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Monday, 21 March 2011


Very good tip, TOP is a great communicator for these kind of things. I was considering a donation to the Japanese Red Cross - not in the last place because photographically speaking I have a lot to be grateful for to the Japanese people (and in that way Japan is closer to me than I previously realised). I now decided to divide that donation fifty-fifty between Japan and Gerd Ludwig's Chernobyl project - in the full conviction that in the somewhat longer run this will help the Japanese radiation victims just as much. And there will be far less potential funders for Ludwig than for the Japanese Red Cross.

Some 15 years ago I did a short internship at Visum in Hamburg, the foto agency Gerd Ludwig cofounded. When ever there was time I browsed through the images he made for Natinal Geographic's "Broken Empire" issue. It was a vast body of work, about 2 1/2 cabinets of slides, covering all republics of the former Soviet Union.
Great stuff!

I always liked the photo journey documentated in: http://www.kiddofspeed.com/chapter1.html

As usual, the guy in the suit spouts the "facts". The guy carrying the camera and wearing jeans actually goes to the area and comes back with the story. This is why I rarely wear suits.

Website about Chernobyl.

And the controversy continues... scientists look at the exact same data and come to opposite conclusions. IAEA has a vested interest in minimizing the damage. But even groups that have no apparent self interest in the results can't decide what the truth is.

With the lack of transparency of the Soviet government, it will never be known what the true death toll was. I have listened to countless stories told by Belarusians... this is only anecdotal evidence, and cannot be considered scientific, I understand. But with the government lying so vociferously, it is clear to me that we will never be able to nail down numbers.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the IAEA will participate in an international conference designed to ensure that the lessons learned from the accident will bring about lasting improvements in nuclear and radiation safety globally. -IAEA

Wow! Only from the furtive imagination of IAEA- I'm sure Japan will back them up 110% on that one. And if Japan won't- Ann Coulter will...


Bill Bresler said, "As usual, the guy in the suit spouts the "facts". The guy carrying the camera and wearing jeans actually goes to the area and comes back with the story. This is why I rarely wear suits."

I have some (limited) sympathy for that view, having worn the jeans for twenty-five years or so. But another way to put that would be, "The guy carrying the camera and wearing jeans actually goes to the area and comes back with the cartoon."

The IAEA does have an interest in playing down the effects of the disaster, just as Ludwig has an interest in playing them up -- but the balance of terror goes to Ludwig, because photos are always more dramatic than "facts." What people forget is that he doesn't photograph everything, he just photographs what makes his points -- the abandoned buildings, etc. He doesn't emphasize the fact that there are apparently several thousand people living in the exclusion zone, according to a recent National Geographic (with photos) and doing so in relative safely.

There isn't any question whatever that Chernobyl was a disaster, but I read this weekend something to the effect that "More people are killed every year in coal mining incidents than were ever killed in a nuclear disaster." The problem here is that if we're to get a handle on global warming, it'll have to be through nuclear energy; everything else, wind, solar, etc., may be useful, but it'll never add up to what we need, when we need it. Nuclear is extremely safe -- but nothing is perfectly safe.

The overall effect of work like Ludwig's is not some reasoned caution about atomic energy, but unreasoned fear -- through his photos we see our own homes abandoned, children poisoned, etc. It's the same kind of unreasoned fear we got when "The China Syndrome" movie came out at the same time as the Three Mile Island incident, in which *nobody* was killed. And, of course, we don't see our own children down coal mines -- those are somebody else's children.

So the question becomes, how useful are photos by people like Ludwig? Compared to the "facts" (in quotes.)

Sorry to have to do this, but just like "the Russia" and "the France," "the Ukraine" is incorrect and slightly annoying. The term comes from the Soviet penchance of referring to Ukraine as a region as opposed to a country (or an SSR, as the case may be). But these days more than ever, Ukraine actually is its own country and I think it's time to put the old Soviet term to bed.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is not going to be my source for a balanced look at Chernobyl. Everyone's got a game, theirs is selling peaceful nuclear power. You can't doublethink your way out of that massive conflict of interest.

