comment, 25 April 2006
The message was pretty clear. "Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident" was the headline. "UN report provides definitive answers" said the subheading. And then, the opening paragraph:
"A total of up to four thousand people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded."
Only one problem: it wasn't true.
The news release, as it was meant to, made headlines around the world after it was published on 5 September 2005. It was from a clutch of United Nations organisations, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
But over the last few weeks - in the run-up to Chernobyl's twentieth anniversary on 26 April - it has been thoroughly discredited. A report by two independent radiation scientists, Ian Fairlie and David Sumner, said the global death toll from cancers was actually going to be between 30,000 and 60,000.
They pointed out that the UN report had only counted cancers deaths from the most contaminated parts of the three nearest countries: Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It had omitted deaths in the less contaminated areas of these countries, and from the rest of Europe and the world. This was odd, to say the least, especially as the majority of the radioactivity actually fell outwith those three countries.
A series of other studies since have come up with similarly high, or higher, numbers. The WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, published a study which put the cancer death toll in Europe at "about 16,000" - or, allowing for the uncertainties, somewhere between 6,700 and 38,000.
The environmental group, Greenpeace, released a report quoting Russian scientists suggesting that radiation from Chernobyl could kill as many as 90,000. And the European Committee of Radiation Risk published a book by Chris Busby and Alexey Yablokov claiming "millions" of cancer deaths.
Critically, WHO itself issued a new statement. "WHO," it said, "estimates there may be up to 9,000 excess cancer deaths due to Chernobyl among the people who worked on the clean-up operations, evacuees and residents of the highly and lower-contaminated regions in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine."
In an associated fact sheet, WHO also accepted that the radiation released would cause cancers in other parts of Europe. But it declined to estimate numbers, saying merely that predictions are "very uncertain".
WHO, in other words, has effectively disowned 4,000 as a headline figure. Even the IAEA, whose mission is to promote nuclear power, has wobbled a little. Put on the spot, the IAEA argued that the total of 4,000 deaths was highlighted to counter much higher figures claimed earlier by some.
"It was a bold action to put out a new figure that was much less than conventional wisdom," an IAEA spokeswoman reportedly said.
"Bold" is one way of putting it. "Economical with the truth" would be another. Who knows exactly what international politicking went on behind the scenes between the IAEA and the WHO over the wording of last September's misleading news release. But it looks like the IAEA, a much more powerful organisation than WHO within the UN, called the shots.
The IAEA spin doctors must have been proud of their work when the stories spread across the world's media stressing how few deaths Chernobyl had caused. But now it has all been undone.
We will probably never know for sure how many people will be killed by the world's worst nuclear accident, but we can be sure of one thing. It's going to be a hell of a lot more than 4,000.