Home page Articles and reportage


Published in LA STAMPA, 26 April 2006

A conspiracy to hide some crucial data concerning the Chernobyl accident, a terrible scandal. Had such serious words been used by Greenpeace, it wouldn’t have made headlines, but being used by a fervent supporter of nuclear energy, as Richard Garwin is – indeed an absolute authority in matter of nuclear weapons and energy and an advisor of almost all the American Administrations from Kennedy to Clinton – these words certainly make headlines. And indeed it is quite surprising that international media didn’t gather his condemnation…

Twenty years ago the world experienced the most serious nuclear accident in the human history: Chernobyl, a disaster which still sparks controversy. In fact, since 1986 experts, environmentalists and international organizations have been disputing on the death toll and damage due to the accident and use the Chernobyl data to rehabilitate nuclear energy, by downplaying the consequences of the accident, or to condemn once and for all reactors all around the world, forgetting that the Chernobyl reactor wasn’t the typical reactor for producing energy: it was rather a reactor “without cover”, as physicist Carlo Bernardini of University La Sapienza explains to us, that is, without protection, to permit the extraction of plutonium 239 for nuclear weapons. In September 2005 the Chernobyl Forum report was the last of a deluge of dossiers, data and reports concerning the accident. This report was compiled by an international team of experts including the governments of the most highly exposed areas, such as Belarus, and 8 UN agencies, among which the World Health Organization (WHO) and most of all, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Elaborated in the hope of closing the Chernobyl controversy once and for all, the report concluded that indeed the Chernobyl accident was a serious one, but it wasn’t a catastrophe at all, as ‘only’ 4,000 cancer deaths are expected as a result among the most highly exposed people. “A reassuring message”, according to World Health Organization manager, Michael Repacholi, “a scandal”, according to Garwin, who reconstructs the facts as follows.

In 1993, the UN Scientific Committee which assesses global level and effects of ionizing radiations, UNSCEAR, documented that the collective effective dose due to the Chernobyl accident was 600,000 person sieverts (See the report: www.unscear.org/unscear/en/publications/1993.html, pag. 23). However, after that 1993 UNSCEAR report, this data totally disappeared: there’s no trace of it neither in the 2000 UNSCEAR Report nor in the 2005 Chernobyl Forum report. Had it not disappeared – ‘hidden’, as Garwin insists - the Chernobyl death toll would certainly have gone up and we should expect 34,200 cancer deaths, 12,000 of which (rather than 4,000) in the most highly exposed areas. “Of course, those cancer victims will never be identified as ‘Chernobyl victims’”, explains Garwin, “they will remain in the cauldron of the tens of thousands of people who will die from cancer for different causes over the same period, but hard facts are that those 34,200 cases of cancer are due to the Chernobyl accident”. One could object that the word ‘conspiracy’ is maybe a bit of an exaggeration: scientific committees all around the world introduce data or get rid of it, simply arguing that a specific methodology allows them to do so. “That’s correct”, said Garwin promptly, “No one would complain if they had included that data, or discussed it with scientific rigour, problem is that that data has fallen into the memory hole of 8 UN agecies. This is the reason why I call it conspiracy, the suppression of the number itself”. But why should the IAEA and the Forum have done so? “Probably countries like Belarus want to reduce the expenditure on the Chernobyl victims and the nuclear industry want to downplay the fear”. Garwin is a convinced supporter of nuclear energy, that’s why he has such a rigorous approach. “The behaviour of nuclear industry is reminiscent of that of tobacco firms which maintained that nicotine was not addictive. Simply unacceptable. The nuclear industry should face the consequences of Chernobyl honestly, as its safety records are good enough and the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the disadvantages. The principle of ‘polluter pays’ should be sacred: it’s impossible to pay those people who will die from cancer from radiation due to Chernobyl, as that cancer is indistinguishable from many more common cancers. However, if you can estimate the number, as we do, then you can determine the amount of money the nuclear industry should pay. That amount of money could be paid to a national fund and it could be used for research on reducing cancer or whatever. By doing so, the nuclear industry would have an incentive to be more and more committed to safety, as they would have to pay in case of accident”.