I can understand that people may be nervous about nuclear power. I was too, until I started working on the health effects of the Chernobyl accident. Now, 35 years later, we can say that the only health effect caused directly by exposure of the population leaving near the site of the Chernobyl accident has been an increase in thyroid cancer in those who were children at the time of the accident.
Unlike many other cancers, thyroid cancer has a very good prognosis, ironically because it responds extremely well to treatment with high doses of radiation. Scientific studies, which take account of how diseases change in a population over time, have shown no increase in any other types of cancer even in those who lived closest to the power station. The reason for this is simply that the doses received by the population were too low to cause significant health effects – like any toxin, the health effect is related to the dose.
However, fear of radiation has had a huge impact on the population, both with respect to their mental health and the local economy. Scientific studies over the last 70 years (including those following the atomic bombs in Japan) have shown that low doses of radiation are far less hazardous than living in a large city or being overweight. We are faced with much greater health risks from climate change, and renewable energy alone cannot decarbonize not only our electricity grid, but also generate heat to provide alternative fuels for transport. Our only option is to expand our use of nuclear energy – after all the data shows, despite the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, that nuclear is the safest method of energy production. We need to follow the data and trust the science, rather than continue to believe the urban myths.
Professor Gerry Thomas – Director, Chernobyl Tissue Bank – Chair in Molecular Pathology at the Faculty of Medicine, Department of Surgery & Cancer, Imperial College London