20 Questions

In her documentary Chernobyl 20, screened last Sunday at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment, Yelena Zmushko, a Chernobyl survivor, asks two women in a grocery store, newly repatriated residents of Chernobyl’s still-hot exclusion zone, to explain why so many gravestones in the local cemetery bear the names and ages of people who died in their 20s.

“Car accidents!” one of them finally says, as if she’s come up with an answer on a quiz show, and the other agrees. “Yes, lots of car accidents.”

Sunday’s program, organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility to remember the Chernobyl disaster, 20 years after reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, might have been called a day of reckoning with denial.

Rochelle Becker, of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, remembered how experts she’d met in Kiev six months before the fire believed their nuclear facilities, lacking the profit motive of the American industry, were sound; David Marples, a Chernobyl expert at the University of Alberta, told of the current persecution of scientists under Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko: “If you speak about [Chernobyl] at a university,” he said, “people will warn you not to continue in this vein.”

And then there was Daniel Hirsch, a tall mad-scientist type, his balding pate ringed by bushy gray locks, who for 35 years, through his Committee to Bridge the Gap — first formed to protest the Vietnam War and then, for the past 25 years, to stop nuclear proliferation — has had a knack for getting you to think about things you’d rather forget.

In the early 1980s, while teaching environmental policy at UCLA, he successfully challenged the relicensing of a research reactor after he and his students detected leaking radioactive gas. And on Sunday, he turned his attention to a press release issued last fall by the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, assuring the world that the death toll of Chernobylwas lower than expected: Instead of the 20,000 or 40,000 deaths some predicted, 100 scientists had concluded that only 4,000 people would eventually die from the aftereffects of radiation poisoning. Major dailies, including the Los Angeles Times, parroted the release; the figures were repeated this week in Newsweek. But not even the agencies that issued the report still stand by those numbers.

“Somebody once asked I.F. Stone how he got stories that nobody else did,” said Hirsch. “He said it was because he was hard of hearing, and never went to the press conferences. Instead, he read the transcripts.”

Had Stone been around last fall, Hirsch contended, he would have told a different Chernobyl story. Behind the press release was a report, Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts. “And Izzy Stone,” Hirsch said, “would have looked at the actual report.”

Instead, Hirsch opened the report, and displayed a table from its innards on a PowerPoint slide. “They estimate 4,000 casualties may occur during the lifetime of about 600,000 people under consideration,” Hirsch explained. But the 600,000 taken into account were almost all “liquidators” who worked to clean up the mess, not ordinary citizens. The Chernobyl plume flew high and far, and settled as far away as Ireland. It touched millions in other areas. “Even from their own chart,” Hirsch pointed out, “you can add up 9,000 cancers if you include those residents.”

Next, Hirsch flashed a New Scientist article up on the screen, in which a radiation scientist named Zhanat Carr states that “5,000 deaths were omitted because the report was a ‘political communication tool’ ”; it came out around the same time that President Bush signed the energy bill, which contained massive subsidies for nuclear power. Hirsch continued reading out loud, incredulousness mounting in his pitch: “She also accepts that the WHO estimates did not include predicted cancers outside Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.” Hirsch read on: “Elizabeth Cardis, a radiation specialist from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, says that 30,000 to 60,000 cancer deaths is ‘the right order of magnitude.’ She is due to publish a study of 570 million Europeans, establishing a central rate of combined solid cancers, thyroid and leukemia of 41,000.”

So why did the information presented to the media get so twisted?

“Two scientists wrote the press release after the 100 scientists had signed off on the report,” Hirsch said. “You can go on the Web today and find a new version of this report issued two days ago.” As I.F. Stone would have seen, the only mention of the figure 4,000 in the revised report refers to the number of children known to have contracted thyroid cancer induced by Chernobyl fallout.

The Soviets responded to Chernobyl by not telling anyone until the Swedes busted them, a policy that contributed mightily to the aftermath’s death toll and the eventual collapse of the Soviet state. Its ultimate lesson then should be to tell the truth.

“If you have to build on a lie, you shouldn’t build,” said Hirsch. “The nuclear industry could now say we know there are risks, and we know what they are and we will work hard to minimize them. But to lie — that means they can’t be trusted to run those facilities.” In other words: Now more than ever, it could happen here.

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