Volume 3, Issue 2
July 2000

Victims of the Nuclear Age

Up to 1,300 million people have been killed, maimed or diseased by nuclear power since 
it's  inception.
The industry's figures massively underestimate the real cost of nuclear power,
 in an attempt to hide its victims from the world. Here, the author calculates the real 
number of victims of the nuclear age.

By Dr. Rosalie Bertell, PhD

Dr. Rosalie Bertell
Photo: Colin McConnell/TORONTO STAR

On the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, I was standing at a public meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, listening to the story of one of the firemen employed to clean up the site after the explosion. These workers took huge doses of radiation during this task, and their story is a terrifying one. About 600,000 men were conscripted as Chernobyl 'liquidators' [also called bio-robots']: farmers, factory workers, miners, and soldiers, as well as professionals like the firemen, from all across Russia. Some of these men lifted pieces of radioactive metal with their bare hands. They had to fight more than 300 fires created by the chunks of burning material spewed off by the inferno. After the fire was put out, they buried trucks, fire engines, cars and all sorts of personal belongings. They felled a forest and completely buried it, removed topsoil, bulldozed houses and filled all available clay-lined trenches with radioactive debris.

The minimum conscription time was 180 days, but many stayed for a year. Some were threatened with severe punishment to their families if they failed to stay and do their duty.

Chernobyl Nuclear Plant

Chernobyl Nuclear Plant (Belarus)
 before explosion of April 1986

These 'liquidators' are now discarded and forgotten, many vainly trying to establish that the ill health most have suffered ever since 1986 is a result of their massive exposure to radiation. At the Center for Radiation Research outside Kiev, there is an organization of former liquidators. This group reports that by 1995, 13,000 of their members had died- almost 20 percent of which deaths were suicides. About 70,000 members were estimated to be permanently disabled. But the members of this organization are the lucky ones. Because many former liquidators are now scattered throughout Russia, they neither have the benefit of the organization's special hospital, nor of membership of a survivor organization. They are known as the 'living dead.'  

The fireman whose story I was listening to seemed to be an exception to this grim litany of illness and death. He was telling the meeting how pleased and excited he was that, for the first time in ten years, his blood test findings were in the normal range. I was standing next to a delegate from the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]- the organization charged with promoting the use of atomic energy. On hearing the fireman's story, he leaned over to me and said: "You see! We said these were only transient disorders".  A rough translation of which might read: “Chernobyl? What's the  problem?”


The IAEA delegate's attitude was perfectly in keeping with that of his organization which, along with the International Commission on Radiological Protection [ICRP] exists in practice largely to play down the effects of radiation on human health, and to shield the nuclear industry from compensation claims from workers and the public. The IAEA was set up in the late 1950s by he UN, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy- ironically, two contradictory objectives. The ICRP which evolved from the 1928 physician’s organization, International Committee on X-Ray and Radium Protection, was set up in the nineteen fifties to explore the health effects of radiation and [theoretically] to protect the public from it. In fact, both organizations have come to serve the industry rather than the public.

The Chernobyl case is a classic example of the IAEA's inadequacy and questionable science. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, not least from the many thousands of victims themselves, the IAEA insists that only 32 people have so far died as a result of Chernobyl- those who died in the radiation ward of Hospital six in Moscow. All other deaths related to the disaster and its aftermath [and there have been many more than 10,000 in Ukraine alone according to the Minister of Health there] are ignored. Belarus had the highest fallout, and yet there is an international blackout among the IAEA and the rest of the "radiation protection community" on the suffering of its people.

The essential problem is that both the IAEA and the ICRP are dealing not with science but with politics and administration;  not with public health but with maintaining an increasingly dubious industry. It is their interests, and those of the nuclear industry, to play down the health effects of radiation.


