Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Chernobyl: 20 Years Later

April 26, 1986.

Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Pripyat, Ukraine suffered a major failure and the ensuing explosion released highly radioactive materials into the atmosphere. If that wasn't bad enough, the Soviet Union didn't inform foreign countries, let alone its own citizens for several days until a Sweedish nuclear facility recorded high levels of radioactivity and began to sound the alarm of a serious incident somewhere. We later came to know that it was a major failure at Chernobyl's reactor complex. An entire nuclear reactor failed and without any secured containment dome, vast amounts of highly radioactive material were thrown into the air and onto the surrounding countryside. And the Soviets refused to acknowledge the failure or evacuate people from surrounding communities for days.

In the end, the Soviets did eventually snuff out the radioactive fires, built a containment structure (which itself needs to be encased in a new structure because it is failing as well), and evacuated hundreds of square miles of the Ukrainian countryside. Ukraine is holding a week long commemoration of the disaster. The health effects are still being debated to this day.
Over the years, reports and rumors have spoken of thousands of these especially vulnerable people dying from radiation. But a September report by a group of United Nations agencies concluded that the accident wasn't nearly as deadly as feared.

Fewer than 50 deaths have been directly linked to radiation exposure as of mid-2005, the report said. A total of 4,000 of the 600,000 "liquidators" - workers who were hastily mobilized to clean up the accident site - are likely to die from radiation-related cancers and leukemia, it predicted. That's far below the tens of thousands many claimed were fatally stricken.

The researchers found that thyroid cancer rates have skyrocketed among people who were under 18 at the time of the accident, but noted more than 99 percent survive after treatment.

It said there was no convincing evidence of birth defects or reduced fertility, and most of the general population suffered such low radiation doses that the scientists decided not to make predictions about deaths, except to say that some increase - less than 1 percent or about 5,000 - might be expected.

Venyamin Khudolei, director of the Center for Independent Ecological Expertise at the government-founded Russian Academy of Science, disagrees with the findings.

In the part of Russia most heavily hit by the fallout, mortality rates have risen nearly 4 percent since the explosion, indicating the Chernobyl toll in Russia alone could be calculated at 67,000 people, he said. His findings are cited by the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace, which on Tuesday (April 18) is to issue a report on Chernobyl's consequences.
The Japan Times notes the debate over the health effects.
This picture is both badly distorted -- and harmful to the victims of the Chernobyl accident. All reputable scientific studies conducted so far have concluded that the impact of radiation has been less damaging than was feared. A few dozen emergency workers who battled the fire at the reactor succumbed to acute radiation sickness. Studies are still under way into elevated rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease among the "liquidators" who worked at the reactor site in the months following the accident. And some 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer, attributed to radioactive iodine absorbed through consumption of milk in the weeks immediately following the accident, have been detected among those who were children at the time.

There has been real suffering, particularly among the 330,000 people who were relocated after the accident. About that there is no doubt. But for the five million people living in affected regions who are designated as Chernobyl "victims," radiation has had no discernible impact on physical health.

This is because these people were exposed to low radiation doses that in most cases were comparable to natural background levels. Two decades of natural decay and remediation measures mean that most territories originally deemed "contaminated" no longer merit that label. Aside from thyroid cancer, which has been successfully treated in 98.5 percent of cases, scientists have not been able to document any connection between radiation and any physical condition.

Where a clear impact has been found is mental health. Fear of radiation, it seems, poses a far more potent health threat than does radiation itself. Symptoms of stress are rampant, and many residents of affected areas firmly believe themselves to be condemned by radiation to ill health and early death.
In the end, no one knows how many people were killed or injured by the Chernobyl incident, and the Soviet secrecy over the entire incident has made matters worse. Yet, organizations, NGOs, and other groups try to put a figure on how many people were killed or injured by Chernobyl. Greenpeace argues with the findings thusly:
But Greenpeace, in a report citing data from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, harshly disagreed and suggested the Chernobyl Forum report was deliberately misleading.

“It is appalling that the IAEA is whitewashing the impacts of the most serious nuclear accident in human history,” Ivan Blokov of the environmental group’s Russia office said in a statement. “Denying the real implications is not only insulting to the thousands of victims but it also leads to dangerous recommendations and the relocation of people in contaminated areas.”

The Chernobyl Forum report had suggested that many of the health problems and complaints in the regions around Chernobyl were connected with unhealthy lifestyles, including heavy drinking and smoking, and with a culture of victimization.

Greenpeace countered that statistics from Belarus' National Academy of Sciences indicate there will be 270,000 cases of cancer attributable to Chernobyl radiation throughout the region and that 93,000 of those are likely to be fatal.
The Politburo Diktat notes that the area has become a wildlife reserve in all but name now that people are not entering the area due to fear of radiation contamination. Also, he points to a BBC slideshow showing the ghostly images of life frozen in time. The New York Times has noted that there's been a rise in thyroid cancer in the United States, and clustered in New York, largely due to immigration from areas affected by Chernobyl.

Here's a satellite map of the current Chernobyl nuclear power station. The damaged reactor is entombed under the light gray structure (center-left) - the sarcophagus - which itself needs to be repaired/replaced due to ongoing radioactive decay and structural problems.

Google Map satellite image of Chernobyl

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