29 April 1996
Chernobyl as a metaphor for the 1990s
John Gillot explores how the dishonest discussion about delayed-action cancers
are used to justify an anti-nuclear argument.
The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on 26 April 1986 killed many
people and will undoubtedly continue to blight the lives of people in the
region for many years to come. But many of the commentaries about it today,
exactly ten years on, lack all sense of proportion. Chernobyl has become
a metaphor for destruction and poisoning in our ecologically-minded and
risk-conscious age. And, as with most concerns about the destructive consequences
of human action today, the perceived problems far outstrip the real ones.
A central theme in the discussion of Chernobyl today is the idea that the
worst is still to come. According to the Ukrainian ambassador to the United
States and the former environmental activist Yuri Shcherback, we have yet
to even comprehend all of the likely consequences of the accident. (Scientific
American, April 1996)
While the discussion around the run-up to and the aftermath of the explosion
takes a variety of forms, many commentators focus on the projected rise
in cancers in the area. Shcherback and many of the more morbid commentators
argue that this rise is an almost inevitable consequence of the explosion.
The cancers, it is said, will take the death toll into the tens if not hundreds
of thousands. So far, the only documented increase in cancer cases has been
the rise in cases of thyroid cancer in children. But, and in this view he
is quite typical, James Meek in the Guardian thinks that this merely foreshadows
'other delayed-action cancer tragedies'.(20 April)
However, there are good reasons to believe that this is not the case. As
is well known, thyroid cancers are in a class of their own. The thyroid
gland concentrates iodine. Unfortunately it makes no distinction between
ordinary iodine and the radioactive isotope released in nuclear accidents.
The thyroid gland thus acts to concentrate the effect, turning a low dose
into a high dose.
Other sources of radiation besides radioactive iodine are not so concentrated.
Because there are good reasons to believe that prolonged exposure to low
doses of radiation are less harmful than a shorter exposure to a high dose
it is unreasonable to generalise from the experiences of thyroid cancers
and paint a picture of many cancers to come.
Many of the commentators know this. To put it kindly, their tendency to
suggest that the increase in thyroid cancers is the tip of the iceberg can
only be explained by an urge to fear the worst. To put it unkindly, the
delayed-action cancer thesis is a dishonest manoeuvre designed to justify
an anti-nuclear argument.
To project an increase in cancers in the future might seem to be an expression
of sympathy for the people of the region. But it is in fact quite harmful
to their well-being. It can only cast a pall over their lives, preventing
them from getting on with things. At worst, the exaggeration of the problem
can only add to the widely documented increase in stress and depression
afflicting people in the region. Chernobyl was bad enough. To pour doom
and gloom on top of it can only make things worse.
John, author of Science and the Retreat from Reason and co-convenor (with
Dominic Wood) of 'The Greening of Society course at The Week conference,
will convene a chat on the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion
at 22:00 BST on Thursday 2 May at the Living Marxism chat
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