Decarbonise SA had a visitor recently. A new commenter took exception to the contents of the clip from Panadora’s Promise and fired off a bit of invective, albeit with some linked references. Here is the comment:

From the trailer:

1. Mark Lynas: “no increase in cancer amongst Chernobyl liquidators”

WHO: “a doubling of the incidence of leukaemia among the most highly exposed Chernobyl liquidators.” –

2. Mark Lynas: “no children born deformed as a result of Chernobyl”

Science: “the frequency of both congenital and fetal abnormalities in the Republic of Belarus has apparently increased.” –

3. Dude in denim shirt: “Greenpeace claims 1 million deaths from Chernobyl”

Greenpeace: “93,000 cancer deaths, possibly up to 160,000 deaths from all other causes.” –

So, in just a few seconds of trailer we find it’s packed with false claims. Looks like weak propaganda, not credible documentary.

Left to right: Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger
Left to right: Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger

Some of you may recognise this type of opening foray. No time wasted in saying hi, nothing phrased remotely as a question like “What about this?”. Just an attack on the work of a great film maker. This type of opening leaves little room for back-peddling, and sure enough my visitor simply became more and more hostile.

What I recognised as I prepared an adequate response was something else familiar: cherry picking, including choice phrases from abstracts.

I am not a working scientist. But I use science in my work which I describe as environmental decision-making. Semi-regularly I need to go beyond summary documents and return to source articles. Based on this I can say one thing for certain: abstracts are not an adequate representation of a scientific paper. Abstracts are basically bait. They are there to pull you into reading the paper. To craft an awkward metaphor, they usually include all of the sex, but little of the awkward conversation that follows…

It is either lazy or deliberately misleading to go no further than an abstract when throwing around information that can have a serious impact on the lives and well-being of others.

It’s encouraging to hear in this recent interview that the response to Pandora’s Promise seems so far to be one of essentially accepting the message as it is presented. But I am quite sure that the film will stimulate many to selectively rake through scientific papers on the impacts of nuclear power and try to inflame, rather than inform, our society’s discussion on nuclear power. My advice would be this: if something stinks, click on the link and read the reference yourself. We can’t let these important discussions be ruled by Abstract thinking.

My response to the commenter is reproduced in full below. Thank you to several other commenters who did a great job in exploring the issues in further detail.

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Ok Petr, I have time for some more detailed response now. It requires some detail you see, because cherry picking takes time to un-pick.

Firstly, I do not regard UNSCEAR or WHO as corrupt. If you insist on dismissing the findings of these organisationS, then you are a conspiracy theorist, and that is not my problem. I do regard anything published in peer reviewed literature to be worthy of consideration, but not above criticism.

To your point 1. In my very first response, I demonstrated that you withdrew a single sentence from two paragraphs, excluding every single thing that worked against your contention. This is blatant cherry picking.

My reading of the situation is as follows. This may differ to others, I have read much but certainly not all of the relevant information on Chernobyl.

I refer you to the response I provided earlier to Phillipe Lefevre. These studies are regarded as poorly designed. UNSCEAR says in more detail

“low statistical power, uncertainties in dose reconstruction, and internal inconsistencies that that suggest potential biases or confounding factors that are difficult to address”.

Paragraph 74 .

Elsewhere they state

“Among Russian recovery operation workers with higher doses there is emerging evidence of some increase in the incidence of leukaemia. However, based on other studies, the annual incidence of radiation-induced leukaemia would be expected to fall within a few decades after exposure” and further, in more detail “Future studies may resolve these issues although after about 5-15 years post exposure, the risk of radiation-induced leukaemia declines over time and most newly diagnosed leukaemia cases will be unlikely to have been due to radiation”.

The Chernobyl Forum report says:

Some radiation-induced increases in fatal leukaemia, solid cancers and circulatory system diseases have been reported in Russian emergency and recovery operation workers. According to data from the Russian Registry, in 1991–1998, in the cohort of 61 000 Russian workers exposed to an average dose of 107 mSv about 5% of all fatalities that occurred may have been due to radiation exposure. These findings, however, should be considered as preliminary and need confirmation in better-designed studies with careful individual dose reconstruction.

