A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Monday, March 12, 2012

Somebody think of the children! How Adi Roche and the Chernobyl children project misrepresent science

 A very short post on my issues with Adi Roche and the Chernobyl Children's project....

Given the main point of this blog is to separate science from pseudoscience, I sometimes have to take unpopular positions; And today I feel it's vital to call Adi Roche and the Chernobyl Children's Project International out for misinforming the public. Adi Roche is the director and co-founder of the CCPI, and even ran for president of Ireland. She very nearly won it too, only allegations that she was a bully by former charity workers, including the co-founder sunk her bid. That is irrelevant here however - what concerns me is her and the CCPI's blatant disregard for science and flagrant misinformation. I've waxed lyrical before about radiophobia hysteria and radiation panic, both for The Journal and in regards to both Fukushima and Chernobyl on this blog before, so I'll endeavour to not repeat myself too much.

Adi Roche is an incredible self-publicist, and anything she says or does will get covered by the press. That may be a good thing for generating donations to her charity but seemingly not for public understanding of science - Just yesterday she visited Fukushima as an invited expert on radiation, and in what may be an  egregious abuse of the word expert, came out with her usual line:
"Japan is a global leader in technology and standards and yet even they have failed to deal with a nuclear reactor explosion. Nuclear energy is just not safe and one wonders how many horrors have to be inflicted on the world by it before governments accept this"

Oh dear. In an opportunistic display, Ms Roche manages to crassly manipulate a great natural disaster to further her own interests. First off, Fukushima was scheduled for decommission as it was over 40 years old. It was only designed to withstand a magnitude 7.9 earthquake and this was one of the reasons it was wound down. State of the art this was not. There was no nuclear explosion, nor could there ever be; there were in fact three partial core meltdowns. Ms Roche is conflating nuclear energy with nuclear weapons either out of genuine ignornance or more cynically, because it suits her to do so. In a rhetorical coup de grace she says nuclear power isn't safe and wrings her hand about the horror. Oh the horror! Yet this horror exists mainly in her imagination; nuclear is by far the safest form of power production with least amount of deaths attributable to it.

The Horror! The Horror!

Seriously, think of this for one second - Ms Roche has been invited by a group of business men to Japan to tell them radiation is a horror. She tells them on the anniversary of a natural disaster that killed 20,000 + people to remember the 'disaster' at Fukushima - an event that claimed zero lives and is highly unlikely to do so ever. This galls me - she is exploiting suffering people to further her own agenda by conflating the staggering loss of life with the technical difficulties at Fukushima and I frankly find that abhorrent.  But the problem is deeper than just Ms Roche's remarks. Some of the statements the CCPI make are entirely and dangerously wrong. Here's some that raised alarm bells with me;

This would be terrible, if it were true. I've written in detail about the (surprisingly minor) health effects of Chernobyl before, and I don't want to repeat myself. So have the WHO and United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) who release in depth studies on the effects of Chernobyl every five years. They have found zero increase in solid cancers, and zero increase in birth defects. Nilch. Nada. Zip. Thyroid cancer is more plausible as ingestion of radioiodine 131 can be absorbed by the thyroid but as I have discussed before, the ingestion would have to incur in high amounts within days of accident at the latest and even then is extremely treatable with a 98% 30 year survival. In any case, iodine 131 only has a half life of 8 days meaning its potential for long term damage is negligible, so only people alive at the disaster site could be affected. Indeed, this is seen on the curve for thyroid cancers below. Notice that the rates are returning to normal as you would expect. However, there is one extra credo - residents of Belarus became the most tested group for Thyroid cancer in the world, meaning that even without a nuclear incident many more cancers should have been detected. In any case, the CCPI figure is still wrong; a 2400% increase is not seen anywhere; the greatest increase is from 1 case in 100,000 to 11 cases in 100,000; a 1100% increase, which has since fallen.

