The Left Abusing Nuclear Science: Monbiot vs Caldicott

By Chris Mooney | April 5, 2011 9:08 am

Ask and you shall receive.

Yesterday I called for proof of liberal/left misuse of science with respect to the risks of nuclear power, and now, George Monbiot has delivered. He calls out longtime anti-nuke activist Helen Caldicott for her claim that nearly 1 million people were killed by the Chernobyl disaster:

For the last 25 years anti-nuclear campaigners have been racking up the figures for deaths and diseases caused by the Chernobyl disaster, and parading deformed babies like a medieval circus. They now claim 985,000 people have been killed by Chernobyl, and that it will continue to slaughter people for generations to come. These claims are false.

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation(Unscear) is the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Like the IPCC, it calls on the world’s leading scientists to assess thousands of papers and produce an overview. Here is what it says about the impacts of Chernobyl.

Of the workers who tried to contain the emergency at Chernobyl, 134 suffered acute radiation syndrome; 28 died soon afterwards. Nineteen others died later, but generally not from diseases associated with radiation. The remaining 87 have suffered other complications, including four cases of solid cancer and two of leukaemia.

In the rest of the population there have been 6,848 cases of thyroid cancer among young children – arising “almost entirely” from the Soviet Union’s failure to prevent people from drinking milk contaminated with iodine 131. Otherwise “there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure”. People living in the countries affected today “need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident”.

Caldicott told me that Unscear’s work on Chernobyl is “a total cover-up”. Though I have pressed her to explain, she has yet to produce a shred of evidence for this contention.

Ouch. You can read Monbiot’s full piece here. It’s pretty convincing. He draws the climate denial analogy at the end:

Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate-change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don’t suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced.

I greatly admire Monbiot. I had the pleasure to be on a panel with him in Copenhagen in December, 2009. I particularly applaud his attempt to hold his allies to the same intellectual standards to which he holds his adversaries.

So while I have not independently investigated this subject, I’m pretty convinced–both by his argument, and by the trust I have for his previously demonstrated ability to weigh scientific evidence–that Monbiot has documented a case of misuse of science, by the left, to attack nuclear power. However, there remains the question of extent. Are these claims about nearly 1 million deaths from Chernobyl are widely accepted today on the left? Are U.S. Democrats uttering them?


Comments (25)

  1. Indeed. Caldicott has long since been an alarmist abuser of nuclear science which is unfortunate since her earlier opposition to nuclear weapons and the arms race was well-intentioned. See the NEI blog for a series of posts meticulously demolishing the claims in her most recent book.

  2. Jim Johnson

    I’d guess her current activities are well-intentioned, as well – just not well-reasoned. And not honest.

  3. So my first reaction to Monbiot’s latest column was that he’s really approaching “heretic” status in the green movement.

    My second reaction is more a question related to science journalism: is Monbiot’s “deeply troubling discovery” a case of something hiding in plain sight?

  4. As a leftie Democrat, I’m not hearing much about 1 million deaths due to Chernobyl. Actually, I hadn’t heard that anyone was making the claim until you brought it up. But that could just be my myopic view.

  5. Chris Mooney

    I hadn’t ever heard it either. As soon as I did I considered it basically ludicrous. This is reinforcing my point…but it is good to document this is out there.

    Maybe the key issue here is the difference between Dems in the US, who are basically centrist, and more left leaning greens in Europe.

  6. isaacschumann


    good post, as to the question of extent on the left, I would say no, it is not the same. I would perceive the rabid anti-nuke crowd to be a minority, while general denial of biology is pretty widespread on the right. Plus, this kind of conversation and self criticism is not happening on the right as far as I can tell.


  7. Chris Mooney

    @6 isaac i agree, and the fundamental question is…why this difference?

  8. Chris Mooney
  9. isaacschumann

    chris, hey…thats your job:) …just reading your new post, that was quick.

    mike, I hadn’t heard the 1 million claim until today, either; and my family and friends are generally lefties like me and of the anti-nuke persuasion, more or less.

  10. Chris Mooney

    I’m working on it. Believe me. That new post is to call for more feedback, though.

  11. Arthur Smith

    I’ve known Caldicott was wrong about radiation since I heard her a decade ago on Pacifica radio. I don’t think many mainstream Americans listen to her or share her views, whether they think of themselves as left-wing or environmentalists or not.

    The real problem with Chernobyl is it was portrayed as a “worst case”, when it clearly was not. Blowing half the reactor core into the atmosphere at least shuts down further fission – something that has been a very serious issue at Fukushima.

  12. Doug

    I honestly hear the 1 million claim more often from right wing people and sources claiming that the left claims that 1 million people died at chernobyl.

  13. John Glover

    I agree with Doug 3:34 pm

    One of the main propaganda techniques of the Right is to claim the Left said something it did not as a whole (consensus) stand for, then try to put the ‘Left’ on the defensive.

