Table of contents:
- How many victims of Chernobyl were: a million or more?
- How many people were actually affected
- How the fear of radiation, and not the radiation itself, claimed several hundred thousand lives
- Genetic defects and radiation sterility
- Is nuclear power relatively safe?
At the request of colleagues from Esquire, Alexander Berezin figured out a difficult topic and told how radiation affects a person, how many lives Chernobyl actually claimed, and why one of the most terrible consequences of the atomic disaster in Pripyat is a slowdown in the development of nuclear energy.
Let's start with the main thing - the discrepancy between public opinion about the effects of radiation and the facts obtained as a result of research (and this discrepancy is so great that even scientists themselves were surprised - evidence of this is in most of the reports).
So, after the atomic disaster near Pripyat, radiation killed about 4,000 people. There were no congenital deformities of children or a decrease in their mental abilities after the disaster, just as there were none after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are also no mutant animals in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. But there is a considerable number of people who created and supported the Chernobyl myths and thereby indirectly guilty of the premature end of thousands of human lives. The most fatal result is that most of the victims of the Chernobyl disaster died from commonplace fear, despite the fact that they did not suffer in any way from the radiation associated with the accident.
In the text below, radiation refers to ionizing radiation. It can affect a person in different ways: at high doses, cause radiation sickness, the first signs of which are nausea, vomiting, and then damage to a number of internal organs follows. By itself, ionizing radiation acts on us constantly, but usually its values are small (less than 0.003 sievert per year). Apparently, such doses do not have a noticeable effect on humans.
For example, there are some places where the background radiation is much higher than usual: in Iranian Ramsar it is 80 times higher than the global average, but mortality from diseases usually associated with radiation is even lower there than in other parts of Iran and most regions of the world.
At the same time, high doses of radiation - especially those received in a short time - can cause great harm to health. After the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many thousands died from radiation sickness. What's more, cancer survivors were 42% more likely to have cancer than their peers in other unbombed cities in Japan. Survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, due to more frequent cancers, showed life expectancy one year lower than the Japanese population of other cities of the same era.
For comparison: in Russia, from 1986 to 1994, life expectancy decreased six times more than for the Japanese who survived Hiroshima.
How many victims of Chernobyl were: a million or more?
In 2007, a group of Russian scientists published Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment at the publishing house of the New York Academy of Sciences. In it, they compared mortality in the "Chernobyl" zones of the former USSR before 1986 and after it. It turned out that over two decades the Chernobyl disaster led to the premature death of 985 thousand people. Since a certain number of victims could have been outside the Chernobyl zones (after all, there were migrations from them to other areas), the figure, according to the authors of the book, could go over a million.
Questions arise: why did the authors of the book, well-known scientists, members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, not write and publish it in Russia? And why are there no reviews of other scientists in the publication - after all, the question of the million victims of Chernobyl is extremely important for society?
The answer to this question has been provided by numerous book reviews that have appeared in the English-language scientific literature. The vast majority of these reviews are devastating.Their authors repeat a simple idea: it is incorrect to compare mortality in the USSR before 1986 and after it. The reason for this is that after the collapse of the USSR, life expectancy collapsed in all of its former territories. In 1986, the average life expectancy in the RSFSR was 70, 13 years, and already in 1994 it dropped to 63, 98 years. Today, even in Papua New Guinea, life expectancy is two years longer than it was in Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s.
The fall was very sharp - in the countries affected by Chernobyl, they began to live for 6, 15 years in less than just eight years. The level of life expectancy of the times of the catastrophe near Pripyat, Russia managed to reach again only in 2013 - 27 years later. All this time, the mortality rate was above the Soviet level. The picture was absolutely the same in Ukraine.
But the reason there was not at all in Chernobyl: the fall happened outside the contamination zone, and even outside the European part of Russia. And this is understandable: the USSR collapsed everywhere, and not only where radionuclides fell from the fourth power unit. That is, the book of Russian scientists with about a million "died" from the consequences of an atomic catastrophe simply took the sharp effect of excess mortality that arose from the decline and collapse of the USSR, and pretended that these were the consequences of radiation. Of course, it would make no sense to publish such a tendentious work in Russian: it would simply be ridiculed.
