Thursday, March 17, 2011

Private Editor, No. 5: Media, Chernobyl, Japan Nuclear Disaster, and Mental Health

I have no scientific expertise on nuclear power plants. I followed closely at the time the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and listened to accounts of a Russian nuclear scientist-friend who worked on the damaged roof of the Chernobyl plant the day after the explosion. He suffered no known health consequences, although he still has to be checked each year. I also know many young Ukrainians who were evacuated from Kiev and whose thyroids had to be monitored through their young adulthood. I also know that the Chernobyl accident, the worst nuclear-power plant disaster in history, claimed (according to the authoritative report issued in 2005 by the Chernobyl Forum) “fewer than 50 deaths directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004.” In the future, The Chernobyl Forum speculates there may be an additional 4,000 deaths from cancer. They do not explain this estimate, but a quarter century has already passed since the accident with relatively few deaths.

Strikingly, the report labels the mental health impact of Chernobyl as “the largest public health problem created by the accident” and partially attributes this damaging psychological impact to a lack of accurate information. These problems manifest as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.

The current hysterical press and TV reports are indeed creating a “mental health impact” as large as or larger than that of Chernobyl, despite the free flow of information in this case and Gorbachev’s attempted cover up of Chernobyl. The press feeds upon irresponsible statements, such as from the European Union's energy chief, Guenther Oettinger, who characterized the situation as out of control. "We are somewhere between a disaster and a major disaster…There is talk of an apocalypse, and I think the word is particularly well chosen." The media also pounce on pronouncements like radiation “twenty times normal,” where “normal” is usual background radiation. No one bothers to explain what 20 times more than about zero actually means in terms of health risks.

The scientists whom I found in my own search of the web agree that there is no nuclear fission inside the plants (the fuel rods have been withdrawn) and the problem is the heating up of spent fuel. According to one expert: “We could not have a …nuclear explosion. It's physically impossible in this kind of system."

The worst case scenario would occur if the cooling efforts fail and the fuel rods melt down and break through the thick concrete structure, leading to what today’s New York Times calls “an uncontrolled release of radioactivity.” The New York Times stops at that point and does not explain further. As I understand it, such an uncontained meltdown would place the Japanese disaster somewhere between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but closer to Three Mile Island because there has been no Chernobyl-like full-scale explosion and Chernobyl did not even have a containment structure. Those most threatened by this worst case scenario would be plant and rescue workers and residents within a thirty-mile or so radius of the plants.

The media and press have indeed created a “mental health impact” that will likely be greater and more long-lasting than Chernobyl, no matter how benign the eventual outcome. This morning at breakfast, my wife (who watches a lot of television news) asked me if we should leave California! Consumers throughout the world will now fear Japanese products. The Japanese people will conclude that they face a life of poor health, in a suicide-prone society. There may be a rash of abortions, such as in the wake of Chernobyl, as expectant parents fear birth defects. Countries like Germany, confronted with a politically powerful anti-nuclear power lobby, will shut down their nuclear power plants at huge costs. Given that we do not have the “green” technology to replace coal-fired plants, we will use more coal-fired plants which have health and mortality costs likely in excess of the health risks of radiation.

I think it is the responsibility of the media and press to present a balanced picture of risks to let their consumers draw reasoned conclusions of their own. Stories of unimaginable catastrophe draw more customers than reasoned accounts. Consumers of media and press should not have to go to the internet (as I did) to find the information needed to draw informed conclusions.

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