This could explain a lot - for starters, Vasily Nesterenko has been dead since 2008. I can only assume here that the CCPI are referring to his book "Chernobyl: consequences of the Catastrophe for the people and the environment" in which he and his co-authors claimed a figure of almost 1 million Chernobyl related deaths. However, the book has been scientifically debunked as little more than nonsense with dreadful methodology. In a particularly concise summation George Monbiot of the guardian wrote "A devastating review in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry points out that the book achieves this figure by the remarkable method of assuming that all increased deaths from a wide range of diseases – including many which have no known association with radiation – were caused by the Chernobyl accident. There is no basis for this assumption, not least because screening in many countries improved dramatically after the disaster and, since 1986, there have been massive changes in the former eastern bloc. The study makes no attempt to correlate exposure to radiation with the incidence of disease." I have discussed this in more detail before, but the important conclusion is that the CCPI are, despite their claims, not using the scientific method but instead relying on debunked accounts by fringe groups. Is this because they genuinely don't know the difference, or because the WHO and UNSCLEAR figures project a maximum of only 4000 life time cases of thyroid cancers ?

These are questions that unsettle me about the CCPI; are they unaware that the science they're spreading is simply wrong, or do they continue to use debunked data because it makes their cause seem more vital ? If it's the former this is utterly understandable, and I'd be glad assist them in correcting it. Helping people in need is a laudable goal, radiation threat or not. However, if it's the latter, this is simply misleading the very people who want to support them and serves only to muddy much needed discussion on nuclear power. 

*Author Note: Please note, the aim of this post is not to attack the concept of helping children - my family took a Chernobyl child through CCPI for three years and only stopped due to personal misgivings about how things were run. My objection is rooted solely in correcting misinformation, accidental or otherwise.


  1. Very interesting piece Dave. Coincidentally I saw a documentary on channel 4 the other day and was meaning to ask your opinion if you've seen it. It's called After the Apocalypse (it's available on 4od) and it's about an area in Kazakhstan that was used as a test sight for nuclear weapons without being evacuated (this was done on purpose in order to study the effects of the aftermath on people) I was wondering, is there a difference in terms of genetic effects on gametes, or non-effects as the case may be, between accidents at nuclear power reactors and detonation of atomic weapons?

    There has been a rise in birth defects in the area covered however, as with Chernobyl, this may be due to another factor or even (ironically) better maternity care meaning that a higher perecentage of the same amount of affected children are surving to term. They did interview a radiation expert who said that studies suggested that the radiation exposure suffered by people at the time has not been shown to lead to birth defects but what was really disturbing about it was that an obstetrician is trying to use the fear that there has been an effect in order to push for the introduction of a system whereby women must get permission before getting pregnant and this would be based on their "genteic status". They followed a pregnant woman who was healthy other than that she had what looked like a form of craniosynostosis, a slight facial disfigurement (although they didn't specify), who medical staff were trying to hound into having an abortion because they are of the opinion that the condition is related to the weapons testing, even though her mother has had it her entire life and she was born before the testing took place.

    The use of people as unwitting subjects in the kind of experiment that was conducted when these weapons were tested is shocking but now this doctor is using fear of radiation in order to try to introduce a form of eugenics, which was equally (if not more, given that it is happening now) disturbing.

  2. Some excellent points Emma - there truly is an irony that better testing creates more 'hits' and it is difficult to ascertain if increases in diseases come from improved sampling or a direct effect of an irritant. In the case of Chernobyl, we know it increased (or tended to increase) thyroid cancer. This follows as we know large amounts of iodine 131 were released, and they are absorbed by the thyroid gland. While the cancer usually isn't fatal, it still sucks to get the hits children hard. There were 15 thyroid cancer related deaths in children from the chernobyl debacle.

    As for that documentary you mentioned, I hadn't seen it but I did look up the town of Semipalatinsk and it is rather interesting; nuclear fallout, depending on weapon type, can differ vastly from nuclear power output. Interestingly, one thing the is the doses received there dwarfed the Chernobyl doses!


    Again, different radioisotopes provoke different biological responses. In fact, chronic doses are interesting, and what I did find interesting is that the main health defect here is an increased risk of thyroid cancer, indicating t'was radioiodine 131 yet again, but in huge chronic doses, unlike Chernobyl where once you were past a week or so the activity dropped massively.

    As for the doctors introducing eugenics, you're dead right - they are blaming everything on radiation, which tends to be the knee jerk reaction. For example, in Chernobyl, no increase has been detected in birth defects or solid cancers. Yet you'll often see images of deformed kids. This is misleading however, as teratological mutations are surprisingly common (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teratogenic) and people assume cause and effect. A very effective ad though.

    You know what else you might find interesting ? The US did something similar! They gave radium to school kids, for example!


