20 Years Since Chernobyl

Twenty years ago, on 26th April 1986, there was a disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. There was no containment building and a plume of radioactive fallout drifted over parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and the eastern United States resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 336,000 people. It is regarded as the worst accident in the history of nuclear power.

There is, however, on going dispute about how many actually died as a result of the disaster. Michael Crichton puts the figure at just 56, blog post here. Greenpeace claim the death toll was a lot higher. There is some discussion at Wikipedia:

“A 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths; 47 accident workers and 9 children with thyroid cancer, and estimated that as many as 9,000 people, among the approximately 6.6 million, will ultimately die from some form of cancer (one of the induced diseases). For its part, Greenpeace estimates a total death toll of 93,000 but cite in their report “The most recently published figures indicate that in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine alone the accident could have resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths in the period between 1990 and 2004.”

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the disaster a WHO report entitled ‘Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident’ was produced, to read the overview click here.

Following are some excerpts:

“In Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine nearly 5 000 cases of thyroid cancer have now been diagnosed to date among children who were aged up to 18 years at the time of the accident. While a large number of these cancers resulted from radiation following the accident, intense medical monitoring for thyroid disease among the affected population has also resulted in the detection of thyroid cancers at a sub-clinical level, and so contributed to the overall increase in thyroid cancer numbers. Fortunately, even in children with advanced tumours, treatment has been highly effective and the general prognosis for young patients is good. However, they will need to take drugs for the rest of their lives to replace the loss of thyroid function. Further, there needs to be more study to evaluate the prognosis for children, especially those with distant metastases. It is expected that the increased incidence of thyroid cancer from Chernobyl will continue for many years, although the long-term magnitude of the risk is difficult to quantify.

… While scientists have conducted studies to determine whether cancers in many other organs may have been caused by radiation, reviews by the WHO Expert Group revealed no evidence of increased cancer risks, apart from thyroid cancer, that can clearly be attributed to radiation from Chernobyl. Aside from the recent finding on leukaemia risk among Chernobyl liquidators, reports indicate a small increase in the incidence of pre-menopausal breast cancer in the most contaminated areas, which appear to be related to radiation dose. Both of these findings, however, need confirmation in well-designed epidemiological studies. The absence of demonstrated increases in cancer risk – apart from thyroid cancer – is not proof that no increase has occurred. Based on the experience of atomic bomb survivors, a small increase in the risk of cancer is expected, even at the low to moderate doses received. Such an increase, however, is expected to be difficult to identify.

… Given the low radiation doses received by most people exposed to the Chernobyl accident, no effects on fertility, numbers of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes or delivery complications have been demonstrated nor are there expected to be any. A modest but steady increase in reported congenital malformations in both contaminated and uncontaminated areas of Belarus appears related to improved reporting and not to radiation exposure.”

So it would seem the number of people that died as a direct result of the accident has probably been grossly overstated and may be as low as 56. There has been an increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer particularly in individuals under 18 years of age at the time of exposure to the radiation. The thyroid cancer has proven manageable but not curable.

13 Responses to 20 Years Since Chernobyl

  1. Ender April 26, 2006 at 9:58 am #

    Jen – the casualties could be as high as 950 000.

    This article was on Ockham’s Razor

    “But John Gofman, Professor of Medical Physics at Berkeley, a well recognised world expert in both the physics and biology of radiation, has calculated that 950,000 people will have got, or will get, cancer as a result of the Chernobyl fallout, and roughly half will die of their cancers.

    The claim that only 31 deaths occurred deliberately hides behind the impossibility of identifying the exact cause of particular cancers and the statistical impossibility of identifying a proportionately small change in a large background of spontaneous cancers.”

    However there is one type of nuclear power that I could approve of – Accelerator-Driven Thorium Reactors. Thorium is very abundant, the reactor only works when the particle beam is on, the waste is radioactive for 500 years instead of 10 000 and in one huge disadvantage it produces no weapons grade waste.
    Read an article on it here:

    If the world has to have nuclear power make it this type.

  2. avocadia April 26, 2006 at 10:00 am #

    On the other hand 300,000 residents of the area displaced and resettled, a risk of radioactive material escaping from the containment structure as water levels rise, three quarters of a million dollars estimated for a new containment structure because the old one is falling over, and – twenty years later- restriction orders still on farm production all over Europe because of all the caesium in the soil.

