Andrew Osborn



Chief Russia Correspondent


Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS





Listen to the birds of Chernobyl - they may be making the case for nuclear power

The Independent, 7th April 2006 12:39

Listen to the birds of Chernobyl - they may be making the case for nuclear power


Of all the articles written to mark the 20th anniversary of the world's greatest nuclear disaster, at Chernobyl, the most significant appeared in Wednesday's Independent. Andrew Osborn had travelled to the site of the explosion and revealed that it had become an unplanned nature reserve. Animals have returned of their own accord, including 7,000 wild boar and a similar number of elk - it is now the home of 280 species of birds, many of them rare and endangered.

Even the cooling ponds of the power station are teeming with fish. One of the former inhabitants who has returned, Maria Shaparenko, said: "It's very nice here in summer, everything blooms. In fact nothing is wrong here, it's just that people have been scared off by the radiation."

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, 375 British farmers are not allowed to take their lambs to market without first notifying the Food Standards Agency, whose officials consider the land still to be "dirty" as a result of fallout from Chernobyl. The farmers had originally been told, back in 1986, that they would be free to sell their produce within six months. The guiding principle of all bureaucracies, alas, is that their work is never done. But who is right in this case: 82-year-old Maria Shaparenko, or our very own Dame Deirdre Hutton, head of the FSA?

Scientific opinion seems increasingly to favour Maria over Deirdre. Studies of survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs show that those not near the epicentre of those two dreadful blasts, and who therefore endured relatively low amounts of radiation, have enjoyed a life expectancy no less high than among Japanese of the same age who were not living in the affected areas.

A less gruesome experimental finding is demonstrated by the inhabitants of the Iranian town of Ramsar, whose rivers and streams have an extraordinarily high concentration of radium, and who endure a background radiation level more than 5,000 times the safety level recommended by the American Environmental Protection Agency. According to Professor Zbigniew Jaworowski, ex-chairman of a UN committee on radiation effects, "there are many generations living in homes in Ramsar and we found no evidence of any harm". Indeed, Doctor John Cameron of Wisconsin-Madison goes further: "Ifs been known for some time that radiation stimulates the immune system. Studies show that animals live longer with an increase of radiation. There's no doubt in my mind that radiation at moderate levels is beneficial."

The point seems to be that whereas the official safety level here and in America is based on the idea that the effects of radiation are linear in nature, the facts show that the true risk ratio follows a J-shape: radiation is either harmless or beneficial up to surprisingly high levels, and then suddenly, as soon as the dose becomes truly massive, it becomes very dangerous indeed.

This presumably explains why the actual number of deaths directly attributable to Chernobyl was so much lower than almost everyone expected. But it's not surprising that those expectations were so high. It was a contrived nuclear disaster of a sort which a terrorist might have thought over-ambitious. In a bizarre experiment, the Chernobyl Reactor Number Four was made to run at a dangerously low level, the emergency cooling unit was disconnected and the emergency safety mechanism was switched off.

Not surprisingly, the 1,000-tonne concrete reactor shield was blown clean away in a mighty explosion, instantly killing 31 plant workers. Iodine-131 and Caesium-137 rained down upon the populations of Belarus and Ukraine. Yet although the Western media for many years claimed 100,000 people had died as a result, it appears that only 134 people are known to have received dangerously high doses of radiation, of whom 14 have since died (though several of those deaths were attributed to unrelated causes). The official UN report concluded that the radiation from Chernobyl caused no measurable increase in birth defects and no rise in the "background rate" of leukaemia.

These facts have taken on more than merely scientific interest, now that the political leaders of western Europe are beginning to realise that a return to a civil nuclear power station building programme is necessary if they are to meet the commitments demanded of them by the Kyoto treaty. Necessary, that is, if they do not want the lights to go out.

The Finns, who take the Kyoto Treaty particularly seriously, are now constructing their fifth nuclear reactor and the fascinating thing is that this project was originally planned back in the 1980s but scuppered by the political fallout from Chernobyl. Ifs also interesting that, like us, the Finns get about a quarter of their energy from nuclear power, and also like us, are nervous about over-reliance on gas pipelines controlled by Mr Putin.

The French lead the way in nuclear self-sufficiency: three-quarters of their electricity needs come from close to 50 indigenous nuclear power stations. By the way, do you know any anti-nuclear campaigners who refuse to take their families on holiday to France on health and safety grounds?

It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the issue that will divide the environmentalist movement. I've written before about how James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory, has broken away from many of his former colleagues in the movement by insisting that only nuclear power can combine carbon-emission reduction with maintenance of our current standard of living. In 2004 he was joined by the former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, who had been a fundraiser for Friends of the Earth for more than 20 years, but who was asked to resign over his pro-nuclear stance.

He declared in response: "The future of the planet is more important than membership of Friends of the Earth." In a gracious statement following Montefiore's death last year, Tony Juniper, the executive director of FoE, said: "He was a tireless campaigner for the environment, who was never afraid of challenging conventional wisdom."

Organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, originally outspoken challengers to conventional wisdom, now represent it, at least among the well-to-do British middle classes. This is a victory for their propaganda and campaigning skills, but intellectually they now appear more like conservative defenders of the status quo, too rigid in their thoughts to cope with internal dissent. When Hollywood joins the movement you know it's reached its high-water mark: I was amused to see that Michael Douglas has been co-opted, declaring that "I will never be able to safely take my children to my father's hometown in Belarus because of what happened there." Yes, you will, Michael. Listen to the birds of Chernobyl.

Animals have returned and the cooling ponds of the power station are teeming with fish