Overall, the experts do not regard these findings as robust. There appear to be problems with sampling, dose reconstruction, biases, other confounding factors, plus the fact that leukaemia normally appears quite soon after exposure, not nearly three decades later.

The evidence is not strong enough. Your link does not support the contention of increased cancer in liquidators. Epidemiology is complex, and this has clearly not made the grade.

Point 2, you referred me to the 1997 paper by Lazjuk et al. Thanks for providing the link. The headline you provided seems hugely significant and contrary to my understanding, so I read it straight away. Others can too.
In summary, it’s a comparison of a group from a highly contaminated region against a control group in Minsk. Against a range of disorders, the authors find a hugely higher incidence of congential abnormality in the group from the contaminated region. However, it pays to read the paper closely.

Contamination map from UNSCEAR
Contamination map from UNSCEAR

Firstly, this on pre-existing conditions:

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which has studied the problem repeatedly, used a doubling dose of 1.0 Sv per generation to estimate the rate of abnormal births due to gene mutations and chromosome aberrations and found it to be 1,700 cases per 1,000,000 newborns (0.17%) in the first generation [l-41. However, the incidence of congenital anomalies in Belarus prior to the accident is 3.6-4.6 per 100 live births, and the doses received by the residents of contaminated areas are much lower than 1.0 Sv.

So prior to the accident, Belarus had a higher than normal rate of abnormality. Problem 1.
Problem 2. The sample.

“Disruption in human morphogenesis was studied in legal medical abortuses (products of conception obtained before 27 weeks of gestation by means of pregnancy termination at a medical institution at the woman’s request) obtained from pregnant women in Minsk-city (controls), and pregnant women from the Gomel and Mogilev regions with 137Cs contamination of at least 555 9Bq/m2 …Since all abortuses were included, selection bias was minimal for legal abortuses. However, since unreported abortuses remain undocumented and also unexamined in this analysis, selection bias may have occurred.

This is a study of a subset (recorded abortions) of a subset (all abortions) of all conceptions in Belarus. Not live births, legal abortions. 2,578 of them to be exact. Not great.

Problem 3: Several conditions they looked at have multiple causes. That makes attribution hard. I quote:

The frequency of all types of tissue anomalies was increased in the contaminated areas, with the highest increases seen for duplication of the kidneys and ureters, polydactyly, and defects of the neural tube. These defects have heterogeneous etiologies: polydactyly is frequently caused by dominant mutations, defects of the neural tube are mainly of multifactorial origin, and the genetic cause of kidney and ureter duplication is undetermined. We found no increase of monosomies or trisomies in the abortuses, nor did we find a direct teratogenic effect resulting in the death of cells in the embryo from which organs originate. These findings make it impossible to conclude that radiation-induced changes in chromosome translocation frequency are responsible for the increased frequency of congenital malformations in abortuses from women living in the contaminated areas.

This all features in the paper before the authors really get stuck into themselves in the discussion section on page 259. They say this about the problems with the study:

First, it is possible that increased ascertainment of cases with congenital malformation may have taken place in the contaminated (compared to control) regions of Belarus.

So basically, more looking means more finding. This is common.

Second, although radiation exposures were estimated for populations, doses received by individuals are not known at this time. Because individual dose varies greatly, depending upon activities at the time of and for several weeks to months after the accident, assessment of individual radiation dose received will be necessary to determine with greater certainty whether radiation exposure places individuals at risk for these disorders.

So, there is NO information in this study to suggest that the mothers of the abortuses actually received any kind of elevated dose of radiation. Basically, this is NOT an epidemiological study.

Third, it is possible that selection bias may have occurred, as an analysis of unreported abortuses was not possible.

This refers back to the sampling problem. There is every chance that many healthy foetuses were aborted in the aftermath of Chernobyl outside of the system. In fact, this is known to be the case.

Despite these issues, the authors then say

“Nevertheless, we believe that our results are provocative and require further study to determine whether our hypothesis is correct.”