The main way in which the  radiation protection industry  has succeeded in hugely underrating the ill-health caused by nuclear power is by insisting on a group of extremely restrictive definitions as to what qualifies as a radiation-caused illness. For example, under IAEA's criteria:

If all else fails, it is possible to average over the whole body the radiation dose which has actually been received by only one part of the body or even one organ, as for instance when radio-iodine concentrates in the thyroid. This arbitrary dilution of the dose will ensure that the 100 mSv cut-off point is not reached.

This is the technique used to dismiss the sickness of Gulf War veterans who inhaled small particles of ceramic uranium which stayed in their lungs for more than two years, and in their bodies for more than eight years, irradiating and damaging cells in  a particular part of the body.


Despite the authorities' attempt at concealment, we can still begin to enumerate the real victims of the nuclear age. Although the calculations and statistics which I have brought to bear below do not include all of the human suffering that has been caused by the nuclear age, a closer look will show that the methodology is adequate for a first estimate of major damage. The magnitude of the harm already caused is startling, and even more so when we realize many types of damage have been omitted from this first estimate.

My estimate of radiation damage,  induced cancer, whether fatal or non-fatal [excluding non-fatal skin cancer], genetic damage and serious congenital malformations and diseases will be included in the figures. Other lesser human damage is acknowledged but not estimated.

The nuclear industry uses the word “detriment” for the radiation damage which it considers to be important.  I have broadened that list.  Ultimately, whether or not one cares about the damage caused by radiation exposure, i.e. refers to it as “detriment”,  is  a human, not a scientific question. Damage is damage, and causing an unwanted attack on someone's person or reproductive capacity is a violation of human rights. Such damage can be rated for importance, but it should not be arbitrarily ignored.

"Statistics are the people with the tears wiped away" stated one of the Rongelap people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, who 'hosted' the United States Bikini nuclear testing in the 1950s. This is the story of many tears, and of a hard hearted mindset that laid down the degree of suffering  and ill-health that would be the 'acceptable' price to pay for the world 'benefiting' from nuclear technology.


In order to estimate the real victims of the nuclear industry [as opposed to those figures enumerated by the ICRP, IAEA and other nuclear apologists] I will take the customary risk estimates, indicate their probable range of error, and then extend the definition to cover related events not recognized as 'detriments' by the regulators. For example, while the nuclear regulators only take fatal cancers into consideration as 'detriments', others, especially those who endure a non-fatal cancer, may find their suffering equally worthy of consideration. And limiting genetic effects to live born offspring does not wipe away the tears of a family that has endured a spontaneous miscarriage or stillbirth.


In 1991, the ICRP concluded that the projected lifetime risk of fatal cancer for members of the population exposed to one Sievert whole-body radiation at a low dose rate, was between seven and 11 excess fatal cancers, and seven to eight excess fatalities for workers in the nuclear industry  aged 25 to 64 years. We  extend these estimates to non-fatal cancers by estimating the total number of cancers which were used by the ICRP in order to obtain their number of fatalities. We therefore estimate  16 fatal and non-fatal cancers if we exclude non-fatal skin cancers, or 26 if we count them.  If the estimate of fatal cancers was too low by a factor of two then we can double these numbers.

The conservative estimate I will use for radiation induced cancer in this analysis is 16 per 100 Person Sieverts exposure, but the reader can adjust this estimate to suit other inclusions, exclusions or uncertainties.


According to the BEIR Committee [Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation] 1990 report, a dose of 150 mSv to human male testes will cause temporary sterility, and a single dose of 3.5 Sv will cause permanent sterility. According to the ICRP in 1991, just 5 mSv to the testes could cause damage to offspring - yet this dose was permitted yearly to members of the public, and ten times more was permitted to nuclear workers, in all countries prior to 1990. It continues today to be permitted yearly for nuclear workers in most countries.

Women carry with them all of the ova from birth which they will ever have. The threshold for permanent female sterilization decreases with age, but in general about 650 mSv is considered to be the threshold for temporary sterility in women.  However, after the Bravo event- the detonation of a hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific  in March 1954- the women of Rongelap Atoll experienced about five years of sterility. As they regained their fertility, they experienced faulty pregnancies, miscarriages, stillbirths and damage to their offspring. Since some radionucleides can be retained in bone or fatty tissues, they are able to cross the placenta barrier and disrupt the developing embryo or fetus. Radionuclides in the mother's body can also be transferred to offspring in her breast milk.