    When did you stop beating your wife Chris?

    Inquiring minds would like to know.

    Helen Caldicott is not “the Left”

    No one person speaks for the ‘Left’, but then any ‘real adult’ or ‘real journalist’ would know that and never make such a juvenile claim that ‘the Left’ stands for “A” “B” or “C”

    Are a great many of “the Left” claiming the same?

    Please provide links.

    You do know how to post links don”t you Chris?

    Also post links for all ‘the Left’ lining up to back Caldicott’s claims.

    Where’s the link’s sport?

    You seem like all Hat and no Cattle.

  14. Don WV

    It is very sad to say, but people left and right seem to have this problem of exaggeration of the facts!
    I do feel more people was effected by Chernobyl than has been reported, but the fact is both sides exaggerate the facts! Whether it is radiation or climate change! The left and right has both done themselves a disservice by twisting and exaggerating facts, with the IPCC saying Himalayan Glaciers would melt by 2030! It is to the point people can’t believe anything scientist tell us! Another instance of this is the Japanese government stating the radiation levels are 15 million times the legal limit, BUT THE IS NO IMMEDIATE DANGER!!! My question is “If there are no immediate danger at 15 million times the legal limit, why does a legal limit for radiation exist?

  15. NadePaulKuciGravMcKi

    Fukushima Internal Emitters

    An ill wind comes arising
    Across the cities of the plain
    There’s no swimming in the heavy water
    No singing in the acid rain

    Absalom Absalom Absalom

  16. John Glover

    Another propaganda technique as old as the hills is for officials to state a wildly high figure, let everyone freak out for awhile and over react to the wildly high inaccurate figure, then announce ‘we made a mistake (we don’t proof read our own press releases, duh), it’s only a thousand times higher than the legal limit!

    Well, phew, I for one am greatly relieved it’s only a thousand times, not 15 million over ‘the legal’ limit.

    Wow, we really dodged a bullet with that one!

    Propaganda masquerading as incompetence?

    Or incompetence masquerading as Propaganda?

    It’s your call.

  17. While everyone will pick and choose the numbers they like, it you want to get closer to the truth of this matter, this source should be on everyone’s reading list.

    “Chernobyl 20 Years On: Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident” The first edition of the entire book is a free download.

    Monbiot should have referenced this so that he might not have been so cavalier with his own version of the facts.

  18. Hugo Schmidt

    I disagree. Left-wing antiscience is more subtle than right-wing, but it is also for that reason much more dangerous .

    Remember Lysenkoism? Remember Eugenics? Heck, remember the “Population Bomb” nonsense and what its advocates called for, and in some cases achieved?

    For that matter, take Global Warming. I take the highly unusual and radical approach of only bothering myself with the IPCC and what I read in topline journals (Nature & Science usually) and the sheer disconnect between what the science says and what people like Al Gore say staggers me.

  19. Wes, I had a look at the link you provide (“Chernobyl 20 Years On: Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident”) last night. While its author, Chris Busby, attacks the credentials of other experts currently discussing the issues, his own polemical style, and (so far as I can see) lack of firm credentials, somewhat calls that report into question. I’m not saying it’s wrong – I just don’t know.

    I too admire Monbiot – but don’t think that his finding fault with Caldicott justifies his generalisations about the whole anti-nuclear movement.

    Even if the risks of nuclear radiation have been exaggerated, and even if they are substantially smaller than the current risks of coal, the problem of measuring radiation risk over the lifespan of existing waste remains.

    Apparently UNEP considers the global lack of funding and expertise for the decommissioning of existing nuclear power stations to make it a key global environmental issue. Sorry, don’t have a reference for this – drawing on recent correspondence.

  20. Armand

    It’s shocking that you would write an article about purporting to know about nuclear issues and you don’t even know the New York Academy of Sciences study of over 5000 articles and reports that state about 1 million people have died because of Chernobyl.

    Monbiot (and you apparently) are satisfied with a UN “report” that looked at only 350 and of those articles.

    Who’s cherry picking data?

    Moreover, the WHO and IAEA have an agreement: “whenever either organization proposes to initiate a programme or activity on a subject in which the other organization has or may have a substantial interest, the first party shall consult the other with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement…” WHO and the IAEA, May 28, 1959 at the 12th World Health Assembly, clause No. 12.40

    It’s clear to any half-wit what the talking points are:
    1) make this an issue between coal and nuclear; and
    2) accuse responsible people of “cherry-picking”

    Just read:

    “The UN Would Never Lie to George Monbiot”


  21. In regards to Mr. Schmidt’s comment euguenics was popular across the political spectrum. It was not limited to the left, however one defines it. As for Lysenkoism did it find any traction outside the Stalin era Soviet Union and its allies?

  22. Ben H.

    I think you need to read this very good article from Science-Based Medicine and focus on the discussion (and very recent research) regarding the claims about thyroid cancer in Chernobyl residents:


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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