You have relied on this paper to refute the statement by Lynas. The authors themselves describe it as a “hypothesis” that has not been shown to be correct. I will agree with them on one point, it is provocative. The paper quite simply gives nothing persuasive whatsoever. It has been 16 years since it was published. Where the hell is the follow up to this “provocative” paper? Perhaps with all those weakness, one on the other, it really was not worth it?

As to the experts, WHO (2011 25th Anniversary Frequently Asked Questions) says this

In the Chernobyl-affected regions, there is no evidence of decreased fertility among males or females in the general population. However, birth rates may be lower in contaminated areas because of a high rate of medical abortions. Since 1986, there has been a reported increase in congenital malformations in both contaminated and uncontaminated areas of Belarus which predated Chernobyl and may be the result of increased registration of such cases. Based on dose levels to which the majority of the population was exposed, there is unlikely to be a major effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes, delivery complications, or the overall health of children, but monitoring remains important.

The Chernobyl Forum Report (2006) says this:

Because of the relatively low dose levels to which the populations of the Chernobyl affected regions were exposed, there is no evidence or any likelihood of observing decreased fertility among males or females in the general population as a direct result of radiation exposure. These doses are also unlikely to have any major effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes or delivery complications or the overall health of children.

Birth rates may be lower in ‘contaminated’ areas because of concern about having children (this issue is obscured by the very high rate of medical abortions) and the fact that many younger people have moved away. No discernible increase in hereditary effects is expected based on the low risk coefficients estimated by UNSCEAR (2001) or in previous reports on Chernobyl health effects. Since 2000, there has been no new evidence provided to change this conclusion.

There has been a modest but steady increase in reported congenital malformations in both contaminated’ and ‘uncontaminated’ areas of Belarus since 1986; see Fig. 4. This does not appear to be radiation-related and may be the result of increased registration.

As to your point three, I have read the other comments and that was roughly my understanding; that Greenpeace funded the work and that the author is Greenpeace affiliated. I do not know either to be true. I don’t have a comment.

So, what you have provided to support your assertions did not support them at all, unless you are prepared to dismiss the work of UNSCEAR, WHO and the Chernobyl Forum. Since you opened your engagement with a link to WHO to support your position, this would seem a difficult thing to do.

Since then you have been rude, abusive and insulting to both me and others. You have dismissed expert work with conspiratorial accusations, dumped on your own chosen source of WHO and damned people you disagree with as “amateurs” while referring me to You have referred to modelled outcomes of harm as “evidence of cancer”. You have jumped around from source to source, placing link bait with big scary numbers, rather than having the patience to wait for me to make an adequate response. You have tried to move the debate to problems of cost for nuclear power. You have called me and others a climate denialist, a propagandist, and a quasi religious ideologue. On your first visit to the site. Nice.

Normally, I moderate this sort of crap right away. But you have been such an excellent example of what this film is talking about, that I wanted to get you on the record in all your glory. Now of course, I am happy to say goodbye. But thanks, you have been an excellent advertisement for my position on nuclear power.


      1. It’s unfortunately a very effective method. If just a few times, there’s nobody to refute the claim, it will work.
        This kinds of guerrilla tactic just really harms the debate by making to extremely hard to do anything else than follow suit and going to the lowest level possible.

        1. Studies have shown it to be an effective method….even to the point of where, for example, newspapers issue a correction or retraction, that in itself serves to further convince people of the initial error!
          An example (not directly related) is the myth that when cooking mussels you should throw out any that do not open. This has been traced back to a particular cookbook from the 70’s (the idea predates it but hadn’t become popular), which gave no reason for it, but has since been picked up and repeated, despite marine scientists showing it has no basis, and that after cooking unopened mussels are perfectly safe to eat.

          1. BTW do you know that mussels can be a major source of 210PO, at a level much higher than the cesium left in most Fukushima fishes ?