Now imagine the photographer putting together his work, he'll show you what he took pictures of, granted choosing more powerful, and probably more horrific pieces. Now imagine IAEA's board room full of suits determining which facts make it into their video. Now choose what perspective you want.

"'the Ukraine' is incorrect and slightly annoying"

Fixed. I actually knew that, too--my sister-in-law is Ukrainian. Sorry.


John Camp- You mention the elderly living in the exclusion zone- but nowhere is there any mention of the thousands of children who have been born with the most profound physical and intellectual disabilities, nowhere is any mention of the thousands of children and adults that have already died, the thousands that will continue to die from cancer- that is your real "balance of terror."

The Belarus National Academy of Sciences estimates 93,000 deaths and 270,000 cancers, the Ukrainian National Commission for Radiation estimates 500,000 dead, and physician and toxicologist Dr. Janette Sherman estimates 985,000 deaths from fallout- those are all estimates for the the years '86-'05. The IAEA estimates FIFTY (50) dead for the same time period- I kid you not!

Nuclear power is truly the "gift" that keeps on giving. This year Germans are destroying wild boar in their forests because they are radioactive, other wild and domesticated game continue to be destroyed throughout hot spots in Scandinavia.

If we had poured one tenth of the time, money and... energy into wind, solar, geothermal, tide and other alternative energy R&D, we would presently have a viable renewable energy industry that would produce at least half our energy needs. Instead, we have paid it lip service ever since Reagan tore the solar panels of The White House roof and set the national agenda.

(It seems) we have currently escaped what would have been the world's largest nuclear catastrophe- do you have any idea what would have happened if those FORTY YEARS of "spent" nuclear fuel rods had gone up in smoke!? We're talking nuclear catastrophe well beyond Japan.

Calling nuclear energy "extremely safe" is Orwellian at best. Each and every one of the approx 450 reactors worldwide are ticking global time bombs- time bombs with a half life of thousands of years! I can't believe parents with children willingly bequeath them this legacy of potential cancer and death!

An accident couldn't happen in the US of A- it did; couldn't happen in Russia- it did; no way it would ever happen in tech savvy, ultra efficient and ever vigilant Japan- it did! We got over 100 nuclear plants in the USA (some built on fault lines), 23 just like the insanely dangerous GE plants (ie- spent fuel rods pools directly above active reactors, which are in turn placed in close proximity to other reactors like rows of dominoes) in Japan. Most of those reactors were made in the '70s- do you remember the build quality of American cars back then, compared to Japanese? Still feeling safe?

"The reactor that got me involved in this issue, in southwest Michigan, Palisades nuclear power plant, has been storing its high-level radioactive waste in outdoor silos of concrete and steel on the beach of Lake Michigan, a hundred yards from the water, in violation of NRC earthquake regulations since 1993. An NRC whistleblower in Chicago called attention to this problem in 1994. Nothing’s been done. There are two dozen containers, dry casks, of high-level radioactive waste next to the drinking water supply for 40 million people downstream in the U.S. and Canada, in violation of NRC earthquake regulations.'

'...Well, at Fermi 2 in Michigan, again, the same exact design as the Fukushima Daiichi unit 1, the emergency diesel generators in the year 2006 were discovered to have not been operable for 20 years. From 1986 to 2006, the emergency diesel generators at Fermi 2 in Michigan would not have operated if called upon. So, thank God that they were not needed during that 20-year period of time, or we could have lost Detroit, or we could have lost Toledo, or we could have lost Windsor, Ontario. That’s the level of safety with the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the industry in this country." --Kevin Kamps

"John Camp- You mention the elderly living in the exclusion zone- but nowhere is there any mention of the thousands of children who have been born with the most profound physical and intellectual disabilities, nowhere is any mention of the thousands of children and adults that have already died, the thousands that will continue to die from cancer..."

Funny, the thing that offended me the most about John's comment was the implication that Gerd Ludwig has an agenda to further and interests to promote, whereas I am aware of no reason to impugn his honesty and integrity as a photojournalist.


For shocking, moving, first-hand personal accounts from the disaster area I highly recommend the book Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich.

You will not be the same person after reading this book.


