Level 7 Major Nuclear Accidents: Chernobyl Death Toll and Fukushima

April 26, 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Until the recent Fukushima nuclear accident, Chernobyl was considered the worst nuclear accident in history. A month after the initial Fukushima accident began, Japan and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finally admitted that enormous amounts of high level radioactive carcinogens were released from the nuclear plant on March 11, and that the accident assessment should be raised from a "Level 5-Accident with Wider Consequences," like Three Mile Island, to a "Level 7-Major Accident". Level 7 is the highest international rating for a nuclear accident and 20 times more severe than Level 5. As the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan continues, it is highly likely that Fukushima will far surpass Chernobyl in terms of its human death toll and environmental damage.

Since the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident at Fukushima first began, we've heard a constant chorus of lies and misinformation from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Japanese government officials, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Obama Administration. First, we were assured that the radiation released by the Fukushima nuclear plant "is safe and poses no health risk". Then, the drum beat changed to, "there's no immediate danger" from the radiation, whatever that means, as cancer can take decades to develop. Soon, residents were ordered to evacuate their homes within 12 miles and stay indoors within 20 miles, as if wind born radiation can't infiltrate around doors and windows. Days later, President Obama cautioned U.S. citizens living within 50 miles of the nuclear plant to leave the area. Imagine trying to evacuate Boston if the Seabrook or Pilgrim Nuclear Plants were melting down or worse, New York City, if a Fukushima type nuclear accident occurred at the Indian Point Nuclear Plant, just 35 miles from Manhattan. Meanwhile, radiation released from Fukushima in early March was discovered days later in tap water 140 miles away in Tokyo and not long after, more than 8,500 miles away in Boston.

Still, Japanese and U.S. officials continued to claim that the increasingly high levels of radiation released from the Fukushima nuclear reactors and multiple spent fuel pools was "safer than normal background levels, dental x-rays or flying coast to coast in an airplane." Further, weeks after the initial nuclear accident, as TEPCO desperately poured water onto the four damaged reactors and spent fuel pools, it became necessary to dump thousands of tons of highly contaminated radioactive water into the ocean. We were assured that the radiation would "be diluted by the ocean" and everything would be fine "because no one is allowed to fish in the offshore evacuation area"; as if fish don't migrate and ocean currents don't circulate the planet.

While utility and government officials have spread dangerous misinformation, an untold number of people worldwide have been exposed to invisible and deadly radiation from the nuclear reactor and spent fuel pool explosions at Fukushima. The implication that Fukushima now rivals Chernobyl is chilling. Even the most conservative estimates from the International Atomic Energy Agency, established by the UN in 1957 "to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy," projected that the expected death toll from the Chernobyl nuclear accident would be 4,000 people, mostly from cancer. Other scientific estimates put the Chernobyl death toll much higher.

A book published in 2009 by the New York Academy of Sciences, entitled Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, puts the Chernobyl death toll at 985,000 people between 1986 and 2004. Authored by three noted Russian scientists including the former director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, the book is based on health data, radiological surveys and over 5,000 scientific reports detailing the spread of radioactive poisons following the explosion of the Unit 4 reactor at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. It reports that Chernobyl emitted "hundreds of millions of curies of radiation, a quantity hundreds of times larger than the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki".

The most extensive radioactive contamination from Chernobyl was in the Ukraine. Like Fukushima, Chernobyl released radioactive poisons including Iodine 131, Cesium 137, Strontium 90 and Plutonium (a millionth of a gram causes cancer in laboratory animals), with half lives ranging from 8 days to thousands of years, which were dispersed into the air and water throughout the globe. The book states, like Fukushima, "areas of North America were contaminated from the first, most powerful explosion, which lifted a cloud of radionuclides to a height of more than 10km. Some 1% of all Chernobyl radiation fell on North America." It goes on to claim that there have been as many as 170,000 cancer deaths in North America alone, from the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Similar to the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, major radiation releases from Chernobyl continued for a month, until the plant was finally brought under control. Unlike Chernobyl, where just one nuclear reactor exploded and there were 860 tons of spent fuel on site, Fukushima has 4 nuclear reactors still "out of control" and 1,760 tons of spent fuel rods in "temporary pools", some of which have been severely compromised and continue to leak into the environment. In short, the Fukushima nuclear accident dwarfs the potential health risk and environmental damage caused by Chernobyl. Given the enormity of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, it's certainly not alarmist to assume that the Fukushima could be far worse than Chernobyl.

Radiation is invisible and knows no boundaries. It's commonly accepted in scientific circles that there is no safe level of radiation and all radiation, including low doses, is cumulative and can cause cancer. Nuclear power is the most dangerous and expensive way to boil water to make electricity. The disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima demonstrate the nuclear power industry's willingness to needlessly risk the health of humanity and our environment. The U.S. could easily replace the 20% of nuclear generated electricity with clean and renewable energy sources like cogeneration, solar, wind and conservation without risking our lives to do it.

Meanwhile, as we blindly accept the lies and misinformation about nuclear power, we're force-fed the nuclear industry's invisible and deadly radiation without even knowing it or being able to prove where our cancer, potentially years down the road, came from.