Volume 28, Number 1 January 1999



More on Deaths due to Chernobyl


Retired VP and General Manager of GE Nuclear Energy, Bertram Wolf, reports that there were "some 40 deaths in the due to nuclear radiation from the (Chernobyl) accident. But there were some 50,000 baby deaths in Europe due to abortions where mothers who feared the effects of the radiation, from Chernobyl." And "Clearly, the people in Europe were not informed of the negligible (maybe healthy) effects of low radiation levels."

Involved with nuclear weapons and nuclear power since 1950, a member of the APS study group on the safety of lightwater reactors (1975), and various government-sponsored studies on reactor safety and allied topics, I judge nuclear power to be a valuable option now and for the future. I have studied the Chernobyl and Three-Mile-Island accidents, and the French, Japanese, Chinese, and Russia nuclear power programs. But Wolf tells only part of the story, reminding me of the "not proven" arguments of the tobacco executives. The merits of nuclear power should carry the day, without propaganda-- either for or against. The best judgment of the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) is that even for low-level radiation, deaths due to cancer occur at a rate of 0.04 per person-sievert (400 per million person-rem). There is little dispute over the collective exposure to the population of the European community and the (former) USSR as 600,000 person-Sv. The cancer deaths are thus likely to be 24,000 (and not the 40 cited by Wolf).

No critic of nuclear energy, Morris Rosen of the IAEA at a session in Nagoya in April 1996 stated, "For the 3.7 million residents of other contaminated areas the predicted lifetime excess is 2500 over the normal 430,000." He stated that the average dose to each of those individuals was 7 mSv, for a collective dose of 26,000 person-Sv. (The background exposure averages some 3 mSv per year.) But at that session (see and look for "Nagoya") and in further correspondence, IAEA has never been willing to concede that a collective dose of 600,000 person-Sv to the population of the USSR would correspond to 24,000 additional deaths, despite the judgment of the ICRP and the Board on Effects of Ionizing Radiation--BEIR--of the National Academy of Sciences, and despite the IAEA spokesman himself indicating that 26,000 person-Sv at nearly the same dose and dose rate would eventually lead to 2500 excess cancer deaths. These additional hazards due to Chernobyl are less than 0.5% of natural cancer deaths among the exposed population. Radiation hazards due to nuclear power, including accidents, are low enough to be taken into account in normal cost-benefit analyses; but they are not zero.

As for the "maybe healthy effects of low radiation levels", Wolf may be referring to a speech of John Graham of 1996, that cited a comparison of two areas in China, one with high background radiation and one with more normal. I have analyzed these data in conjunction with a book that Georges Charpak and I will publish in English in 1999 (derived from a book we published in France in 1997), and find that the ICRP estimates of radiation-induced cancer would lead to the observation of 4 excess deaths in the high-radiation area. Compared with the 25 expected fluctuation (standard deviation of the difference), radiation induced deaths could simply not be observed.

I oppose the use of legal intervention for delaying (as contrasted with settling) siting decisions. I think that commercial and competitive mined geologic repositories in various countries and areas would be highly beneficial to public health and to the nuclear industry, but this is true even with the predicted radiation exposures from the nuclear fuel cycle and the ICRP estimates of deaths due to cancer. It is not helpful to hinge the future of the nuclear industry and an important element of the energy supply to a claim that low levels of radiation cause "negligible" damage or are even helpful.

Richard Garwin

Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations;

IBM Emeritus Fellow; Adjunct Prof. of Physics, Columbia University