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During their debate on Democracy Now, George Monbiot and Helen Caldicott differed sharply over the actual, documented effects of the radiation from Chernobyl. Caldicott claimed that up to a million had died, while Monbiot claimed that only 43 had died from the effects of Chernobyl. That's an enormous discrepancy between two activists I have always respected, but that discrepancy is reflected in their sources.
Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, which is the New York Academy of Sciences report that Caldicott cited, is only available for subscribers, or those who buy the book. It isn't really an NYAS report, though:
This is a collection of papers translated from the Russian with some revised and updated contributions. Written by leading authorities from Eastern Europe, the volume outlines the history of the health and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. According to the authors, official discussions from the International Atomic Energy Agency and associated United Nations' agencies (e.g. the Chernobyl Forum reports) have largely downplayed or ignored many of the findings reported in the Eastern European scientific literature and consequently have erred by not including these assessments.
Environment News Service discussed the book last year:
Nearly one million people around the world died from exposure to radiation released by the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl reactor, finds a new book from the New York Academy of Sciences published today on the 24th anniversary of the meltdown at the Soviet facility. ...
Their findings are in contrast to estimates by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency that initially said only 31 people had died among the "liquidators," those approximately 830,000 people who were in charge of extinguishing the fire at the Chernobyl reactor and deactivation and cleanup of the site.
The book finds that by 2005, between 112,000 and 125,000 liquidators had died.
"On this 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, we now realize that the consequences were far worse than many researchers had believed," says Janette Sherman, MD, the physician and toxicologist who edited the book.
Drawing upon extensive data, the authors estimate the number of deaths worldwide due to Chernobyl fallout from 1986 through 2004 was 985,000, a number that has since increased.
By contrast, WHO and the IAEA estimated 9,000 deaths and some 200,000 people sickened in 2005.
The data may be extensive, but the chain of custody will always be a target for doubters.
Monbiot repeatedly cited the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation as if it was unassailable, and cited Chinese statistics for coal deaths:
The accident at the Chernobyl ... caused the deaths, within a few weeks, of 30 workers and radiation injuries to over a hundred others. ... Large areas of three countries were contaminated with radioactive materials, and radionuclides from the Chernobyl release were measurable in all countries of the northern hemisphere.
Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases can be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding the influence of enhanced screening regimes, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to the shorter time expected between exposure and its occurrence compared with solid cancers, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.
Certainly part of the problem is deciding whether deaths over the last 25 years were due to Chernobyl, natural causes or the generally carcinogen-strewn environment most of us endure. Just as certainly, industry forces have exploited that doubt for political advantage. Perhaps the effects of Fukushima will be better reported.
Update: Radiation Dose Chart from xkcd.com. Click to enlarge.