Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche


Pro-nuclear environmentalists and the Chernobyl death toll

Tas Uni academic Barry Brook and other self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists peddle misinformation regarding the death toll from the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.

Before considering their misinformation, a brief summary of credible positions and scientific studies regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll (detailed elsewhere 1 and for the most up-to-date scientific review see the TORCH-2016 report written by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie 2).

Epidemiological studies are of course important but they’re not much use in estimating the overall Chernobyl death toll. The effects of Chernobyl, however large or small, are largely lost in the statistical noise of widespread cancer incidence and mortality.

Estimates of collective radiation exposure are available ‒ for example the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates a total collective dose of 600,000 person-Sieverts over 50 years from Chernobyl fallout. 4 And the collective radiation dose can be used to estimate the death toll using the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model.

If we use the IAEA’s collective radiation dose estimate, and a risk estimate derived from LNT (0.1 cancer deaths per person-Sievert), we get an estimate of 60,000 cancer deaths. Sometimes a risk estimate of 0.05 is used to account for the possibility of decreased risks at low doses and/or low dose rates ‒ in other words, 0.05 is the risk estimate when applying a ‘dose and dose rate effectiveness factor’ or DDREF of two. That gives an estimate of 30,000 deaths.

Any number of studies (including studies published in peer-reviewed scientific literature) use LNT ‒ or LNT with a DDREF (or LNT with statistical ‘confidence intervals’) ‒ to estimate the Chernobyl death toll. These studies produce estimates ranging from 9,000 cancer deaths (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 cancer deaths (across Europe).1

Those are the credible estimates of the cancer death toll from Chernobyl. None of them are conclusive ‒ far from it ‒ but that’s the nature of the problem we’re dealing with.

Moreover, LNT may underestimate risks. The 2006 report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) states: “The committee recognizes that its risk estimates become more uncertain when applied to very low doses. Departures from a linear model at low doses, however, could either increase or decrease the risk per unit dose.”4

So the true Chernobyl cancer death toll could be lower or higher than the LNT-derived estimate of 60,000 deaths ‒ a point that needs emphasis and constant repetition since the nuclear industry and its supporters frequently conflate an uncertain long-term death toll with a long-term death toll of zero.

Another defensible position is that the long-term Chernobyl cancer death toll is unknown and unknowable because of the uncertainties associated with the science. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) states (p.64): “The Committee has decided not to use models to project absolute numbers of effects in populations exposed to low radiation doses from the Chernobyl accident, because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions. It should be stressed that the approach outlined in no way contradicts the application of the LNT model for the purposes of radiation protection, where a cautious approach is conventionally and consciously applied.” 5

Pro-nuclear environmentalists

So there are two defensible positions regarding the Chernobyl cancer death toll ‒ estimates based on collective dose estimates (with or without a DDREF or a margin of error in either direction), and UNSCEAR’s position that the death toll is uncertain.

The third of the two defensible positions ‒ unqualified claims that the Chernobyl death toll was just 50 or so, comprising some emergency responders and a small percentage of those who later suffered from thyroid cancer ‒ should be rejected as dishonest or uninformed spin from the nuclear industry and some of its scientifically-illiterate supporters.

Those illiterate supporters include every last one of the self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists (PNEs). We should note in passing that some PNE’s have genuine environmental credentials while others ‒ such as Patrick Moore 6 and Australian Ben Heard 7 ‒ are in the pay of the nuclear industry.

James Hansen 8 and George Monbiot 9 cite UNSCEAR to justify a Chernobyl death toll of 43, without noting that the UNSCEAR report 5 did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths. James Lovelock asserts that “in fact, only 42 people died” from the Chernobyl disaster. 10

Patrick Moore, citing the UN Chernobyl Forum (which included UN agencies such as the IAEA, UNSCEAR, and WHO), states that Chernobyl resulted in 56 deaths. 11 In fact, the Chernobyl Forum’s 2005 report estimated up to 4,000 long-term cancer deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations 12, and a follow-up study by the World Health Organisation in 2006 estimated an additional 5,000 deaths among people exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. 13