  3. jennifer April 26, 2006 at 10:46 am #

    I’m interested in learning more about the possibility of radioactive material escaping, affects of caesium, and the environmental impacts more generally –

  4. avocadia April 26, 2006 at 11:51 am #

    There is an article in the current edition of National Geographic that covers some of the after-effects, including a description of the new containment structure. Richard Carlton did a story on it in a recent edition of 60 Minutes that covered a lot of the same ground as the National Geographic article.

    I won’t pretend that I am at all qualified to discuss the affects of caesium and strontium on farming. The wikipedia entry you linked to on the Chernobyl accident probably plumbs the extent of my knowledge. That qualified people deem it a problem and that caesium – with its thirty year half life – is likely to be in the soil in worrisome quantities for some time yet is always in the back of my head when I read discussions of the death toll.

  5. rog April 26, 2006 at 12:48 pm #

    Richard Carlton stood 100m outside the plant with a geiger counter and said that after 5-6 hours he would have been exposed to the same amount of radiation as an x-ray. He did go inside, into the control room.

    I would say that the medical facilities in Belarus are typical sub-standard Russian facilities, only the privileged get the good service.


  6. Paul Williams April 26, 2006 at 3:22 pm #

    The Sixty Minutes report showed some unfortunate children suffering from various conditions, the implication being that their problems were due to the Chernobyl accident. Similarly with shots of a grieving widow whose (elderly) husband’s recent death was “said to be due to a heart condition”, again with the implication that Chernobyl was the cause. Quite a disgraceful way of slanting the report, I thought.

    Of course, the greenies should be quite pleased that the area where humans have been evacuated is returning to forest and is teeming with wildlife.

    Ender, if it’s impossible to detect an increase in cancer rates, then almost any number of cases within the natural yearly variations can be used. To say 950,000 will/have been affected is ridiculous. You could just as easily say xxx thousand have been saved from cancer because of Chernobyl.

  7. Ivor Surveyor April 26, 2006 at 4:36 pm #

    Numerous and widely divergent estimates of projected (future, theoretical) deaths from the Chernobyl accident have been published. All these estimates are rubbery in the extreme, In fact so great are the uncertainties that it could be well claimed all published estimates are “meaningless” and serve no real purpose. Yet, it seems that the current provision of oncological services is adequate to cover the Chernobyl affair.

    The best estimate is that due [Cardis et al (J, Radiol Prot 2006; 26 : 127-140] and is I understand the basis of the 4000 projected extra cancer deaths suggested by The Chernobyl Forum.

    All the projected estimates assume the correctness of the paradigm; all radiation exposure no matter how small carries an increment of harm. The assumption by ICRP is that there is a linear (no-threshold) association between exposure and harm (LNTH)*. There is a contrary school of thought (radiation hormesis) that argues; low level exposure radiation maybe beneficial and even protect against harm.

    I now list some of the deficiencies that are common to most of the published projections of both cancer and non cancer deaths due to exposure from Chernobyl radiation. I consider the lack of this information renders projections valueless.
    • A full description of the population to which they apply. This must include information on age and sex distribution; alcohol and cigarette consumption; social class categories; and iodine deficiency in respect to prevalence of thyroid cancer.
    • Brake down into exposure categories, mean exposure and distribution of dose within each exposure group.
    • Other significant radiation exposure such as medical x rays where relevant.
    • Choice of risk coefficients and the statistical models used to calculate the estimates.
    • Authors should quote the 90% or 95% confidence intervals associated with their estimates.
    • Generally risk estimates as given by IRCP are based on atomic bomb victims. But there are great differences in dose rate, prior health, wartime deprivation, and so on between the two populations, Japan 1945, Chernobyl 1986.
    • Since 1945 there have been outstanding advances in the diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. Advances in medical case finding and treatment have occurred in the Ukraine, Belarus as a consequence of the vast international effort and resources poured into the area post the incident.
    • A clear distinction between disease incidence and disease fatality rates.
    • Comparison with control populations to be made explicit.
    • Publication in leading medical and/or scientific journals.
    • Detailed discussion and analysis as to why report A differs from report B?

