Don't panic: it's only a leaky reactor

As a child, I must have caught the tail-end of the pro-nuclear age, for I remember mild excitement being generated in the supermarket aisles by a new washing powder called Radion, a detergent that didn’t actually claim it irradiated rather than washed your smalls, but still managed to sound, you know, pretty scientific. All did not go well for the Radion brand, however, and by the time of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident, it was being pronounced on TV commercials with a short, northern “a”. I don’t remember seeing it at all after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, although I do remember Brits at the time getting so scared that they stopped buying chicken Kievs from Marks & Spencer.
Despite there not having been a remotely comparable accident in the following two decades, you still have to be a very brave ecologist – ie, James Lovelock – to dare to suggest that nuclear power stations rather than, say, windmills, might save the planet without first poisoning us. The brave among them can afford to be a little braver now, following the most recent Horizon: nuclear nightmares (13 July, 9pm).
It did not, obviously, try to persuade us that the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki was harmless, but it did put up a powerful argument that the relatively low levels of radiation emitted from even the worst nuclear accidents cause much less damage than scientists believed. We followed Tatyana Lukina, a Ukrainian woman evacuated from her home near Chernobyl, as she returned with her daughter to her desolate home town. The daughter, now 20 years old, was lucky to be going anywhere, as her mother had been warned that the fallout would have serious effects on her unborn child. She recalled that the local hospitals became abortion factories. Some 200,000 foetuses were aborted. Yet here was her daughter, looking perfectly normal.
All the dire predictions, it turned out, were off. The statistics forecast 9,000 deaths. Some 1,800 members of the clear-up gang alone were meant to die from radiation cancers; to date 47 have done so. Going further out, it was forecast that another 6,800 would expire, yet only 56 people have so far died of radiation-related diseases – less than Britain’s weekly road cull.
It is not as if the radiation is not out there. Ron Chesser, a Texan scientist, went out to survey the Chernobyl wildlife and now boasts of having in his stuffed-animal collection the most radioactive weasel in the world. As he held a Chernobyl vole to a Geiger counter, the machine clicked madly. Yet Chesser was amazed to find a huge diversity of wildlife caught in his traps and no genetic damage to any of them: “We all sat down and asked what we did wrong.”
What was done wrong, it seems, was the extrapolation made from Hiroshima. Taking as its model the death rates in Japan, a 1958 study plotted a straight line on a graph between increased cancer risk and exposure to radiation. The trouble was that the US bomb was so big – and Japan so small – that there was no data available from people who lived far enough away to have been exposed to very small, Chernobyl-type levels of irradiation. None the less, the scientists completed the line on the graph down to zero. They should not have done. As Antone Brooks, another American professor, concluded: “Low doses of radiation are a piss-poor carcinogen.”
It seems that Tatyana was subjected to the trauma of deracination for nothing and that the 200,000 sheep grazing in our own Lake District and deemed, because of Chernobyl, too radioactive for human consumption, should be turned into lamb chops immediately.
Some scientists on the show went even further – and suggested that a little bit of radiation might actually stimulate the genes that protect against cancers. And so the programme went full circle, back to its early images of 1930s products that used “radium” as we use “platinum” now, to indicate classiness. In those innocent days, you could buy radium condoms, radium cigarettes, even radium shoe polish. A newspaper ad read: “Vidor Radium Suppositories. Weak, discouraged men! Now bubble over with joyous vitality through the use of glands and radium.” It was all nonsense, of course, but no greater nonsense than the headlines of the summer of 1986: “Victims glow in the dark”; “Metal sticks to amazing boy”; “Mums give birth to babies that look like chimps”. I think the Horizon producer Nick Davidson may have hit on a new journalistic genre: whatever the opposite of scaremongering is.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the

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