How many people were actually affected
Today, as in 1986, a really dangerous dose of radiation that can lead to radiation sickness or other acute forms of injury is 0.5 sievert per year (these are, in particular, NASA standards). After this mark, an increase in the number of cancer cases and other unpleasant consequences of radiation damage begins. A dose of 5 sieverts per hour is usually fatal.
In Chernobyl, a maximum of hundreds of people received a dose higher than half a sievert. 134 of them had radiation sickness, 28 of them died. Two more people died after the accident from mechanical damage and one from thrombosis (associated with stress, not radiation). In total, 31 people died immediately after the accident - less than after the explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station in 2009 (75 people).
The radionuclides emitted during the accident had a noticeable carcinogenic effect - and it was he who was the most massive damaging factor in the accident. It would seem simple enough to calculate how many people died of cancer where the Chernobyl precipitation fell before 1986 and compare the data with cancer deaths after that year.
The problem is that the incidence of cancer after 1986 has been growing and growing outside the Chernobyl zone, and it does so even in Australia or New Zealand - areas not affected by the radionuclides of the fourth power unit. Scientists have long stated that something in the modern way of life is causing cancer more and more often, but there is still no full understanding of the reasons for this. It is only clear that this process is going on in those parts of the world where there are no nuclear power plants at all.
Fortunately, there are other methods of counting that are more honest. The most dangerous radionuclide of the Chernobyl accident was iodine-131, a very short-lived isotope that decays quickly and therefore gives the maximum level of nuclear fission per unit time. It accumulates in the thyroid gland. That is, the bulk of cancers - including the most severe - must be thyroid cancer. By 2004, a total of 4,000 cases of such cancers were reported, mostly among children. However, this type of cancer is the easiest to treat - after removal of the gland, it practically does not relapse. Only 15 out of 4,000 cases have died.
The World Health Organization has accumulated data and built models for nearly 20 years to understand how many people could die from other types of cancer. On the one hand, the likelihood of any cancer in Chernobyl victims is much lower than thyroid cancer, but on the other hand, other types of cancer are less well treated.As a result, the organization came to the conclusion that the total number of Chernobyl victims from cancer and leukemia during their entire life will be less than 4,000 people.
Let us emphasize: any human life is a value, and four thousand are very large numbers. But, for example, in 2016, 303 people died in plane crashes all over the world. That is, Chernobyl is equal to all plane crashes in the world for several years. The threatening events at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant look only against the background of nuclear power in general: all accidents at all other nuclear power plants on the planet killed only a few people. Thus, Chernobyl accounts for 99.9% of all victims of nuclear power in its entire long history.
How the fear of radiation, and not the radiation itself, claimed several hundred thousand lives
Unfortunately, these 4,000 are most likely just a minority of the victims of the Chernobyl accident. In 2015, the scientific journal Lancet published an article noting that the main consequences of nuclear accidents are psychological. People often do not fully understand how radiation works, and they do not know that the number of victims in the media is often exaggerated.
Therefore, Hollywood science fiction films about the post-nuclear apocalypse, where you can see mutants even a hundred years after a nuclear disaster, are often sources of knowledge about the atomic threat.
Therefore, in 1986, many pregnant women in Europe feared that the Chernobyl emissions would lead to deformities in their unborn children. So they went to hospitals and demanded an abortion. According to scientific works on this topic, in Denmark there were about 400 "Chernobyl" abortions, in Greece - 2500. Similar phenomena were noted in Italy and in other Western European countries. The authors of the Greek study note that these figures are high for a rather small country, therefore, in principle, they are compatible with the IAEA's tentative estimates, according to which Chernobyl caused about 100-200 thousand additional abortions, prompted by fear of congenital malformations.