  3. Thanks for those links. I wasn't surprised that the US had done similar human experiments but having looked at the whole page I am (perhaps naively) surprised at the amount of them. Not too belittle what the Irish people do for the children of Chernobyl - as you say, helping people in need is a laudable goal, regardless of the cause of that need - but the fact that the children of Semipalatinsks, who live in similar conditions to those from Chernobyl and many of those with birth defects or disabilities are left in orphanages, are not awarded the same level of attention in the nation's consciousness (I don't think I had heard of the town or what happened there until I saw that documentary and I doubt I'm alone in that regard) points perhaps to an agenda, whether it is a conscious one or not, related to nuclear power. Nuclear power has long been a sticking point between ourselves and our nearest neighbour whereas nuclear weapons are much further from our consciousness as a nation - we have never possessed them nor been a victim of them - although they pose by far the greater danger and destructive capacity. I am not an ardent advocate of nuclear power by any means but I do believe that it is a necessity if we are to solve our current climate problems without reverting to a pre-modern world (and yes, there are clearly risks but unfortunately there are environmental, health and/or social risks with every single method of energy production available, the question is how to balance them in the most environmentally and socially sustainable way possible) and I think that the effort CCPI put into their anti-nuclear power message would be better spent on addressing the social, health and development issues that children like those from Chernobyl face.

  4. What are the different coloured lines in your graph?

    I too wonder if this is more about Sellafield than Fukushima or Chernobyl. One real problem of nuclear, of course, is that it is still a finite resource and nuclear fuel will run out too. I think R&D funds should be targeted towards sustainable bioenergy (such as microbial fuel cells) rather than nuclear but only on the basis that the former has a long-term future, not because of unwarranted scaremongering about the latter. Cry "Wolf!", anyone?! (I must admit, though, I found it quite scary when I found out that the Fukushima cores only dropped below boiling point into the potential "cold shut-down" zone in November!)

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. For anyone who is under the impression that sustainable energy is viable for a country like Ireland, or the UK then this is a definite read http://www.withouthotair.com/

    It's a free book, albeit in a somewhat inconvenient format, written by David McKay, a professor of physics at cambridge university. It's well written, and very transparent, in that it's apparent where he gets all his data from.

  7. It seems that some eloquent proponents of nuclear energy might be found here; so maybe someone is around who could answer me some very basic questions ...

    1) There are people that claim that the potential monetary damage of a "Fuskushima-scale" event in Western Europe might come to 5 Billion Euros (in the billion=10^12 sense). And honestly, when I check how close some of the German or French nuclear power plants are located to major industrial areas ... I tend to agree. But lets be open minded, and just go for a 10% fraction of that number. So: 500 Milliard Euros for such an incident happening in Germany or France for example.
    At least for Germany, the companies operating the nuclear power plants have to come with insurances for 2.5 Milliard Euros. That is 0.5% of already "downsized" damage.

    Question therefore: benefits are collected by the private companies operating the plants. Damage on the other hand is obviously distributed to the whole society. Can someone give a good rational why any individual should accept this situation?

    (and I do not believe that "sharing" the profits to the whole society would really change the situation)

    2) On human nature (I)... before Fukushima took place, few people on this planet would have assumed that such an incident could happen ... in a "high tec" country like Japan. Now we learned: the operating company exists in an environment where "control" didnt exist. TEPCO had security issues with its plants year over year over year - nothing happened. No fees, no nothing. Worse, the state authorities tried to cover up any security concerns; they actively silenced scientists who opposed the idea of "safe nuclear power".
    TEPCO was never punished when violating regulations; obvious security problems where not addressed. Not surprisingly, the same can be said for many other countries - be it France or the US; the authorities that ought supervise the nuclear plants fail far too often.

    Question: how would you fix this?

  8. Are you telling me that if there were a sufficiently powerful earthquake in a sufficiently Burns-run nuclear reactor that it would be impossible to result in enough uranium banging together randomly to result in a MacGyvered bomb?

    If so, that makes me sad.

    On topic: "administration" costs pay a lot of salaries in the NGO world. If people realised how little their money benefits the disaster that's been over for a quarter century then they'd stop donating and another cause would have to be found. It's a very convincing dead horse, why stop beating it?

  9. Addendum to the previous:

    Generally relevant to your interests, but Ameri-centric and very, VERY tongue in cheek: http://www.somethingawful.com/d/feature-articles/for-the-cure.php

  10. Did you know you can shorten your urls with Shortest and get cash from every click on your shortened links.


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