First Detailed Assessment of Chernobyl Damage Released

VIENNA, Austria, September 6, 2005 (ENS) - A total of up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded. But as of mid-2005, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster.

Nearly all of the 50 people who died were highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004.

The new numbers are presented in a landmark digest report, "Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," released Monday by the Chernobyl Forum.

Members of the Forum, including representatives of the three most affected governments - Belarus, Russia and Ukraine - are meeting today and tomorrow in Vienna at an unprecedented gathering of the world’s experts on Chernobyl, radiation effects and protection, to consider these findings and recommendations.

The report’s estimate for the eventual number of deaths is far lower than earlier, well publicized speculations that radiation exposure would claim tens of thousands of lives.

Chernobyl

On April 26, 1986, reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, 100 kilometers north of Kiev, exploded and caught fire. Nearly nine tons of radioactive material, 90 times as much as the Hiroshima bomb, were released. (Photo courtesy Ukranian Web)
But the 4,000 figure is not far different from estimates made in 1986 by Soviet scientists, according to Dr. Mikhail Balonov, a radiation expert with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, who was a scientist in the former Soviet Union at the time of the accident.

As for environmental impact, the scientific assessments show that, except for the still closed, highly contaminated 30 kilometer area surrounding the reactor, and some closed lakes and restricted forests, radiation levels have mostly returned to acceptable levels.

"In most areas the problems are economic and psychological, not health or environmental," reports Balonov, the scientific secretary of the Chernobyl Forum effort who has been involved with Chernobyl recovery since the disaster occurred.

The Forum is made up of eight United Nations agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization, United Nations Development Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, and the World Bank, as well as the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

“This compilation of the latest research can help to settle the outstanding questions about how much death, disease and economic fallout really resulted from the Chernobyl accident,” said Dr. Burton Bennett, chairman of the Chernobyl Forum and an authority on radiation effects.

“The governments of the three most affected countries have realized that they need to find a clear way forward, and that progress must be based on a sound consensus about environmental, health and economic consequences and some good advice and support from the international community,” Bennett said.

In Washington, DC, Michael Mariotte, executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear advocacy organization, said the statement issued by the Chernobyl Forum wrongly downplays the impact of the Chernobyl disaster.

"Although the report itself remains unavailable to the public," said Mariotte, "the press release states that 4,000 people are likely to die as a result of the Chernobyl accident. This is in stark contrast to industry propaganda that insists the deaths of only about 32 to 36 emergency responders can be directly attributable to the accident."

"To dismiss the loss of 4,000 lives, not to mention the non-fatal cancers and other effects, hundreds of billions of dollars in damages and permanent loss of land use, as the report appears to do, is an obscene disregard for human life and wellbeing," Mariotte declared.

Saying the fire and explosion at Chernobyl Unit 4 was "a very serious accident with major health consequences," still, Bennett said the team has "not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with a few exceptional, restricted areas.”

The major health consequences were experienced by thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and thousands more who developed thyroid cancer, according to the report.

The digest, based on a three-volume, 600-page report and incorporating the work of hundreds of scientists, economists and health experts, assesses the 20 year impact of the largest nuclear accident in history.

The Forum’s report aims to help the affected countries understand the true scale of the accident consequences and also suggest ways the governments of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia might address major economic and social problems stemming from the accident.

One serious environmental concern is that structural elements of the sarcophagus built to contain the damaged reactor have degraded, posing a risk of collapse and the release of radioactive dust.

sarcophagus

A sarcophagus was erected to contain radioactivity from the ruined reactor. (Photo courtesy Shirley/Greenpeace)
The protective shelter was erected quickly, which led to some imperfections in the shelter itself and did not permit gathering complete data on the stability of the damaged unit, said the Forum, pointing out that some structural parts of the shelter have corroded in the past two decades.

Strengthening of those unstable structures has been performed recently, and construction of a New Safe Confinement covering the existing shelter that should serve for more than 100 years, starts in the near future.

The new cover will allow dismantlement of the current shelter, removal of the radioactive fuel mass from the damaged unit and, eventually, decommissioning of the damaged reactor.

A comprehensive strategy still has to be developed for dealing with the high level and long-lived radioactive waste from past remediation activities, the Forum said. Much of this waste was placed in temporary storage in trenches and landfills that do not meet current waste safety requirements.

Health Effects of Chernobyl Explosion and Fire

Alongside radiation-induced deaths and diseases, the report labels the mental health impact of Chernobyl as “the largest public health problem created by the accident” and partially attributes this damaging psychological impact to a lack of accurate information. These problems manifest as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.

“Two decades after the Chernobyl accident, residents in the affected areas still lack the information they need to lead the healthy and productive lives that are possible,” explains Louisa Vinton, Chernobyl focal point at the UNDP. “We are advising our partner governments that they must reach people with accurate information, not only about how to live safely in regions of low-level contamination, but also about leading healthy lifestyles and creating new livelihoods.”

While recognizing the ongoing problems, Dr. Michael Repacholi, manager of the World Health Organization's Radiation Program, said, "the sum total of the Chernobyl Forum is a reassuring message."

He explains that there have been 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children, but that except for nine deaths, all of them have recovered. "Otherwise, the team of international experts found no evidence for any increases in the incidence of leukemia and cancer among affected residents."

Repacholi concludes that “the health effects of the accident were potentially horrific, but when you add them up using validated conclusions from good science, the public health effects were not nearly as substantial as had at first been feared.”

child

One of the children who lived in the vicinity of Chernobyl and developed thyroid cancer. At the time this photo was taken in 1995, he was undergoing treatment at the Ukranian National Centre for Radiation Medicine. (Photo courtesy Shirley/Greenpeace)
In the health area, the Forum report calls for continued close monitoring of workers who recovered from Acute Radiation Syndrome and other highly exposed emergency personnel. Focused screening of children exposed to radioiodine for thyroid cancer and highly exposed clean-up workers for non-thyroid cancers should be a top priority, the report recommends.

In the environmental realm, the report calls for long term monitoring of caesium and strontium radionuclides to assess human exposure and food contamination and to analyze the impacts of remedial actions and radiation-reduction countermeasures.

Better information needs to be provided to the public about the persistence of radioactive contamination in some food products and about food preparation methods that reduce radionuclide intake. Restrictions on harvesting of some wild food products are still needed in some areas.

Also in the realm of protecting the environment, the report calls for an “integrated waste management program for the Shelter, the Chernobyl NPP site and the Exclusion Zone” to ensure application of consistent management and capacity for all types of radioactive waste.

Waste storage and disposal must be dealt with in a comprehensive manner across the entire Exclusion Zone, the report urges.

In areas where human exposure is not high, no remediation needs to be done, points out Balonov. “If we do not expect health or environmental effects, we should not waste resources and effort on low priority, low contamination areas,” he says. “We need to focus our efforts and resources on real problems.”

Environmental Effects of the Chernobyl Explosion and Fire