Statistics and Suffering

Not sure what to make of this Der Spiegel piece on how statistics of death and deformity are consistently overrated after nuclear accidents. Upshot: real rates of destruction are generally far lower than popularly reported.

To answer these questions, the Japanese and the Americans launched a giant epidemiological study after the war. The study included all residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the atomic explosion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius. Investigators questioned the residents to obtain their precise locations when the bomb exploded, and used this information to calculate a personal radiation dose for each resident. Data was collected for 86,572 people. Today, 60 years later, the study’s results are clear. More than 700 people eventually died as a result of radiation received from the atomic attack:

  • 87 died of leukemia;
  • 440 died of tumors;
  • and 250 died of radiation-induced heart attacks.
  • In addition, 30 fetuses developed mental disabilities after they were born.

Even sites like Nature News say Chernobyl’s ecosystems are “remarkably healthy” and that “biodiversity is actually higher than before the disaster.”

My initial reaction is that this is an incredibly skewed, twisted perspective – some flavor of (possibly unintentional) historical revisionism. Or that data simply conflict, and different reporters pick and choose their angles. Yet the piece is very even-handed, doesn’t seem to be written with any kind of pro-nuke agenda, more a commentary on how exaggeration commonly follows on the heels of tragedy. But I’d like to see a rebuttal or response to this article written by other science journalists.

And then… stop. Just. Stop. It’s madness to talk this way.


Watch Paul Fusco’s photo essay on victims of Chernobyl, and their children. And remember that everything beyond these messed up human lives is just statistics. And that death rates are very different from suffering rates. And that statistics are just damn lies anyway. And that people are real. Suffering is real, and cannot be reduced like this.

Thanks Jim Strickland

7 Replies to “Statistics and Suffering”

  1. I think the point to be taken here is that yes. Nuclear power has certain unique dangers to it. Yes. The things it can do to people are ugly. But that those dangers have been grossly overstated and exaggerated to further some people’s political agendas.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that the most cost effective (and therefore most used) source of electric energy in the United States today is coal, and that coal is laced with radioactive substances. That radioactive material goes up the smokestack. According to this article.

    You actually absorb more radiation living next to a coal plant than a nuclear one. Much more. Add to that the amount of mercury that goes up the stack and precipitates out in the oceans, where it becomes one with the fish, not to mention the usual smog and CO2 issues, and nuclear starts to look a whole lot better.

    The environmental movement’s stance against nuclear power made sense in the early 70s, when the technology was immature, poorly designed, and those flaws were being generally covered up and ignored. But as technology has advanced, so has nuclear power technology. Let us not judge the future of this resource by the failure (contained though it was) of Three Mile Island, which failed due to poor ergonomic design, and of Chernobyl, which while abysmally badly designed, nevertheless did not fail without human intervention that bordered on deliberate malice.

    Yes, develop wind power to the extent it can be developed. Likewise solar power. Any power we can generate that produces *no* waste is a win. But I think that at some point, we’re going to have to suck it up, and proceed cautiously into the era of nuclear power once again, and the sooner we do so, with modern, safer reactors, the better off the planet will be. It will buy us the time to transition to the really *better* sources of energy that are still decades away, such as orbital solar power.

    Yes, this is an area of interest of mine. One of the factors in the sci fi world I’m writing in presently is the end of the petroleum era, and the ongoing discomfort and adaptations it causes. (Very near future stories – 20 years out.)


  2. Thanks for your thoughts Jim. As you know, I’ve posted here several times about the growing acceptance of nuke power by the green movement, for the reasons you’ve stated and more. The arguments are pretty compelling, though the price paid when things go wrong is still so horrific.

    Of course, the article is on how stats are exaggerated in the case of either power plant accidents or bomb fallout, which are simultaneously very similar and very different.

    At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine almost anything being worse than the total planetary death being brought by continued coal dependency.

  3. Not sure I’d say *total* planetary death. That turns out to be a tall order given the microbes that live in and eat the rocks, etc. It could certainly wipe out the one species we tend to care about most – us. Save the humans. :)


  4. I was gonna post the same, basic (polite, reasonable) rant that Jim did, but he beat me to it :)

    That having been said, I still agree with everything in Scot’s final paragraph in the orig post – while noting that improperly engineered & implemented non-nuclear power generation (esp. coal) can cause just as much or more suffering.

  5. It is interesting to note that the smallest statistics about Chernobyl are given out by the World Health
    Organization. This is an umbrella group under the
    auspices of the U.N. and GUESS WHAT ? the International Atomic Energy Association is also under
    the auspices of the U.N. !!!
    I think we should pay heed to the statistics given out by researchers in the Ukraine and Belarus rather than pencil pushers in New York who may just have an incentive to make the I.A.E.A. look good.

    Regardless , a nuclear accident is not like a car accident BOOM so many people dead end of story.
    To illustrate what I mean : I was living in France in
    1998 when I saw this event on the news …the French
    customs had stopped a shipment of vegetables from
    the Ukraine. It was 300 rads above the norm for
    edibles. Thats 12 years after Chernobyl !!!

    The National Academy of Science came out with a
    report : The Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation.
    In it they conclude that there is no amount however
    infintessimal of radiation which does not affect cell

    Marie Currie who discovered Radium died of cancer
    , her daughter and son-in-law who worked on
    artificial radiation also both died of cancer.
    See a pattern here ? Yes radiation can be found in
    nature. No the amounts and KINDS of radioactive
    materials found in nuclear power plants are neither
    natural or safe. When will we ever learn ?

  6. Nothing is safe.

    Fire is not safe. It has killed far more people than nuclear radiation has thus far, and yet we use it every second of every day. We can do so relatively safely because we’ve got thousands of years of experience controlling it, and we fully understand its hazards. Is it safe? No. It’s fire. But it is controllable. It’s manageable. And it provides us the energy we need.

    If we, as humans, insist on wielding more energy than our bodies produce (and in fact, we are utterly dependent on doing so) that energy has to come from somewhere. I say, better it come from a source which in normal operation does not pollute the air with carbon compounds and radioactive waste, does not pollute the water with sulfuric acid and mercury.

    As I said originally, solar and wind are great things, and should be exploited to the hilt, but I think to make up the balance we’re still looking at a substantial commitment to nuclear fission as our best option for a power source. Safe? No. Controllable and manageable? I think so.


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