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Giving Green the red light

By Ben Heard - posted Tuesday, 12 April 2011


In the fight against climate change, Jim Green and I should be on the same side. But something rotten is at work. Recently, George Monbiot demonstrated how Helen Caldicott rejects science and rigour in the pursuit of her anti-nuclear agenda. Green’s article Radiation and Risk , a rebuttal of an earlier piece by Wade Allison, suggests she may not be alone. There are many misleading lines of argument Green’s column. I’ve decided to confine myself to the cornerstone of the piece: the radiological health impacts of Chernobyl.

By way of background, Green works for Friends of the Earth (FoE), an organisation that is trusted by many, with a longstanding opposition to nuclear power. The popular perception of nuclear power as dangerous underpin FoE’s campaigns against it.

The peak body responsible for investigating Chernobyl is the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). Their 2008 report to the UN General Assembly, the work of 21 leading scientific representatives from 21 nations states that, to 2005, the death toll is 28 fatalities among emergency workers, plus 15 fatal cases of cancer. This poses a problem for FoE. If this is indeed the toll from Chernobyl, then nuclear power must basically be safe. If people know this, they will be more open to learning about nuclear power and may then drop their objections all together. Furthermore, the body reporting this finding is impeccably credentialed. The only way to get around this is to somehow both refute UNSCEAR, but also then leech off their credibility to produce a much larger death toll. That’s difficult, though not impossible.

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In Radiation and Risk Green refutes UNSCEAR by first cherry-picking one paragraph from UNSCEAR’s 179-page report and using it three ways:

  • Firstly, to infer that any author accurately repeating UNSCEAR’s findings on the specific known death toll of Chernobyl is misrepresenting UNSCEARs report (a shaky claim in the first place)

  • Secondly, to infer that UNSCEAR didn’t do their job properly; that they chose to “shy away” from assessing broader radiation impacts

  • Thirdly, to permit himself to re-calculate the death toll using a methodology specifically excluded by UNSCEAR due to “unacceptable uncertainties”: modelling cancer deaths among large populations exposed to very low level excess radiation over a long period.

So instead of looking carefully at what actually happened to people over 20 years to 2005 (as UNSCEAR did), Green takes the total radiation dose from Chernobyl, multiplies it by a standard rate of fatal cancers, and provides a new death toll from cancer. If that process sounds a bit shorthand to you, well, it is. Having reviewed 20 years of on the ground studies, UNSCEAR’s experts identified 15 fatal cancers. Green’s modelling estimates 30,000-60,000 fatal cancers. This incredible discrepancy surely confirms UNSCEAR’s point about the unacceptable uncertainty of the modelling approach adopted by Green. Even if the foremost experts in the field got it wrong by an order of magnitude, there would be 150 cancer deaths. Not 30,000-60,000.

Should you suspect me of cherry picking, the report is clear that efforts to understand the effects of Chernobyl have been exhaustive, and that there are very good reasons not to apply the modelling approach, such as the lack of evidence of carcinogenic effects at small radiation doses, and the fact that any conceivable increase would be so small as to be beyond detection . Two passages are reproduced below. For the purpose of rebuttal the original text is hard to improve upon (my emphases added).

There has been widespread misunderstanding ...regarding the scale and the nature of the health impact of the Chernobyl accident. This is in part due to confusion regarding... theoretical projections of effects versus actual observations (pg 56, paragraph 37).

It is important to understand the significant statistical uncertainty associated with any projection based on modelling, which lends itself to estimations that are within an order of magnitude or even more (pg 64, paragraph 95).

So UNSCEAR didn’t “shy away” from modelling. They excluded it because they are professionals, and the modelling generates unreliable outcomes (Green’s 30,000-60,000 provides a good example).

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What more needs to be said? Perhaps this. A significant impact from Chernnobyl is not radiological, but psycho-social. Borrowing the language of the report, exposed populations show stress symptoms including increased levels of depression and anxiety, with important consequences for behaviour such as choices in diet, smoking, drinking and “other lifestyle choices”. Calling that what it is, these people feel they have been robbed of their future by an invisible enemy, so see less reason not to eat, smoke, drink and engage in risky behaviour, sexual and otherwise, to the point of harming themselves. It’s tragic, it’s unnecessary, and UNSCEAR offers this reassurance:

From this annex based on 20 years of studies... it can be concluded that...the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident... Lives have been disrupted... but from the radiological point of view generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals involved should prevail (pg 65, paragraph 100).

UNSCEAR, using actual observations, gives those affected by Chernobyl confidence of long and healthy lives. The approach taken by Green, using theoretical projections, risks keeping them, and us, deeply afraid of radiation and cancer. That’s not good enough.

Somewhere in their history, the anti-nuclear movement appears to have decided that their ends justify any means. They appear prepared to distort credible sources in order to oppose the only near zero-carbon and scalable baseload power source. Climate deniers use the same tactics to tell us climate change isn’t real. Both show a deep disrespect for the impartial ideal of science.

Those who resort to this modus operandi need to realise: this is not a game. Your actions risk exacerbating and perpetuating tragedy, and imperilling our future on this planet. Radiological health and climate change are both substantially informed by science. You have a responsibility to faithfully represent the scientific consensus of the former, as do others the latter. Anything less demonstrates a profound abuse of trust.

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About the Author

Ben Heard is director of ThinkClimate Consulting and founder of Decarbonise SA.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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