Opinionista Ivo Vegter 5 February 2013

The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary

“Surprising”, is how author Mary Mycio describes the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where radiation after the 1986 disaster made the land uninhabitable for humans. Yet it shouldn’t be surprising, unless you’ve swallowed years of environmental exaggeration and some biased science.

Everybody knows the names. They live in our collective psyche as horror stories to remind ourselves of our fallibility and hubris. Fukushima. Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Deadly disasters that warn of the nuclear wasteland – the China Syndrome – that awaits us if we let corporate greed-mongers and mad scientists dictate our future.

Or not? Are we being fed exaggerated tales of disaster that are scarier than cold, hard reality? Why is even a nuclear meltdown not worrying enough for the green prophets of doom?

At Fukushima, in 2010, nobody died. Not of the nuclear accident that followed the earthquake and tsunami that killed some 20,000 people, at least. A few cases of avoidable cancer may eventually be attributable to the accident, but if history is any guide, the numbers will be low.

In Japan, we had an old-fashioned, badly-run nuclear power plant, well past its original decomissioning date. It gets struck by a natural disaster that significantly exceeds its design limits. All the backup safety systems go down in what engineers call a common-mode failure, and the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists described  as “beyond our imagination”.

Not to make light of the consequences of the precautionary evacuations and the risk to safety workers, but after all that, nothing catastrophic happened. I warned against hysteria within days of the incident, and dissected the media sensationalism a few weeks later in a column in which I declared I was ashamed for my profession. The incident prompted George Monbiot to do a dramatic u-turn on his support for nuclear power. In turn, a supposed “nuclear expert”, Dr Christopher Busby, called him “criminally irresponsible”.

Busby is infamous for making extraordinary claims, such as that the air near Fukushima was 72,000 times worse than that after Hiroshima, that Fukushima was worse than Chernobyl, and that low doses of radiation are actually more dangerous than big ones. Fortunately, he peddles a miracle concoction that cures this. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, which he blames on not being allowed to use dodgy ingredients like caesium. Scientists of the sane variety denounced him. His former political employer, the Green Party of the UK, distanced itself from him.

At Three Mile Island, too, nobody died. Nobody outside the reactor complex was even exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, as Dr Ian Fells, a real nuclear expert, had to remind our friend, Dr Busby, on a BBC television panel, “despite what these days a lot of people think”.

Why do people think this, these days? Let’s turn to Chernobyl, which actually does raise the death toll of nuclear accidents above the modest number of, well, zero.

A decrepit Soviet-era nuclear reactor was pushed to, and beyond, its limits by reckless bureaucrats, lost coolant, and blew its top. How many died? Well, that depends whom you believe. People like Busby, and Natalia Mironova, an anti-nuclear campaigner who prides herself on having been a member of the Supreme Environmental Council of the Russian State Parliament for a decade, claim hundreds of millions of people have been affected.

They won’t note official World Health Organisation and International Atomic Energy Agency estimates of between 4,000 and 9,000 cases of cancer death above the background average, attributed to Chernobyl. They won’t cite the UN’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, whose estimate is 27,000, or “a slight increase”, as the UK’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters describes it. They won’t cite Greenpeace, which estimates 93,000 excess deaths in 2006. Or the researchers who wrote the Greenpeace report, who for some inexplicable reason, raised their estimate more than tenfold, to 980,000. And when even that wasn’t calamitous enough, one of them, Alexey Yablokov, pulled another half a million deaths out of thin air. Busby finds the resulting 1.4 million excess deaths quite a reasonable number.

Mironova, not to be outdone, unburdened herself of this gem: “Chernobyl would likely impact the health of 600 million people around the world over the long-term, or nearly nine times more than were killed in World Wars I and II.”

The media, eager and credulous, lapped it up, to its eternal disgrace. What’s the real figure? Nobody knows, but I’m inclined to go with “a slight increase”.

On average, measured in deaths per unit of power produced, nuclear remains the safest known fuel. Much safer even than hydro, solar and wind.

If this sort of data makes you sceptical of so-called “science” that does nothing but serve the propaganda purposes of environmental exaggeration and media sensationalism, you may have noticed the remarkable story about the environmental legacy of the Chernobyl accident.