Tas Uni academic Barry Brook says the Chernobyl death toll is less than 60. 14 Ben Heard 15, a self-styled Australian ‘ecomodernist’ but in fact a uranium and nuclear industry consultant, claims that the death toll was 43. 16

In 2010, Mark Lynas said the Chernobyl death toll “has likely been only around 65.” 17 Two years earlier, Lynas said that the WHO estimates “a few thousand deaths” (actually 9,000 deaths) but downplays the death toll by saying it was “indiscernible” in the context of overall deaths. 18 Yes, the Chernobyl death toll is indiscernible … and the 9/11 terrorist attacks accounted for an indiscernible 0.1 percent of all deaths in the U.S. in 2001.

There doesn’t appear to be a single example of a PNE ‒ or a comparable organisation ‒ providing a credible account of the Chernobyl death toll. They’re perfectly entitled to follow UNSCEAR’s lead and argue that the long-term death toll is uncertain, but conflating or confusing that uncertainty with a long-term death toll of zero clearly isn’t a defensible approach.

The Breakthrough Institute comes closest to a credible account of the Chernobyl death toll (which isn’t saying much), stating that “UN officials say that the death toll could be as high as 4,000”. 19

However the Breakthrough Institute ignores: the follow-up UN/WHO study that estimated an additional 5,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states 13; scientific estimates 1 of the death toll beyond ex-Soviet states (more than half of the Chernobyl fallout was deposited beyond the three most contaminated Soviet states); scientific literature regarding diseases other than cancer linked to radiation exposure 2; and indirect deaths associated with the permanent relocation of over 350,000 people after the Chernobyl disaster.

Tas Uni Barry Brook’s propaganda

Evidence of PNE ignorance abounds. For the most part, they had a shaky understanding of the radiation/health debates (and other nuclear issues) before they joined the pro-nuclear club, and they have a shaky understanding now.

Barry Brook is an example of someone whose understanding was shaky before and after he joined the PNE club. Brook says that before 2009 he hadn’t given much thought to nuclear power because of the ‘peak uranium’ argument. 20 By 2010, Brook was in full flight, asserting that the LNT model is “discredited” and has “no relevance to the real world”. 14

In fact, LNT enjoys heavy-hitting scientific support. For example the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ BEIR report states that “the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.” 4 Likewise, a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states: “Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology.” 21

On Chernobyl, Brook said: “The credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60. The ‘conspiracy theories’ drummed up against these authoritative organisations rings a disturbingly similar bell in my mind to the crank attacks on the IPCC, NASA and WMO in climate science.” 14

But the WHO, IAEA and other UN agencies estimated 9,000 deaths in ex-Soviet states in their 2005/06 reports 22, and more recently UNSCEAR has adopted the position that the long-term death toll is uncertain.

Brook repeatedly promotes the work of Ted Rockwell from ‘Radiation, Science, and Health’, an organisation that peddles unhinged, dangerous conspiracy theories such as this: “Government agencies suppress data, including radiation hormesis, and foster radiation fear. They support extreme, costly, radiation protection policies; and preclude using low-dose radiation for health and medical benefits that apply hormesis, in favor of using (more profitable) drug therapies.” 23

Brook promotes 24 the discredited ‘hormesis’ theory that low doses of radiation are beneficial to human health (for a scientific critique see Appendix D in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ BEIR report 4).

Pity Brook’s students at Tas Uni. How would you approach writing an essay to be marked by Prof. Brook ‒ would you use conventional logic and draw on established science, or might you be better off writing ideological drivel drawing heavily on quack scientists and unhinged conspiracy theorists?

True to form, this is what Brook had to say on 12 March 2011 when nuclear meltdown was in full swing at Fukushima: “The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero. There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure. Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces. I am happy to be quoted forever after on the above if I am wrong … but I won’t be.” 25

Brook claims that “nuclear power is the safest energy option”. 26 Safer than wind and solar? To arrive at that conclusion, Brook and other propagandists understate credible estimates of the death toll from Chernobyl (and Fukushima) by orders of magnitude. They conflate an uncertain long-term Chernobyl death toll with a long-term death toll of zero. They trivialise 27 or ignore 28 the greatest hazard associated with nuclear power ‒ its repeatedly-demonstrated connections to WMD proliferation ‒ and they trivialise or ignore related problems such as conventional military strikes against nuclear plants, nuclear terrorism and sabotage, and nuclear theft and smuggling.

