Two and a half weeks ago, the venerable English soccer team Aston Villa announced that Stiliyan Petrov, the team’s Bulgarian-born captain, had been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Petrov is 32.
Petrov—-often called “Stan” by his English fans—also plays for the Bulgarian national team. Which explains why, about a week after the announcement of Petrov’s illness, the Bulgarian national team’s medic saw fit to comment on the matter. Petrov’s cancer, he said, had been caused by Chernobyl.
At the time of the disaster, in 1986, Petrov was six years old and living 650 miles away, in an area of Bulgaria called Montana. That might sound like a long way away, but Bulgaria was well within the reach of the radioactive cloud.
Still. I wish the team doctor hadn’t said that.
It seems to me that one particularly horrible thing about cancer is that often you can’t attribute it to a particular cause. As the CDC says, regarding lung cancer:
We know a lot about risk factors, but they don’t tell us everything. Some people who get cancer don’t seem to have any known risk factors. Other people have one or more risk factors and do not get cancer.
Treating anecdotal evidence as proof opens the door to all kinds of bogus reasoning. Soon, people are pointing to the eighty year-old grandpa who smoked all his life but never got sick—and questioning whether smoking really does cause lung cancer. You need to rely on the numbers to tell you what may have caused a cancer—and even then, it is a matter of probabilities. (With smoking, the numbers are pretty damn compelling.)
The surprising thing about Chernobyl is that the case for cancer is not a slam-dunk. Although it is popularly assumed that the cancer toll from Chernobyl is: A) known, and B) huge, the uncomfortably strong possibility is that neither of those things are true. I say this as someone without any financial interest in the nuclear power industry, btw.
Epidemiology is a dark art. And here, we are dealing with the epidemiology of a
once twice-in-a-lifetime nuclear accident that occurred inside the territory of a transparency-averse authoritarian state, and that involved the evacuation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people. Just trying to get data must be a nightmare.
The astonishing thing is that we simply do not know the real toll of the Chernobyl accident. And it may well be a lot lower than you think.
From the Chernobyl Forum report of 2005:
Apart from the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer incidence among those exposed at a young age, there is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of solid cancers or leukaemia due to radiation in the most affected populations. (p7)
You’re welcome to tell me that the Chernobyl Forum is a patsy in the service of the nuclear industry. Their findings certainly disrupt one powerful thread in the anti-nuclear narrative. (Greenpeace, by the way, has much higher cancer estimates.) To me, though, the Forum’s report has the ring of truth. It suggests a set of consequences that are less sensational and more complex than simple horror stories about epidemic cancer and deformity:
There was, however, an increase in psychological problems among the affected population, compounded by insufficient communication about radiation effects and by the social disruption and economic depression that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. (p7)
That seems so unsatisfying at first. Psychological problems? But I think it’s important to accept the possibility that the accident might have been catastrophic in ways that don’t conform to our preconceptions. You may have the impression that Chernobyl must have caused (and be causing) a lot of cancer. But it’s just that—an impression. The Chernobyl Forum report argues:
It is impossible to assess reliably, with any precision, numbers of fatal cancers caused by radiation exposure due to the Chernobyl accident — or indeed the impact of the stress and anxiety induced by the accident and the response to it. (p7)
“Impossible to assess.” That, if you ask me, is one of the worst things about Chernobyl, or indeed about the idea of someone getting cancer—especially when he’s 32 years old and at the top of his game. It conforms to no narrative, and accepts no human logic. Forget about justice—here we can’t even have injustice.
As for the radioactive cloud released by the destroyed reactor in Chernobyl, I think the real question isn’t whether it gave Petrov cancer, but why it didn’t give cancer to everyone else.