller number of people. They looked at the people who were in the most highly contaminated areas. And what my number includes is, people who would get cancer not just in Europe, but beyond Europe. Because the contamination from Chernobyl was quite widespread.
Mullins: Okay, so when you say 27,000 deaths from cancer, how can you determine this? Because we’re at least a generation beyond the accident now.
Gronlund: Right. So people have reconstructed the contamination as it spread, and they’ve looked at how people might be affected by that contamination. And I have taken that data–sort of found it piecemeal, here and there–and then calculated the number of cancers and cancer deaths that would be attributable to that kind of a dose rate. I really hope that this number that I have come up with is something that will become, sort of, the more standard number that is quoted in the media, because the 4,000 number is misleading. And especially, it’s misleading if that caveat of, this number only applies to the people in the most contaminated areas, is not included. And it tends to be dropped, and then the number that is out there is, “Oh, it’s only, you know, only a total of 4,000 deaths.”
Mullins: With what certainty can you say that? Because this seems as if it has been so difficult to decipher, and so hard to get firm numbers.
Gronlund: That’s a very good question, and in fact, it is an uncertain number. This is a best estimate. And in some sense, really what you can say is that the number of cancers and cancer deaths are going to be in the tens of thousands. Not the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands, but in the tens of thousands.
Mullins: The figures that you’ve come by from Chernobyl, do they give any instruction as to what could be predicted in the outcome of Fukushima?
Gronlund: Not really, because we don’t … The Fukushima crisis is still ongoing. The radiation will continue to be emitted. And after the fact, people will be able to reconstruct the dose that people in those areas will have received. And then you can, from that, estimate the number of additional cancer deaths. But it’s really too soon to say.
Mullins: So, if we can’t draw a lesson right now from Chernobyl to Fukushima, who knows what we’ll be able to learn from Chernobyl in the future? But right now, for you, what does it come down to in terms of why we need precise figures on this?
Gronlund: Well, I don’t think we’re ever going to have precise figures, but I think getting as good an estimate as is feasible is important. In part, it let’s us know what one of the downsides of nuclear power has been. I mean, there are benefits to nuclear power, and there risks, and people need to assess both of them to understand and make decisions about whether it is something we want as part of our energy mix. And knowing how many–roughly, how many–people died in Chernobyl is an indication of what the risks have been. Because accidents will happen. It won’t be exactly the same as in Fukushima. It won’t be exactly the same as in Chernobyl. But it’s very unlikely that Fukushima is the last nuclear power accident that we will see.
Mullins: That’s Lisbeth Gronlund, who’s a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She has done a new assessment of the likely death toll from Chernobyl. There’s a link to her report at theworld.org.
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