In 2005, two decades after the Chernobyl disaster, scientists Victor Dolin and Sergii Gaschak noticed something curious. The Chernobyl exclusion zone appeared to be a biodiversity hot spot. And not because there were giant worms, two-headed rats and red-nosed reindeer. Dolin and Gaschak found that some 100 threatened and endangered species thrived in the deserted area, and animals with radioactivity-induced mutations appear to die off young, leaving healthy specimens to mature and procreate.

This finding was vigorously opposed by scientists such as Timothy Mousseau and Anders Moller, who reported serious consequences for the reproduction of small animals in some areas around Chernobyl.

However, other scientists furthered the work. Hennie Eksteen, a vermiculturist of international repute – in circles where worm experts are famous, at least – told a Johannesburg conference in 2009 that earthworms “encapsulate toxic heavy metals before excreting them, which leaves the metals isolated in a hard shell.” He added: “This is what happened after Chernobyl, and why the local environment looks so good now.”

So last month’s prominent article in Slate magazine, written by Mary Mycio, which called Chernobyl “Europe’s unlikeliest wildlife sanctuary”, was really no surprise at all.

Mycio travelled to Chernobyl to research and write a book entitled Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, in which she notes that research designed to cast doubt on the idea of the exclusion zone as a wildlife sanctuary in fact does little more than cherry-pick bad news from the worst areas.

While conceding that there were negative consequences, of course, she writes: “Chernobyl’s abundant and surprisingly normal-looking wildlife has shaken up how biologists think about the environmental effects of radioactivity. The idea that the world’s biggest radioactive wasteland could become Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary is completely counterintuitive for anyone raised on nuclear dystopias.”

This story of environmental resilience runs counter to the common wisdom about radioactivity. Sure, it can cause alarming damage, especially with high levels or prolonged exposure. However, it does occur naturally, and is in fact essential for evolution to work. More importantly, the evidence – limited though it is because of the rarity of nuclear accidents – suggests that nature is capable of recovering to a remarkable degree even from extreme events.

Perhaps the most extreme case debunking the myth of radioactive wastelands doomed to be death zones for thousands of years comes from the south Pacific. Nuclear weapons testing was relatively common in the region until the 1960s. The name Bikini Atoll remains infamous, mostly for having been blasted to smithereens.

However, a New Scientist article in 2008 reports that 50 years later, the place doesn’t look as bad as one might expect. Zoe Richards, of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia, studied the region’s coral reefs, and found them to be thriving. She and her colleagues found 183 species of coral, some of them growing “like trees”, as much as eight metres high. Ambient radiation levels were low, and they estimate that the local ecosystem has recovered 65% of its once-devastated biodiversity.

The lesson to take from this is not, of course, that reckless abandon is okay, or that you can safely let off nuclear weapons in your back yard (or indeed anywhere else). This research feeds into our collective knowledge about risk mitigation, and so it should.

These cases do, however, demonstrate that the alarming tales of environmental destruction and nuclear doom that we’ve all grown up with are overblown. It shows not only that the media is incurably sensationalist in its reporting of disasters, but that science can be biased in the pursuit of green propaganda goals. Just because it says “science” on the cover, or the fellow talking to you is addressed as “doctor”, doesn’t mean it isn’t simple fear-mongering.

You’d be right to suspect vested industry interests of peddling lies that say everything is hunky-dory. And so they do. They call it “public relations”, a field that reputable journalists sneer at with disdain. But at the same time, the media is an industry too, and one that often thrives on sensationalism. Environmentalism is a political cause, and it succeeds in a democracy by whipping up public alarm. It, too, conducts “public relations”.

The sagacious journalist HL Mencken wrote almost a century ago: “Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

If you can, always research alarming claims for yourself. You’ll be surprised to find how often they’re exaggerated in one direction or another. When the claims do have some basis, at least you’ll be able to avoid over-reacting in your advice to friends, staff, employers or political representatives, or looking silly when it all turns out to be hype. Besides, over-reaction to a minor danger can be just as costly and dangerous as failing to react to a real threat.

If you don’t have the time, expertise or inclination to do the legwork, that’s okay too. But recall Mencken’s warning. Consider that neurosis may be the intended objective of environmental politics, and hysteria the deliberate strategy of sensationalist media.

Ask yourself if you’re prepared to sacrifice your material and emotional well-being to these aims, or whether you’d rather heed another 20th-century sage, Meher Baba: “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

At worst, you’ll be wrong just as often as you would be if you believed green activists and tabloid journalists. But at least you’ll be happy. DM


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