Chernobyl – Paulo Coelho is wrong
Written by Gustáv Murín
Taking on a world-renowned author, who just sold the movie rights to his bestseller “The Alchemist” to Harvey Weinstein, wasn’t my intention, but I must admit that his notes about Chernobyl in his novel “The Witch of Portobello” were so outrageous that I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help wondering what on earth possessed him to bring up the disaster at all and why, if he had to mention it, he went so far in distorting its impact. The topic of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster actually has no greater (in fact almost none) importance for the story in this book. The only explanation I can think of to account for why Mr. Coelho introduced a few sentences about Chernobyl was because he felt that by mentioning Chernobyl he would somehow lend his novel some gravitis or prove some subtle point which somehow eluded me.
Let’s begin by quoting this respected author about the casualties (p. 207, Harpers Collins, 2007): “The initial thirty deaths became, according to the expert John Gofmans, 475.000 cases of fatal cancers and an equal number of nonfatal cancers. A total of two thousand towns and villages were simply wiped out off the map. According to the Health Ministry in Belarus, the incidence of cancer of thyroid will increase considerably between 2005 and 2010, as a consequence of continuing high levels of radioactivity. Another specialist explains that in addition to the nine million people directly exposed to radiation, more than sixty-five million in many countries around the world were indirectly affected by consuming contaminated foodstuffs.”
Is this true?
Most of the information that Coelho has cited in this passage is completely erroneous. Actually, only thirty people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Even the spelling of the expert’s name is wrong. The correct name is Gofman, not Gofmans and his estimate of “475.000 cases” wasn’t related to Chernobyl at all! He used this number (with Arthur Tamplin) in another context altogether. They were referring to a warning by Dr. Ernest Sternglass, made in the 1960s, that nuclear testing would ultimately lead to the miscarriage of up to 400,000 babies in the U.S. within a decade if it had continued. Gofman and Tamplin criticized this estimate as one thousand higher percent than possible although Gofman subsequently admitted that Sternglass might be right. The whole discussion, however, (and the numbers thrown about to make the arguments) doesn’t seem to be very serious. But even giving Mr. Coelho the benefit of the doubt, these statistics have nothing to do with Chernobyl.
Perhaps more relevant to the author’s argument is a warning by the Health Ministry in Belarus about FUTURE victims of Chernobyl projected to occur between 2005 and 2010. It is not clear whether the ministry’s figures are the source of Mr. Coelho citation, but what is clear is that they have nothing to do with reality. Incidence of cancer of thyroid after 2005 has never increased significantly in the area of Chernobyl. (The same holds true in the case of the almost unknown breakdown of reactor A1 in Jaslovské Bohunice, the first such incident in the world that claimed human life). For that matter, thyroid cancer didn’t show a significant rise even after an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On the contrary, incidence of any type of cancer in the area around Hiroshima in the aftermath of the bombing was surprisingly low. Scientists who have examined the phenomenon have come to a conclusion distinctly at odds with Coelho’s: “The studies have repeatedly proven, that in case the dose is not lethal (3,0-4,0 Gy of acute whole body irradiation without medical help leads to 50% mortality within 60 days), the victims survive for a relatively long time even with the latent presence of chromosome aberrations in the peripheral lymphocytes or the bone narrow.” (Awa, 1990) And as is well-known, the lifespan of the Japanese rose dramatically after World War II, a growth rate that would be impossible with a higher incidence of lethal cancer cases.
Mr. Coelho also cites “another (anonymous) specialist” who estimated that “nine million people (were) directly exposed to radiation.” Even a layman will realize the absurdity of such an inflated number especially in light of the author’s next assertion – that “…more than sixty-five million in many countries around the world were indirectly affected by consuming contaminated foodstuffs.” There is no explanation for how this number was arrived at. Why not fifty-six million or just fifty million? And while we’re at it, how did all these “contaminated foodstuffs” reach so many people? Food products are regularly irradiated with obviously no harm to humans (this method has been approved by U.S. regulatory agencies). It seems inconceivable that contaminated produce could have been distributed to sixty-five million people without being noticed by the authorities of any country. We should note that during the Communist era there was a state hygienic service and in the event of an outbreak of disease or contamination officials would at least warn their relatives and friends even if the public was left in the dark.
It might surprise Mr. Coelho to learn that the affected area around Chernobyl is doing well enough in terms of its flora and fauna to have sustained several rare Przewalski horses and a bull called Uran with three cows Alfa, Beta and Gamma, which were released in the region as an experiment. If he were interested, the bestselling author of “The Alchemist” could find hundreds of titles in the scientific database on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the environment. But it isn’t necessary to dig down very far to refute one of Coelho’s bolder claims – that as a result of the explosion of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1986 “a total of two thousand towns and villages were simply wiped out off the map.” This is complete nonsense. Even the closest city to the site -- Pripjat – not only wasn’t wiped out, it remains intact till this day. Beside the fact that in the almost naturally deserted area around Chernobyl (steppe and marshes) “two thousand towns and villages” were never built.
All this isn’t to say that the Chernobyl disaster didn’t cause significant harm. The loss of thirty lives can’t be overlooked by any means followed by 1800 affected children. The region exposed to radioactive contamination also experienced a statistically significant lower rate of live births (caused by higher mortality of mainly male babies) mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. (A similar effect was reported among livestock). But within a year the birthrate – human and animal – had returned to normal along the lines suggested by the Gofman/Tamplin’s citation of Sternglass that was taken out of context by Mr. Coelho.
After twisting the facts to suit his own ends Mr. Coelho reaches an unexceptional conclusion: “It’s a serious matter, which deserves to be treated with respect…” But that’s the only sentence in his entire commentary that any educated reader can agree with. Unfortunately, because his readership is so large, even with the best of intentions, Mr. Coelho has only contributed to misunderstanding about the consequences of Chernobyl and distorted efforts to come to grips with its historical implications.
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