The official nuclear industry definition of 'detriment' to offspring includes only serious genetic disease.  It eliminates damage not judged to be serious, and all teratogenic diseases [those which are not passed on to offspring]. For example, radiation exposure in-utero could cause a child to be blind or deaf, but that blindness or deafness would not be passed on to the child’s offspring. This would be called teratogenic damage and not counted.   Recently the 1990 BEIR committee  made one small concession in recognizing mental retardation in children exposed to radiation during the fifth to 15th weeks of their mother's pregnancy. Radiation kills brain cells, causing both an underdeveloped brain [microcephaly] and mental retardation. For the individual child, BEIR estimates that a dose in-utero of 100 to 500 mSv can cause a range of problems from poor school performance to severe mental retardation. This analysis considers both genetic and teratogenic damage to be “detrimental”.


The U.N. Scientific Committee on the effects of Atomic Radiation [UNSCEAR] and BEIR both agree that a population of one million live births, with 100 Person Sieverts exposure to parents, will result in one to three genetic damage effects to offspring. 

 One can also use a second methodology to calculate genetic damage.  The doubling dose for genetic effects [the dose that will cause twice as many genetic effects] is more contentious, with some geneticists claiming that it is 2.5 Sv, and others claiming much greater sensitivity with a 0.12 Sv doubling dose.  If the total average dose to parents is 100 Person Sieverts, there will be 4 genetic effects per million live births if the doubling dose is 2.5 Sv, but there will be  83 such effects if the doubling dose is 0.12 Sv.

On the conservative side, we have taken 10 genetic effects to be the number of genetic effects for offspring of parents exposed to 100 Person Sieverts.


The damage to an embryo from ionizing radiation when in the womb is not ordinarily considered to be genetic (the exception would when the radiation damages the genetic material of the fetus). Such irradiation can lead to some 30 different congenital anomalies including permanent damage to the brain, mental deficiency, skull deformities, cleft palate, spina bifida, club-feet, genital deformities, growth retardation and childhood cancer. A total of all those effects, including those resulting in early embryonic or fetal mortality, amount to 46, of which 25 are in live born. I will use the conservative estimate 25 for congenital damage in this analysis.

When we summarize those risk estimates to be used in this analysis, we get 16 cancers, 10 genetic effects and 25 congenital effects in life born offspring for a mixed (age and sex) population of one million exposed to 100 Person Sieverts of ionizing radiation. This is a total of 51 “victims” for each 100 Person Sieverts exposure, of which 31.4% are assumed to be cancers, 19.6% are genetically damaged and 49% were congenitally damaged but both categories were live born.

The task now is to apply those numbers to the UNSCEAR estimate of nuclear radiation exposure to  the global population, including atmospheric nuclear weapons testing  and electricity production from nuclear power over the past half century.

The nuclear atmospheric weapon testing caused 1,138 million victims, with an additional 3.2 million due to nuclear weapon production. 

Nuclear power has caused about 21 million victims and medical uses of radiation have produced another 4 million victims. 

There have been both military and civilian nuclear accidents producing 16 million and 15 million more victims respectively.

This gives a grand total of 1,200 million victims of the nuclear age.  About 1,156 are military related, 36 million are related to nuclear reactors, and 4 million are related to medical use.

This Opinion piece was prepared by Rosalie Bertell, PhD, GNSH, President of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health  (Toronto, Canada) and Editor in Chief of International Perspectives in Public Health. Dr. Bertell is the recipient of many awards and five honorary doctorate degrees. She is the author of "No Immediate Danger: Prognosis For A Radioactive Earth" which has been translated into four languages.

This article is concurrently published in "The Lower Island News," an independent democratic socialist newspaper
covering lower Vancouver Island. The editor can be reached at: dale_young@telus.net.


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