And for comic relief, on his Tas Uni webpage Brook promotes his citation as one of the ‘Outstanding Scientists of the 21st Century’. But in fact the citation comes from the International Biographical Centre 29, an organisation that lacks any credibility and is listed on the WA Government’s ‘scamnet’ website 30. One of Brook’s academic colleagues nominated a squeaky toy lobster and Prof. Lobster was accepted for inclusion in the list of Outstanding Scientists.


1. www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2370256/chernobyl_how_many_died.html
2. www.global2000.at/sites/global/files/TORCH%20-%20The%20other%20Report%20of%20Chernobyl.pdf
3. http://foe.org.au/sites/default/files/Chernobyl%20600k%20p-Sv%20IAEA%20Bull.pdf
4. www.nap.edu/catalog/11340.html
5. www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf
6. www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/greenpeace-statement-on-patric/
7. www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/ben-heard-decarbonisesa
8. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3051197
9. www.monbiot.com/2011/03/16/atomised/
10. http://ecolo.org/lovelock/Nuclear_lifeline_en.pdf
11. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/14/AR2006041401209.html
12. www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/chernobyl.pdf, p.16
13. www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/chernobyl/WHO%20Report%20on%20Chernobyl%20Health%20Effects%20July%2006.pdf
14. http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/03/05/open-thread-3/#comment-61051
15. www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/ben-heard-decarbonisesa
16. www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=11891
17. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/8108090/What-the-Green-Movement-Got-Wrong-A-turncoat-explains.html
18. www.newstatesman.com/environment/2008/09/nuclear-power-lynas-reactors
19. http://thebreakthrough.org/archive/fukushima_in_context
20. http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/09/27/tcase1/
21. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14610281
22. www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2006/pr20/en/
23. http://web.archive.org/web/20150910161910/http:/www.radscihealth.org/rsh/index.html
24. http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/07/21/radiation-hormesis/
25. http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/12/japan-nuclear-earthquake/#comment-113871
26. http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/05/01/whyvwhynp/
27. www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/804/myth-peaceful-atom
28. www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2680005/nuclear_power_and_biodiversity_dont_forget_wmd_proliferation.html
29. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Biographical_Centre
30. www.scamnet.wa.gov.au/scamnet/Scam_Types-Directory_Listings_and_registry_schemes-International_Biographical_Centre.htm

*Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a version of this article was originally published. ( www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor )

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]


  1. Chris Harries

    April 10, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    I endorse Pete Godrey’s comment (#1)

    Nearly all energy supply-side battles are bitterly fought between tribal groups of blokes who have philosophical adherence to their chosen technology. Though the wind guys and the nuke gas may throw stone at each other, the unifying backdrop between all the tribes is a background societal belief that we must supply energy to meet demand. As if energy demand is immutable.

    There’s no free lunch in energy supply. Under an eternal growth model, the issue of technology choice becomes fairly moot. We would need all technologies…. and then more.

    When it comes down to that other issue – i.e. meeting essential demand – we can of course pick and choose, but those choices will vary from place to place. South Australia would not choose hydro electricity. Windless Norther Territory would not choose wind power. Population dense cities such as Singapore and New York can hardly run on solar panels. It’s hard to see those places surviving beyond coal without relying on nuclear energy.

    Australia is almost a special case. Relatively small population with a huge land mass it is arguably the most likely place in the world to be able to meet energy demand with renewables. Ironically, if we do achieve this goal we will at the same time be the world’s biggest uranium exporter, ending the world’s nuclear industry. Most Australians seem to be at ease with that prospect.

    Meanwhile Hans Willink’s link (#4) showing death rates caused by different energy technologies is below (based on pro rata power output). Though some figures will be disputed, the stand out item is the high level of deaths caused by coal-fired power. That seems to be the bottom line unifying theme…or at lest should be.

