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Chernobyl: For 14 years the industry
has downplayed the damage
to humans and the planet

by John M. LaForge
7 May 2000
Minneapolis Star Tribune

With a heavy dose of half-truth, the commercial press works overtime to reduce the results of the April 26, 1986, Chernobyl catastrophe to a "nervous disorder" confined to the former Soviet Union and Europe. Understated anniversary reports of the worldwide radiation disaster help the nuclear industry hold on against overwhelming opposition, in spite of what should have been the final insult from nuclear power.

Efforts at psychological "cleanup" often sound like Peter Crane, a lawyer at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who says that "the explosion . . . sent a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere of Eastern Europe." This is a true statement. It merely neglects to mention the rest of planet Earth.

Journalist Michael Specter reports, "The fire, which burned out of control for five days, spewed more than 50 tons of radioactive fallout across Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia." This loaded sentence is true, in a limited sense. That the fire burned uncontrolled for two weeks after a series of three explosions; that perhaps 190 tons of reactor fuel was catapulted into the atmosphere; or that the radioactive fallout spread worldwide, reaching Minnesota's milk, for example, doesn't make Specter a liar, only a miser with the truth.

The Associated Press' Dave Carpenter's description that "deadly reactor fuel shot into the atmosphere, contaminating some 10,000 square miles and reaching as far as Western Europe" is likewise "correct," but Reuters reported on Nov. 28, 1995, that the contaminated areas include about 61,780 square miles. What is it to understate the total of irradiated territory by a factor of six? It isn't the pot calling the kettle black; it's the cesium calling the strontium a cancer agent.

Carpenter's AP lullaby was published widely and included the comment that "those living in the shadow of Chernobyl will be living with its deadly health and environmental legacy for years."

For years? The word "centuries" would have been more accurate, if conservative, since radiation's health effects are multigenerational and not limited in time. Indeed, some genetic effects appear to be increasing with each successive generation.

The AP's Angela Charlson reported that the explosions sent "a radioactive cloud across parts of Europe." Understatement was practiced as well by the New York Times, which said the disaster "spewed radiation across much of Europe" and that "a plume of toxic gases and dust . . . spread across the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia." While this uncomfortable fact is nowadays passe, the contamination of the whole world was hinted at when the Times reported that the radiation spread across western Russia "and beyond."

`Irrational fears'?

While Chernobyl's long-lived carcinogens -- primarily cesium, plutonium, strontium and iodine -- are well known to be deadly for decades or centuries, Soviet officials, the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. editors have all ridiculed the common-sense fear of Chernobyl's radioactive fallout.

The official Soviet paper Izvestia said in 1988 that doctors in the Ukraine were "spending more time on trying to dispel irrational fears than on treating the effects of radiation."

The IAEA, which at first refused to conduct a post-Chernobyl health study, claiming that all the accident's effects were confined within Soviet borders, dared to say in a 1991 study that Chernobyl's health effects were mainly "psychological." The heavily criticized report did not consider the health of the emergency-response workers or of the evacuees from the 18-mile exclusion zone, 8,000 of whom are now known to have died from radiation-related diseases.

The IAEA study failed to mention the lengthy latency period for observed cancer incidence. This cavalier whitewash of the disaster's inevitable results came from a nominal nuclear watchdog. "After all, the IAEA is in the business of promoting nuclear energy, not discouraging it. For 10 years the agency has attempted to downplay the consequences of the accident," wrote Alexander R. Sich in a cover story for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The IAEA, still downplaying in 1995, said any increase in cancer caused by Chernobyl would be "undetectable."

Editors across the country have embraced the IAEA's dismissive attitude, distracting readers with headlines like "Citizens still suffering radiation phobia" and "The legacy of Chernobyl: Fear is the deeper wound." A dread of radiation doesn't appear irrational in view of 1995's report that "A second catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine could happen `at any time,' Western scientists have warned."

A short review of Chernobyl's fallout pattern shows how irresponsible the reporting has become.

  • AP, May 15, 1986: "Airborne radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear accident is now so widespread that it is likely to fall to the ground wherever it rains in the United States, the EPA said."

  • AP, May 14, 1986: "An invisible cloud of radioactivity spewed over the Soviet Union and Europe, and has worked its way gradually around the world."

  • AP, May 15, 1986: "State authorities in Oregon have warned residents dependent solely on rainwater for drinking that they should arrange other supplies for the time being."

  • Star Tribune, May 17, 1986: "Since radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident began floating over Minnesota last week, low levels of radiation have been discovered in . . . the raw milk from a Minnesota dairy."

  • AP, April 4, 1996: "Plutonium and other dangerous particles released in the accident . . . have now found their way to Ukraine's major waterways . . . . `We have billions of tons of radiated earth that can't be dumped anywhere, and which will pour plutonium, cesium and strontium into Europe for decades,' the chief consultant to the Ukrainian Parliament's Chernobyl commission said."

  • The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1996: "radiation contamination was detectable over the entire Northern Hemisphere."

Well beyond "Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia," and further than "parts of Europe," Chernobyl's contamination doused at least half the world. But with so much disparity among estimates, we may never know the true biological, ecological, psychological and economic dimensions of Chernobyl's radiation bomb.

-- John M. LaForge is codirector of Nukewatch, a peace group based in Wisconsin, and editor of its quarterly newsletter, the Pathfinder.

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