Dear John,

Echoing other people's questions, why do you think Ludwig has an interest in playing this up? I'm not saying you're wrong; with your knowledge and experience in journalism, you may know something about him or be gleaning something from his work that is entirely legitimate and accurate that isn't obvious. If it's your journalistic alarm bells going off, that's legit; I can usually tell if an article or paper about some scientific revelation has legitimacy just by the “look and feel” of it. One develops the skills with knowledge and experience.

And speaking of science, I have to take exception to this sentence: "The problem here is that if we're to get a handle on global warming, it'll have to be through nuclear energy; everything else, wind, solar, etc., may be useful, but it'll never add up to what we need, when we need it."

This is not scientifically correct. It may prove true in terms of energy policy, people's preferences, etc. In other words politics. But, purely technically speaking, nuclear is not a necessary component of the equation–– in fact, no one energy source is.

Basis for that assertion? A superb eight-page article in the August 14, 2008 Nature magazine called “Electricity Without Carbon." I can't recommended too highly; it's a set of one page summary pieces describing the technology, capacity, advantages, disadvantages, and ultimate likely impact of many different sources of power.

As you well know (but other readers may not) no single energy source is ideal from all points of view, purely technically. That's why energy companies like a mix. So I'm going to entirely skip the pros and cons (people can read them for themselves) but just deal with the capacities, which was the thrust of your remark.

Current human electricity consumption averages 2 TW, total power consumption is 5 TW. Here are some numbers for technologically reasonable and exploitable capacities (raw power amounts are much, much higher, of course, but we don't have technology that can use it).

Wind–– 70 TW (!)

Solar–– 10+ TW

Hydropower–– 3 TW

Nonedible / non-agricultural biomass–– 3 TW

Geothermal–– less than 1 TW

Ocean/Tidal–– 0.5 TW

Note that any of the top four, all by themselves, could provide all the electricity the world needs. The problem, as with any monoculture, is that that simpleminded approach comes with huge and severe disadvantages.

What mix of sources one uses and whether one uses nuclear is a matter of social policy (that conglomerate of personal preferences, politics, and pocketbooks). It may be a very good idea. It's not physically necessary.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Really hard facts: What is defined in the AIEA video as "some areas are still closed because of radiation" as it shows happy peasants working, consist really in one area of full exclusion of 15,000 square miles around Chernobyl. This is almost the entire area of Switzerland, and it is expected 300 years, or more for full decontamination. This 300 years are calculated over scientifically undisputed numbers
This data and more about the full scope of Chernobyl disaster can be read at today's (22 march) electronic edition of New York Times.
This video remembered me of Soviet Cold War propaganda.

A few days ago I wrote a reply to a post about Gerd Ludwig and the Chernobyl disaster, and a number of people took exception to it, and asked me some fairly harsh questions. I didn't reply at the time because I didn't see the further replies.

As to those folks who present large numbers of dead and mentally and physically damaged children, I would like to see the evidence. I don't want it to be "obvious," or "apparent to anyone with half a brain," I want to see the evidence. If you can do that, and if the numbers come from sources that have no interest in inflating the numbers, then I'd be somewhat more believing.

As I said in my reply, there's no doubt that Chernobyl was a disaster, and, I believe, in more ways than one. It not only hurt a lot of people, it effectively killed, at a critical moment, the possibility that we would get anything serious done about global warming.


A major National Geographic article in 2006 was photographed by Gerd Ludwig, and I had that stuck in the back of my head when I wrote that reply, because when I saw it, I thought, Hmmm...My b.s. detector was ringing, and I could hear that back across all those years.

For example, on one page, Ludwig has two photos: one of small children sniffing flowers or something, and another of a newborn baby, in the delivery room, resting on its mother's stomach, just moment after the delivery. You think, this is gonna be bad. But the caption said, "Mentally disabled children (left) live in an institution in Belarus. Children born in the region are said to have a higher rate of birth defects and retardation because of Chernobyl, a belief *not* supported by a recent UN study. [My asterisks -- JC] The study did find that the accident left a damaging level of fear among new mothers like Yelena Banchuk, 32 (below) exposed to fallout as a girl in Belarus."