    Radiation exposure to man has been studied for over 100 years and it is clear that an exposure levels of 100mSv or less radiation is a very weak cancer inducing agent. As noted above members of the hormetic school would deny any cancer induction. Certainly, such environmental agents as smoking, alcohol excess, contact with numerous chemicals, inappropriate diet, and certain infections are all more worrisome carcinogens then radiation.
    The excess and inflated numbers claimed for Dr. John Goffman (ex Senator J. Coulter, Ockham’s Razor, Radio National 16th April, or by Geenpeace must be considered as anti-nuclear propaganda only possible because of LNTH.
    To illustrate the importance of quoting confidence intervals for any estimates I will make the following statement that is 100% accurate; the number of projected deaths from Chernobyl is to be found in the closed interval, zero upwards to the total worlds population. The statement is at the same time so lacking in precision as to convey no useful information.

    * LNTH = linear no threshold hypothesis.
    Ivor Surveyor [isurveyor@vianet.net.au]

  8. Ender April 27, 2006 at 10:11 am #

    Paul Williams – “Ender, if it’s impossible to detect an increase in cancer rates, then almost any number of cases within the natural yearly variations can be used. To say 950,000 will/have been affected is ridiculous. You could just as easily say xxx thousand have been saved from cancer because of Chernobyl.”

    Explain away what you like. If it comforts you that only 37 people died then so be it. My main concern with nuclear power is weapons proliferation and waste disposal.

  9. Paul Williams April 27, 2006 at 10:18 am #

    Ender, I was pointing out the flaw in Gofman’s logic. Nothing more. Sorry if it upset your sensitivities.

  10. Robert Merkel April 27, 2006 at 10:33 pm #

    Jennifer, as has been explained in various posts here, there are two distinct questions: how many people have, thus far, identifiably died from Chernobyl, and how many premature deaths will there ultimately be. The figures of 50 or so are all about the identifiable excess deaths so far (those who died during or shortly after the accident from acute radiation sickness, or the relatively few excess deaths attributed to thyroid cancer). The higher figures are about how many will eventually die prematurely from the radiation from Chernobyl. As Ivor points out, these estimates are incredibly difficult to make as it is a very small increase (or possibly no increase at all) in risk spread over a very large number of people.

    Oh, and here’s a first, I sort-of agree with Ender on a nuclear-related topic. At least in the long term, thorium reactors seem like a very promising safe, proliferation-resistant, and cheap option. However, a prototype has not even been built yet, and from what I’ve read there seems to be considerable amounts of research left to do.

  11. Jennifer on behalf of a reader May 7, 2006 at 9:16 pm #

    Zbigniew Jaworowski
    Central Laboratory for Radiological Protection, Warsaw, Poland

    For twenty years the drama of the Chernobyl accident at the end of April
    1986 has persisted. Vivid worldwide in the memory of the public, even now it
    affects millions in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

    On the night of 25-26 April 1986, an enormous quantity of radioactive dust
    was released into the air from the melting reactor core of the badly-built
    and poorly-maintained Soviet reactor at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. It put
    out as much radioactivity as 0.5% of all previous 543 nuclear explosions in
    the atmosphere. The Chernobyl dust covered all Europe and Northern
    Hemisphere. It penetrated up into the lower stratosphere and fell even at
    the South Pole. Nothing worse could happen with a power reactor: a total
    meltdown of its core, and a ten days free release of radioactive material
    into the open air.

    Surprisingly, however, the worst harm was caused not by radiation, and not
    to the flesh, but to the minds.

    In terms of human losses (31 early deaths), the accident in the Chernobyl
    nuclear power plant was a minor event compared with many other man-made
    catastrophes. In 1984, about 15,000 died from the eruption of a fertilizer
    factory in Bhopal in India; the collapse of a Chinese dam on the Banqiao
    river in 1975 caused some 230,000 fatalities. Counted per electricity units
    produced, which is the only practical comparison, fatalities in Chernobyl
    were lower than from most other energy sources: three times lower than
    oil-fired power stations, 13 times lower than liquefied gas, and 15 times
    lower than hydroelectric stations. But the political, economic, social and
    psychological impact of Chernobyl was enormous. Let us have a look at what
    happened, starting with my personal experience.

    About 9 a.m. on Monday 28 April 1986 at the entrance to my institute in
    Warsaw I was greeted by a colleague saying: “Look, at 07:00h we received a
    telex from a monitoring station in northern Poland saying that the
    radioactivity of air there is 550,000 times higher than a day before. A
    similar increase I found in the air filter from the station in our backyard,
    and the pavement here is highly radioactive”.