In practice, no such deformities have been registered anywhere after Chernobyl. All scientific works on this topic are unanimous: they simply did not exist. It is known from the experience of radiation therapy for cancer that a large dose of radiation received by a pregnant woman can cause deformities in her unborn child - but only a really large dose, tenths of a sievert. To get it, a pregnant woman would have to visit the territory of the nuclear power plant immediately after the accident.
Since there were no pregnant women among the liquidators, no most thorough searches for an increase in the number of deformities led to any results at all - not only in Europe, but also among women from the evacuation zone.
We sincerely hope that the IAEA's estimates of 100-200 thousand “Chernobyl” abortions are inaccurate and that there were actually fewer of them. Unfortunately, it is difficult to say for sure, since in the USSR in 1986, those wishing to have an abortion were not asked about the reasons for their decision. And yet, judging by the numbers in relatively small Greece and Denmark, the number of abortions caused by an irrational fear of the accident is much higher than the number of victims of the accident itself.
At the same time, these consequences can hardly be attributed only to the reactor accident. Rather, it is about the victims of the educational system, the victims of the movies and the media who willingly circulated well-selling films and articles about the horrors of radiation and the deformity of newborns that it should cause.
Genetic defects and radiation sterility
It is often thought that radiation can increase the likelihood of infertility in those who have undergone it, or bring genetic defects to their children. Of course, this is quite possible, and cases of intuitive radiotherapy of pregnant cancer patients show this. However, this requires rather high doses of radiation: the fetus is protected from ionizing radiation by the mother's body, and the placenta reduces the amount of radionuclides that can enter the fetus from the mother.A radiation dose of 3, 4-4, 5 sieverts can cause serious damage to the fetus - that is, one after which it is not easy for a person, especially a woman (they are considered less resistant to radiation), to survive.
Even after the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a survey of 3,000 pregnant women exposed to the maximum level of radiation damage showed no increase in the number of birth defects among their children. If in Hiroshima, in the first years after the atomic bombing, 0.91% of newborns had birth defects, then, for example, in Tokyo (where there were no atomic explosions) - 0.92%. This, of course, does not mean that the probability of birth defects decreases after nuclear bombings, it is just that the gap of 0.01% is too low and can be caused by chance.
Scientists suggest that in theory, defects from radiation may occur: some models show that for pregnant women who were close to a nuclear strike, the increase in the number of defects could be 25 cases per 1 million births. The problem is that neither after the atomic bombings, nor after Chernobyl, a million pregnant women in the zone of serious radiation damage were not observed. On the available thousands of pregnancies, it is almost impossible to statistically reliably detect an effect in 25 millionths.
The popular point of view that a woman can become infertile due to radiation is also not supported by research. Isolated cases of infertility from radiation are known - after radiation therapy for cancer, when a huge, but strictly localized dose of ionizing radiation is supplied to the ovaries. The problem is that in a radiation accident, radiation enters the entire body of a woman. The dose required to achieve infertility is so high that a person will most likely die before being able to receive it outside the framework of radiotherapy, in which radiation is used only in a strictly directed manner.
A natural question arises: if all scientific works on the topic indicate the absence of observed abnormalities in newborns and zero chances of sterilization by radiation - where did society come from the idea that radiation massively leads to infertility of adults and deformities of children?
Ironically, the reasons for this lie in popular culture. In the first half of the last century, radiation (it was also called X-rays) was attributed to magical properties. Science of that time did not have accurate data on the effects of radiation on humans - Hiroshima had not happened yet.
Therefore, the view has spread that even a small dose of it can turn a child into a mutant or turn a potential mother into an infertile woman. In 1924-1957, in the framework of eugenic programs to "cleanse" genetically "wrong" expectant mothers (mentally ill and others) in the United States, they even tried to sterilize such women with radiation against their will.
However, such experiments had a ridiculous result: more than 40% of the "sterilized" successfully gave birth to healthy children. There would be even more children if it were not for the fact that among the forcibly sterilized there were many women who were held in insane asylums and, therefore, had limited access to men. As we can see, the scope of the myth about "sterilizing" and "disfiguring" radiation was enormous even before the fall of the first atomic bomb.
