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Chernobyl: Myth versus Reality

The 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine – the only nuclear power accident ever to harm the public – spawned widespread fears about the safety of nuclear power. But the Chernobyl reactor had an acutely flawed design and weak safety features that failed to guard against human error. Reactors with Chernobyl’s severe shortcomings have been eliminated or improved – and will never be built again. In contrast, the US Three Mile Island accident, which harmed no one, was confined by the extensive protective systems that are now the worldwide industry standard.

Using the world’s top radiation experts, the UN has conducted exhaustive studies of the health effects of Chernobyl – beyond the original death toll of 31. Of 1,800 thyroid cancer cases attributed to the accident, nearly all were successfully treated. Beyond this – after more than 15 years – there is no scientific evidence of any increase in cancer incidence at locations near or far. Theoretical projections of Chernobyl’s possible long-term effects predict 3,000 late-in-life cancer deaths. Any such increase would be too small to confirm statistically.

The UN’s authoritative findings do not minimize the gravity of what happened at Chernobyl. But they do refute many sensationalized reports and help to place that singular event in perspective.

Coal-mining accidents and gas explosions account for thousands of fatalities each year. Ironically, these deaths are so common that they generally go unreported. For example, a single mining accident killing scores of people may occur with little note, even while causing more fatalities in a day than have occurred in the full history of nuclear power.

The greatest health impact from over-use of fossil fuel comes from air pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that such pollution causes nearly three million deaths each year. Medical scientists predict that the fossil fuel mortality rate will triple by the year 2025. These devastating health effects – which equate to 600 ‘pollution Chernobyls’ each day in the near future – overwhelm even the most distorted myths about nuclear power.

(excerpted from World Nuclear Association's autoessay "Energy for Sustainable Development")

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