Let me point out: Nothing wrong with the baby; nothing wrong with the mother; the level of fear among mothers are only those *like* Yelena -- it doesn't even say that she was one who experienced the fear. As to the "retarded" kids -- these were pictures taken of young children twenty years after the incident, and nobody in the article connects these kids to Chernobyl. I think even the Daily News would call b.s. on these shots.

The same with another dramatic shot, something that looks bad happening to an older man in a clinic. It turns out that he moved *back* to Chernobyl, and was undergoing a routine check to see if he was okay. Apparently, he was fine. But, I'll bet you any amount of money that he'll die someday. I think, given the context of the article, that the Daily News would call b.s. on that shot, too.

In fact, the only shot that showed sick people were two people being treated for thyroid cancer, which could have come from Chernobyl. Nobody really knows, but it's a possibility. Thyroid cancer is not good, but an article about the Japanese disaster talked about thyroid cancer and said that "people don't have to die of it." It's not good, but if you're going to get cancer, thyroid is the kind to get.

The NG article says directly, "Early estimates that tens or hundreds of thousands of people would die from Chernobyl have been discredited. But genetic damage done 20 years ago is slowly taking its toll. Nobody can be sure of the ultimate impact, but an authoritative report estimated last year that the cancer fuse lit by Chernobyl will claim 4,000 lives."

That suggests that over the time horizon of peoples' lives affected by Chernobyl, some 4,000 will die prematurely because of the disaster. I can believe that. As I noted in my original post, Chernobyl was a disaster -- but it was a disaster on the order of 9/11, not an unprecedented cataclysm. When all is said and done, in 100 years, I doubt that anyone would be able to pick the deaths caused by Chernobyl out of the general day-to-day death stats for the period.

I would further suggest that the major effect of Chernobyl, and where you may be able to pick out the death stats, is that Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and now the Japanese disaster may slow or even kill the expansion of nuclear power, which is our only realistic option for non-carbon-based power generation of sufficient magnitude as to replace carbon power. That means we're going to keep heating up the earth until something really bad happens, or we run out of coal and oil.

Which gets me to Ctein:

As to Ludwig, I don't have anything particular either for or against him. I guess he's a good photographer. But I have a feel for what he's doing -- he's not going someplace out of the pure goodness of his heart. He's going for the story, and that story gets him face time and fees with National Geographic, and people treat him like a hero, etc. I can not only see that, I did that -- I covered the huge forest fires in Yellowstone, went to Iraq even when I was no longer a real journalist, and so on. Because I like that feeling. But when you look at the NG photos, you get the feeling that Ludwig went there and...didn't find much. It seemed like the classic, "We're publishing this because we spent so much to get the story."

As for your list of energy possibilities...I didn't claim any scientific accuracy for my statement, I said the other options for power aren't realistic -- and I meant, politically realistic. All those other alternatives would mean a massive reordering of the whole power structure, at a cost of trillions of dollars, when it's so much cheaper, now, to keep burning the coal and oil. The good thing about nukes, especially the third generation nukes envisioned by people like Bill Gates, is that they can pretty much replace in-the-ground oil and coal-fired plants, and give us carbon-free power. I believe we should do as much as we can with alternative systems, but to think that we can do it even here in the US, or in Europe, the richest areas of the world, is not realistic; to expect India or China to do it, when costs for alternative power are about twice the cost of coal power, just...won't work.

This latest disaster in Japan may set back nukes by another generation, or even longer, if we're unlucky, just as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island set us back 25 years. As far as global warming in concerned, I don't think we can take another 25-year setback. I don't know what the consequences of that will be, but I suspect they will be large. Maybe they'll be good, and we'll all be living on South Beach. But maybe the consequences won't be so good.

For the sake of my grandchildren, I'd just as soon not find out.

"I doubt that anyone would be able to pick the deaths caused by Chernobyl out of the general day-to-day death stats for the period."

Wow, John Camp! This is really getting... bizarre! Below are some links that could start you on your road to enlightenment (something I'm sure you'll repudiate). I guess the photographer below is also wielding "the balance of terror" and the female survivor would have gotten cancer anyway. I could supply a lot more links, but must go to work- and I got the slight feeling all the vetted and confirmed info in the world is not going to make you reconsider this...



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