On 26 April each year I remember Chernobyl. Otherwise I tend to forget the dates but this one is not hard to be remembered. On the tenth anniversary we even organised some kind of demonstrations (quiet, normally). Seems weird now (I certainly wouldn't do it now, no matter where I live). It was some odd 13 years ago. Chernobyl happened 23 years ago. Have we forgotten it? Are we allowed to forget it, no matter be the accident the result of an experiment, low maintenance or ignorance? There has been a lot of controversy around Chernobyl because at the time when it happened the information was suppressed by the government officials. How many people have actually died, how many have been affected? Chernobyl is an on-going tragic story. It was the worst and the deadliest accident among all nuclear power incidents in the world. The accident with the longest lasting impact on the environment and on the health of population in the affected areas.
The explosion that burst out in reactor 4 of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, early on April 26, 1986 continued with the lethal fire that lasted for ten days. Tons of uranium fuel, plutonium and other radio-nuclides were blown into the atmosphere in the range of three miles. The most affected states of then Soviet Union were Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Later the winds blew the radioactive debris northward across Europe. Contamination was widespread and in many directions. In the report prepared by 35 scientists for the Forum Chernobyl Conference in 2005, it was stated that the releases of radio-nuclides were large, in form of gases, condensed particles and fuel particles. The radioactive cloud went to high altitudes. It was detected throughout the Northern hemisphere, as far away as the Great Britain.
Although different sorts of radio-nuclides were released from the Chernobyl power plant, it has been estimated that the overall radiation was 90 times deadlier than the radiation caused by the nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For several years the official sources of the Soviet Union claimed that ‘only’ 32 people were killed in the Chernobyl disaster. Later the death of 254 people was admitted. After the fall of the ‘iron curtain’ in 1991 more facts about Chernobyl became available to public. However, the real truth about Chernobyl will never be fully revealed.
According to the World Health Organization which relies on the report prepared for the Forum Chernobyl conference in 2005, approximately one thousand on-site reactor staff and emergency workers were heavily exposed to high-level radiation on the first day of the accident. Among the more than two hundred thousand emergency and recovery operation workers exposed during the period from 1986-1987, an estimated twenty-two hundred radiation-caused deaths can be expected during their lifetime.
The Forum Chernobyl report also indicates that an estimated five million people currently live in areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine that are contaminated with radio-nuclides due to the accident. About four thousand cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the accident’s contamination. As a comparison, in all three most affected states, until 1984 there was on average one reported case of thyroid cancer on one million children.
According to the Children of Chernobyl Charitable Fund, the average birth rate in Belarus decreased 25 % in comparison with the year 1985. One in five births of those reported are normal. Most are not reported. The spreading diseases, CCCF reports, are chronic diseases of upper respiratory tracts, chronic otitis, atopic dermatitis, bronchial asthma and notable growth in children’s iron deficiency anemia. Malignant growths in the vascular eye-capsule and suffering from retinoblastoma has increased in these regions two and a half times. In a research report of the Institute of Belarusian Academy of Sciences it is stated that every second inhabitant of the Hoiniki District in the Gomel region (17,800 people) was examined at the Institute. This study revealed that 93 % of the tested individuals were ill.
International experts have estimated that radiation could cause up to about four thousand eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations. This includes emergency workers from 1986-1987, evacuees and residents of the most contaminated areas. This number contains both the known radiation-induced cancer and leukemia deaths, and a statistical prediction based on estimates of the radiation doses received by these populations.
Furthermore, the World Health Organization has attributed much of the post-Chernobyl desperate situation in affected regions to ‘mental health’ issues linked with poverty and ‘lifestyle’ diseases. Following the Forum Chernobyl report, WHO has pointed out that alongside radiation-induced deaths and diseases, the mental health impact of Chernobyl can be labeled as ‘the largest public health problem created by the accident’ and has partially attributed this damaging psychological impact to a lack of accurate information.
No doubt, the consequences of Chernoby will last for long and all its victims will most probably never be identified. However, it is important for future generations not to forget the lesson learnt from this tragic event.
(I published this article on Helium last year)