            Cf Allometric relationships of 210Po and 210Pb in mussels and their application to environmental monitoring.
            “(210)Po from 1065 Bq kg(-1) (dw) to 540 Bq kg(-1) (dw)” (depending on the mussel size)

            We need a “Unknown Nuclear&Radiation Facts” site !

  1. Yablokov, the author of the 1 million deaths claim, is the founder of Greenpeace in the area. It’s reasonable to attribute his work as Greenpeace’s unless they explicitly disavow it. Have they?

    1. Their logo is on the original russian language report, along with an anti-nuclear group from Scandinavia. The sources are in my comment here ( and here (

      The only traction it got was when the NYAS put it in their library for distribution. But I noticed the other day FoE doesn’t go near it as it’s “disputed”.

  2. Irregular Comentator: some other comment can’t be the source of a truthful comment. Truth comes only from Nature. Nature isn’t just the final authority on truth, Nature is the Only authority. There are zero human authorities. Scientists do not vote on what is the truth. There is only one vote and Nature owns it. We find out what Nature’s vote is by doing Scientific [public and replicable] experiments. Scientific [public and replicable] experiments are the only source of truth. [To be public, it has to be visible to other people in the room. What goes on inside one person’s head isn’t public unless it can be seen on an X-ray or with another instrument.]
    Science is a simple faith in Scientific experiments and a simple absolute lack of faith in everything else.

    If you want to know about natural background radiation, get yourself a geiger counter now, and check it out for yourself. Bananas are a good source of radiation for you, but eat them anyway. You need the potassium to live, and some potassium is always radioactive. You can’t sort it out.

    1. What was that in reference to? Did you click on my links?

      TL;DR, those links lead to comments I made that refer to the Russian publication of the Yablokov report, on which includes the logo of Greenpeace and Bellona. Both staunchly anti-nuclear thus highlighting that a report that shows an unbelievable amount of fatalities is sponsored by two anti-nuclear groups. Plus some other counters to anti-nuclear arguments.

      Would they have sponsored the report if it showed the UNSCEAR levels of injuries and fatalaties? I doubt it. Because they have a motive to promote their niche and stick to their policies.
      NGOs do that, whether they are pro or anti nuclear they all do it. Some reports never see the light of day and some do, it all depends on their motivation.

      Research is fed by funding, funds don’t travel to research that is contrary to the sources motivations. That’d be fiscally irresponsible.

  3. As I have read, a Becquerel is such a small unit that the amount of radioactive isotope in a 70 kg. person’s necessary potassium load suffices to maintain a radiation rate of over 4000 Bq. I deduce that, since the need for potassium has been going on since far back among our vertebrate ancestry, that there is indeed a threshold radiation rate below which our genetic repair mechanisms are very effective.

  4. I’ve looked up the Radon decay chain. Its half life is 3.8 days, but the next two decay products have half lives measured in hours All three emit high energy, low penetration alpha particles. Right from inside your lungs. By the time it gets to the super poison polonium 210, which killed Litvinenko, it has already hit you with three times what the polonium will emit, at a half-life rate of about a week. Plus a couple of beta particles.
    You needn’t even worry about the Po-210, you’ll be dead enough!
    They reckoned a few hundred nanograms of that polonium was enough to doom Litvinenko. I don’t know what concentration of radon gives a lethal dose of it to your lungs. But the msinformed folk who imagine plutonium is the deadliest element of all are abysmally ignorant.

  5. TBH Ben, while Petr deserved the treatment he got, and was clearly wrong, in relation to the first point, he was less wrong than Mark Lynas. I think Petr’s dragged you down to his level. Lynas should probably not have said so confidently “no increase in cancer”, when with the best available science there may well be an increase in cancer and it seems more likely than not on the limited evidence. Similar story with the second point, it was a bit of an overreach, it wouldn’t really surprise anyone if there were a (barely detectable) statistically significant increase in birth defects. The third point, I really don’t care if Greenpeace Russia says 200 000 and/or 1 million. They did say a lot died either way, and that wasn’t backed up by any sort of data.

