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Tomorrow, April 26th is, of course, the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. Nineteen months after the disaster, in Nov. 1987, the U.S. government officially doubled its estimate of the "background" radiation to which we are exposed every year. You should ask for an email copy of my article on Chernobyl from Earth Island Journal, Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer 1997, p. 28 too.


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Chernobyl at Ten:
Half-lives and Half Truths

by John M. LaForge


With a heavy dose of half-truth, the commercial press worked over-time to reduce the results of the Chernobyl catastrophe to a "nervous disorder" confined to the C.I.S. and Europe. Understated reports on the 10th anniversary of the world-wide radiation disaster help the nuclear reactor industry hold on against overwhelming opposition, in spite of what should have been the final insult from nuclear power.

The latest psychological "clean up" often went like this. Peter Crane, a lawyer at the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said that "the explosion . . . sent a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere of Eastern Europe."[1] This is a true statement. It merely neglects to mention the rest of planet Earth.

Reporter Michael Specter wrote that, "The fire which burned out of control for five days, spewed more than 50 tons of radioactive fallout across Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia."[2] This loaded sentence is also literally true. The fact 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 world-wide -- reaching Minnesota's milk for example -- doesn't make of Mr. Specter a liar, only a miser with the truth.

Associated Press (AP) correspondent 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"[3] is likewise "correct," but Reuters News Service reported on 28 Nov. 1995 that the contaminated areas include about 61,780 square miles.

Carpenter practiced perfect obfuscation in his dispatch, saying of the reckless nuclearists over there: "In a big lie, Soviet officials. . . first hushed up the disaster then played down its severity." What is it to understate the sum 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."[4]

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

The AP's Angela Charlson went so far as to say the reactor sent "a radioactive cloud across parts of Europe".[5] Understatement of the overwhelming facts was practiced as well by the editors of The New York Times, who said on April 21 that the disaster "spewed radiation across much or Europe"[6] and on the anniversary, that "a plume of toxic gases & dust . . . spread across the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia."[7] Although the contamination of the rest of the world was hinted at as lately as 6 Oct. 1995, when the Times reported that the radiation spread across western Russia "and beyond," this uncomfortable fact is nowadays passé.

The Disaster's in Your Head

While the explosions' long-lived carcinogens -- primarily cesium, plutonium, strontium and iodine -- are well known to be deadly for decades and even centuries, Soviet officials, the U. N's 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."[8]

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[9], dared to say in a 1991 study that Chernobyl's health effects were mainly "psychological." This heavily criticized report didn't even consider the health of the "liquidators," or the evacuees from the 18-mile exclusion zone, 8,000 of whom are now known to have died from radiation related diseases.[10]

The IAEA study failed to mention the lengthy latency period for observed cancer incidence. This cavalier white-wash of the disaster's inevitable results came from a nominal nuclear watchdog, which in fact is only the most prestigious booster of nuclear power. "After all the IAEA is in the business of promoting nuclear energy not discouraging it. For ten years the agency has attempted to downplay the consequences of the accident," wrote Dr. Alexander R. Sich in a cover story for the May/June Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.[11] The IAEA, still sticking in its vacuum, said in 1995 that any increase in cancer caused by Chernobyl would be "undetectable."[12]

Editors across the country have embraced the IAEA's dismissive attitude, distracting readers with headlines like, "Area Frozen In Fear," "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 last year's report that "A second catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine could happen "at any time," Western scientists have warned."[13]

Reality Officially Forgotten

A short review of Chernobyl's fallout pattern shows how irresponsible the late reporting has become. AP, 15 May 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, 14 May 1986: "An invisible cloud of radioactivity spewed over the Soviet Union and Europe, and has worked its way gradually around the world." AP, 15 May 1986: "State authorities in Oregon have warned residents dependent solely on rainwater for drinking that they should arrange other supplies for the time being." Minneapolis Star Tribune, 17 May 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, 4 April 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." Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May 1996, p. 38: "radiation contamination was detectable over the entire northern hemisphere."

With so much disparity among so many figures, we may never know the true dimensions of Chernobyl's radiation bomb.


  1. NYT, Op-Ed, 5 April 1996.

  2. International Herald Tribune, 2 April 1996.

  3. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 14 April 1996.

  4. Minneapolis Star Tribune, 21 April 1996.

  5. St. Paul Pioneer, 27 April 1996.

  6. NYT, 21 April 1996, The Week In Review.

  7. NYT, 26 April 1996, signed editorial by Philip Taubman.

  8. Los Angeles Times, 11 Feb. 1988.

  9. In These Times, 22 April 1987.

  10. AP, 23 April 1992; WISE News Communiqué, (Amsterdam) No. 449, 10 April 1996.

  11. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May 1996, p. 38.

  12. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 1996, p. 8.

  13. The London Observer, 26 March 1995; Milwaukee Journal, 27 March 1995.
Continued in Part Two

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