Next to Chernobyl, the Fukushima accident is the worst nuclear power calamity in history. To minimize damage in Fukushima’s aftermath, the Japanese — and all of us — need first learn the lessons of Chernobyl, whose casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands
. Chernobyl’s great calamity in 1986 — a total meltdown in a reactor designed with no containment that ejected astounding amounts of radiation over a 10-day period — came not from the radiation it spewed but from fear of radiation.
Because the air, water and food supplies downwind of Chernobyl were contaminated with radiation, the press reported that hundreds of thousands would die of cancer and babies would be born with deformities. These projections came largely from the scientific community, which based its views on the prevailing wisdom of the day and of today — the theory that radiation in any dose, no matter how small, entails risk. “The primary source of information” for this theory, as explained by the United Nations, which has been its chief proponent for more than 50 years — “remains the Life Span Study of the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
The theory is simple enough. High levels of radiation kill, as demonstrated all too convincingly by the atomic bombs that took so many Japanese lives. But low levels of radiation have effects too small to measure, and can’t even be proved statistically because a large enough sample size could never be assembled. Should scientists assume that there’s a threshold dose, below which radiation is held to be harmless? Or is it more prudent to assume that any dose of radiation could be harmful?