    But fundamentally this is all missing the forest for the trees – Chernobyl has almost nothing to do with what you, me and everyone here is advocating. 27 years ago an already decrepit and outdated design from the 50s, in an almost bankrupt country, was subjected to extreme testing that it’s own designers would have been horrified with, and the result was pretty catastrophic. And this means what precisely in 2013? Nothing, not unless you were personally affected by it.

    1. “in relation to the first point, he was less wrong than Mark Lynas.”

      It’s not my job to defend statements by Mark or anyone else to the letter, and that’s not what I was doing. I was exposing the techniques being used, and the bastardisation of information on Petr’s part. Whether I did this well or not is up to others to decide.

      But I disagree with you. From all I have read it is not “more likely than not based on the available evidence of the liquidators”, it’s a big fat “we will never know, because whatever it might be is too small to detect in a robust study, after 25 years of studying the issue”. That’s much closer to Mark’s matter of fact presentation of the issue than dropping in little comment bombs suggesting the opposite. Check the video linked on the “Who gets it?” page for Gerry Thomas and see just how matter of fact UNSCEAR are on this same point. Should Mark use a few qualifiers? Up to others to decide. But from what I know of him, he would have made the statement advisedly. As to the second point, it sounds like we need the metaphorical tiger repellent. If we look as hard as we can and can’t find something, it’s not there! It would seem that there isn’t a barely detectable statistically significant increase in birth defects from Chernobyl, so why suggest that maybe there is? There might be something detectable from vodka consumption or, maybe folk-dancing… should we warn folks?

      After 25 years of finding sweet f.a. beyond the thyroid cancer, and the cataracts in the emergency workers, I’m happy to see people speak plainly on this and say “none” where that is what the evidence tells us.

      As to your second point I could not agree more. If you have ideas on how to let the debate move on, do share! I have the option of either just moderating out silly stuff like Petr’s comments, or dealing with it, hopefully constructively.

  6. A coal fired power plant gives you 100 to 400 as much radiation as a nuclear power plant. Chernobyl gave the local area as much radiation as a coal fired power plant would in 7 years and 5 months.
    Reference on coal:

    by Alex Gabbard
    Metals and Ceramics Division
    Oak Ridge National Laboratory
    Oak Ridge, TN

    Chernobyl and another 135 Soviet built reactors still in use do not have containment buildings. Their roofs are very weak. The reactors are first generation and unstable. Such reactors and buildings have not been built in the US since 1944, and that one was torn down in 1944.

  7. Reference: “Power to Save the World; The Truth About Nuclear Energy” by Gwyneth Cravens, 2007 Finally a truthful book about nuclear power. This book is very easy to read and understand. Gwyneth Cravens is a former anti-nuclear activist.
    Page 98: There is a table of millirems per year from the
    background in a list of inhabited places.
    Chernobyl: 490 millirem/year
    Guarapari, Brazil: 3700 millirem/year
    Tamil Nadu, India: 5300 millirem/year
    Ramsar, Iran: 8900 to 13200 millirem/year

  8. You can get some idea of how deeply visceral is the anti-nuclear sentiment reposing within our fearless leaders when they get to exercise their powers. The redoubtable Bob Hawke seems inordinately pleased he has helped prevent uranium mining at Kongarra
    A quarter century ago he stopped the Franklin hydro, another source of low carbon energy. Onyer Bob,

    I imagine the movers and shakers congratulate themselves at dinner parties on how environmentally progressive they are. Meanwhile more coal goes into the boilers as they turn up the dimmers on the mood lighting. There is another link between Franklin and Koongarra beside Bob H… media coverage invariably shows regional beauty spots that aren’t really that close to the affected area. I pose two questions; do our politicians have any constructive ideas and should we trust the media?

  9. Why do you keep dropping identical context-disregarding comments on multiple blog posts, not just here, but all over the Internet? This is the fourth time on DSA, and there are dozens of other copies.

    1. Well if that’s the case it’s bloody annoying and belittles the effort I put into my writing. It’s also called spam, and it works against making a persuasive case so it’s out. Thanks for alerting me. Asteroid Miner, I seem to recall warning you before.

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