6 May 2006

Romancing the atom

By Marguerite Finn

In 1945, American science writer David Dietz painted a rosy picture of the new Atomic Age: "Instead of filling the gasoline tank of your automobile two or three times a week, you will travel for a year on a pellet of atomic energy the size of a vitamin pill."

In 1953, US President Eisenhower delivered his now famous 'Atoms for Peace' speech at the United Nations, pledging that the United States would ensure: "the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."

In 1957 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up by the UN to promote the commercial and peaceful use of nuclear technology and to prevent the proliferation and dissemination of atomic weapons – an inherent and dangerous conflict of interests, which would become glaringly obvious in 1986.

In 1959 enthusiasm for nuclear matters was undimmed. The Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Committee, Lewis Strauss, declared the development of nuclear energy would mean "our children will enjoy electrical energy too cheap to meter – and will know of great periodic regional famines only as a matter of history".

What happened to destroy these hopes and aspirations? Chernobyl happened.

On 26 April 1986, human error caused an explosion in a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, USSR. Within minutes, plumes of deadly radioactive debris were hurled into the atmosphere. Radioactive clouds drifted across Europe, shedding their radioactivity wherever the wind blew them. Virtually every country in eastern and western Europe was contaminated to some degree. A nuclear nightmare had come true. There had been nuclear accidents before but nothing on this scale. Chernobyl revealed a country’s – any country's – limited capacity to deal with a catastrophic civilian nuclear disaster and in doing so, marked the beginning of a life and death struggle with a technological monster out of control.

Thousands of people have died, are dying and will die as a result of Chernobyl – yet the IAEA and WHO consistently downplay both the number of immediate fatalities and the estimated number of future deaths in the irradiated populations.

As one would expect in a tragedy of these dimensions, several UN Agencies were involved in the relief effort – including the IAEA and World Health Organisation (WHO). Established in 1948, WHO is the UN specialized agency for global health. Its objective, as set out in its Constitution, is the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health. Health is defined as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Already in 1957, WHO was indicating its desire to extend its research into the damage caused by radiation to the human genome with a "view to safeguarding the well-being of future generations".

Chernobyl provided a unique opportunity to do this - but the WHO failed to grasp it. Why?

Instead of being first on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the explosion in 1986, WHO only started its scientific work on post-Chernobyl radiological damages in 1991 – five years after the event!

Many independent, scientifically-based reports are now coming out – from the Ukraine, Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Finland, Germany, the UK – all charting increases in genetic defects, infant mortality, leukaemia, premature ageing, mental and socio-psychological disorders – forming a medically indisputable bank of information in the wake of the Chernobyl explosion.

Yet the IAEA and WHO confined their research to thyroid cancers in children in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine, ignoring the mounting evidence of diverse radiation-induced illnesses occurring elsewhere in exposed populations.

To understand why, we must return to May 1959 when an agreement was signed between the IAEA and WHO, preventing WHO from undertaking independent medical research into the health effects of radiation or from informing the public of the consequences of nuclear accidents like Chernobyl – when the IAEA does not agree. This Faustian bargain makes the IAEA the primary decision-maker about radiation research, with the right to suppress information that might negatively affect the promotional work of the IAEA – and by extension, the nuclear industry.

WHO's Constitution obliges it "to assist in developing an informed public opinion among all people on the matter of health" - exactly what is required now when the UK is considering a programme of new nuclear build. These considerations should be based on medical and scientific information, with due regard for the ethical and moral consequences of the inevitable effect of the nuclear industry on our descendants. The decision should not be taken for murky political reasons.

There will be an opportunity to reflect at the Commemoration Service for the Victims of Chernobyl, in Norwich Cathedral at 6.30pm tomorrow (Sunday 7 May 2006).