    Energy Source Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

    Coal – global average 100,000 (50% global electricity)

    Coal – China 170,000 (75% China’s electricity)

    Coal – U.S. 10,000 (44% U.S. electricity)

    Oil 36,000 (36% of energy, 8% of electricity)

    Natural Gas 4,000 (20% global electricity)

    Biofuel/Biomass 24,000 (21% global energy)

    Solar (rooftop) 440 (< 1% global electricity) Wind 150 (~ 1% global electricity) Hydro – global average 1,400 (15% global electricity) Hydro – U.S. 0.01 (7% U.S. electricity) Nuclear – global average 90 (17% global electricity w/Chern&Fukush;) Nuclear – U.S. 0.01 (19% U.S. electricity)

  2. Richard Kopf

    April 9, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    It takes a lot of technical skill and sound management to run a nuclear power station. And lots of water. Our clowns can’t even run water wheels efficiently!

  3. G.R.L. Cowan

    April 9, 2016 at 3:41 am

    Brook was already something before he changed his mind on nuclear power. If Jim Green ever does, he will *become* something, but his financial prospects will take a significant tumble, because nuclear power has been uniquely effective in depriving government of fossil fuel income dollars. The lost dollars’ surviving companions know who their friends are.

  4. Mike

    April 8, 2016 at 10:50 pm

    I might have to sit in the dark and light my candles if the Hydro-Electric dams run dry – but at least I know the twit that caused it will be unelected in four years time.

    Chernobyl and Fukushima will still be highly radioactive in 4000 years time.

  5. Robert LePage

    April 8, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    This is whats wrong with nuclear power.
    And since the Fukushima disaster there has been another “problem” at Krakrapara in India forcing a shutdown.
    We keep being told how safe they are now and accidents will not happen anymore but they still do.
    “Alarm bells” are going off over Fukushima plume coming to US West Coast — People will be dying from radiation that’s flowing across Pacific — Massive amounts of nuclear waste are flowing into ocean every day, and will for more than a century — “We’ve contaminated the biggest source of water on planet, and there’s no way to stop it

  6. Shane Humpherys

    April 8, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    While not an overt advocate for nuclear energy this article is completely flawed by basing all its assumptions on the LNT model of the radiation dose-response curve. This model is outdated and flawed and if applied to other radiation exposure models such as exposure to the sun, would see people developing radiation related cancers at an alarming rate.

    Green seeks to debunk the alternate biphasic hormesis dose response model which is far more representative and accurate of all dose response phenomena in biological interactions with almost all external agents from nutrition through to exerscise. As an example think selenium. Critical in small doses for human health through its role in enzyme function, highly carcinogenic above a higher dose threshold. This is hormesis – agents have a biphasic response in biological models based on dose. Radiation is no different. For those who are interested simply research the litany of scientific literature on hormesis via the PubMed scientific database freely available.

    Greens attempts to discredit the hormesis model are paper thin and infact the relevant US radiation authorities are about to adopt this model in favour of the old LNT model that never had the scientific evidence to support it.

    Green is simply wrong. He uses the outdated LNT model to push his barrow. I am absolutely certain history will prove the inadequacy of his outdated LNT model reasoning which will be consigned to the dustbin of ignorance.

  7. Pete Godfrey

    April 8, 2016 at 11:49 am

    The way I look at the nuclear power issue is this.
    The biggest question is “do we really need the energy that bad that we would endanger the whole planet and all of the future for the next 100,000 years or more”?
    Firstly we have gone nowhere near exhausting energy efficiency and downsizing.
    Second the waste products from Nuclear Power are far too toxic to contemplate allowing them to be produced.
    Thirdly we still have no safe way of disposing of the waste.
    Fourth economics of nuclear power don’t add up. The cost to decommission and store the plants after their useful life is over is higher than the value of the power they produce.
    We need to learn to use less power.
    It is time to look at all the power hungry devices that are produced and junk many of them. There is no point in having labor saving devices that give us time to do more of nothing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top