Is nuclear power relatively safe?
And yet, in order to understand well how great the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster are by the standards of the energy sector, it is necessary to compare the number of victims of the 1986 events with the number of victims from other types of energy.
This is not so difficult to do. According to generally accepted American estimates of the deaths of US citizens from emissions from thermal power plants, 52 thousand people die prematurely from them annually in the United States. This is just over 4,000 per month, or more than one Chernobyl per month. These people die, as a rule, without the slightest idea of why this is happening. Unlike nuclear energy with its radiation, the impact of thermal energy on the human body is little known to the masses.
The main mechanism of action of TPP on health is microparticles with a diameter of less than 10 micrometers. A person drives 15 kilograms of air per day through his lungs, and all particles less than 10 micrometers are able to enter his bloodstream directly through the lungs - our respiratory system simply cannot filter such small objects. Foreign microparticles cause cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and much more in humans. The circulatory system is not designed to pump foreign microparticles, and they become centers of blood clots and can seriously affect the heart.
In the case of Chernobyl, not a single woman is known who received not only 3, 4-4, 5 sievert, but ten times less dose. Therefore, the probability of birth defects in children here was even lower than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where there were pregnant women who received more than half a sievert. Unfortunately, in our country, there are no studies on the number of people who die from thermal energy every year. However, in the same United States, the "norms" for the death of people from the operation of thermal power plants have been calculated for a long time.
The purest type of them is gas thermal power plants, they kill only 4,000 people per trillion kilowatt-hours, coal - at least 10 thousand for the same generation. In our country, thermal power plants produce 0.7 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, some of which are still coal-fired. Judging by the American "standards", Russia's thermal power industry should kill as many people every year as nuclear power has killed in its entire history. Nuclear power, taking into account the victims of Chernobyl and Fukushima, gives a death rate of 90 deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours of production.
This is ten times less than gas-fired thermal power plants (recall: 4000 per trillion kilowatt-hours), more than a hundred times less than coal-fired thermal power plants, and 15 times less than hydroelectric power plants (1400 deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours, mainly from the destruction of flesh and subsequent flooding). In 2010, wind turbines were responsible for 150 deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours - during their installation and maintenance, people regularly break down and die.
Solar panels installed on the roofs of houses also cannot do without fallen off, so they are five times less safe than nuclear power plants - they give 440 deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours of production. The situation with biofuel thermal power plants is very bad: it gives more solid impurities and microparticles than gas and coal, killing 24 thousand people per trillion kilowatt-hours of production.
Indeed, only large solar power plants are safe: their solar panels are installed at low altitudes and the number of deaths during their construction is vanishingly small. According to researchers from NASA, the total number of deaths that nuclear power plants prevented by replacing the generation of thermal power plants, until 2009 alone, amounted to 1.8 million people.
Nevertheless, no one outside of scientific circles knows any of this, because scientific journals are written in a language that is unpleasant to read, saturated with terms and therefore not the easiest to read. On the other hand, the popular media tell a lot about the Chernobyl disaster and readily: unlike scientific articles, these are well-readable texts.
Therefore, Chernobyl severely slowed down the construction of nuclear power plants both in the USSR and abroad. Moreover, he did it irrevocably: we can confidently say that neither the majority of the media nor the cinema will ever cover nuclear power plants differently than today.
Screenwriters just don't read scientific articles. Therefore, the share of atomic energy in global generation is confidently stagnating and will continue to stagnate. At the same time, the world energy industry is growing, so that nuclear power plants are being replaced by gas energy and, so far, to a lesser extent, wind and solar. If windmills and solar panels (except those on the roofs) are relatively safe, then gas-fired thermal power plants kill people ten times more efficiently than nuclear ones.
Thus, Chernobyl kills not only with fear - as in the case of groundless abortions in 1986, but also with the fact that it has slowed down the development of relatively safe nuclear energy. It is difficult to express the results of this inhibition in exact numbers, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands of lives.