    This was a terrible shock. It is curious that all my attention was
    concentrated on this enormous rise of “total beta activity” used to detect
    radioactivity, although I knew that the actual dose rate of external
    radiation penetrating our bodies was only three times higher than the day
    before and was similar to the average natural radiation dose which we all
    receive from the ground and cosmic radiation. This “Chernobyl” dose was more
    than 100 times lower than the natural radiation level in some other areas of
    the world, where no adverse health effects among inhabitants have ever been

    But in 1986 the impact of a dramatic increase in atmospheric radioactivity
    dominated the thinking of me and everybody else. This state of mind led to
    immediate consequences. First there were various hectic actions, such as ad
    hoc setting of different limits for radiation in food, water etc. These
    limits varied between countries by a factor of many thousands, reflecting
    the emotional state of decision-makers and political and mercenary factors.
    For example, Sweden allowed for 30 times more radioactivity in imported
    vegetables than in domestic ones and Israel allowed less radioactivity in
    food from Eastern than from Western Europe. The limit of cesium-137
    concentration in vegetables imposed in the Philippines was 8,600 times lower
    than in the more pragmatic United Kingdom.

    Most of these restrictions were meaningless from the point of view of human
    health but their costs were enormous. As an example, Norwegian authorities
    introduced a limit for cesium-137 concentration in reindeer meat and game
    that was about 200 times lower than the natural dose in some regions of
    Norway. The costs of this false protection climbed to over US$51 million.

    Other countries were no better. Professor Klaus Becker from the German
    Institute for Standards estimated recently that this kind of practice,
    together with its consequences for nuclear industry, meant that the costs of
    the Chernobyl accident in Western Europe probably exceed US$100 billion.

    The most nonsensical action, however, was the evacuation of 336,000 people
    from the contaminated regions of the former Soviet Union, where the
    radiation dose from Chernobyl fallout was about twice the natural dose.
    Later, the officially acceptable limit was set below the natural level and
    was five times lower than radiation at Grand Central Station in New York.
    “Contaminated regions” were defined, using a level of radioactive cesium-137
    in the ground ten times lower than the level of natural radioactive matter
    in the soil. The evacuation caused great harm to the populations of Belarus,
    Russia and Ukraine. It led to mass psychosomatic disturbances, great
    economic losses and traumatic social consequences. According to Academician
    Leonid A. Ilyin, the leading Russian authority on radiation protection, the
    mass relocation was implemented by the Soviet government under the pressure
    of populists, ecologists and self-appointed “specialists”, against the
    advice of the best Soviet scientists.

    Besides the 28 fatalities among rescue workers and the employees of the
    power station due to extremely high doses of radiation, and three immediate
    deaths due to other reasons (the UN’s Chernobyl Forum gives “less than 50”
    by adding in some later deaths from causes not related to radiation, such as
    lung tuberculosis, fat thrombosis, car accident, suicide etc. In fact, the
    mortality rate of survivors of the acute radiation sickness, at 1.09%, was
    much lower than the mortality rates for the whole population of Belarus of
    1.4%, Russia’s 1.38%, and Ukraine’s 1.65%), the only real adverse health
    consequence of the Chernobyl catastrophe among about five million people
    living in the contaminated regions is the epidemic of psychosomatic
    diseases. These diseases were not due to irradiation with Chernobyl fallout
    but were caused by “radiophobia”, an irrational fear of radiation,
    aggravated by wrong administrative decisions. These decisions made several
    million people believe that they are “victims of Chernobyl”, although the
    average dose they receive from Chernobyl radiation is only about one third
    of the average dose from Nature. This was the main factor behind the
    economic losses caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe, estimated to have
    reached US$148 billion by 2000 for the Ukraine, and to reach US$235 billion
    by 2016 for Belarus.

    Psychological factors, and neglect of radiological protection in the
    curriculum of medical students, led to some 100,000 to 200,000 wanted
    pregnancies aborted soon after the accident in Western Europe, where
    physicians wrongly advised patients that Chernobyl radiation posed a health
    risk to unborn children.

    In 2000 the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic
    Radiation (UNSCEAR), the most authoritative body in these matters, and in
    2006 also the UN Chernobyl Forum, stated that, except for thyroid cancers,
    in the highly contaminated areas no increase in the incidence of solid
    cancers and leukemia was observed.

    As for the thyroid cancers, I believe that the increased discovery is due to
    a screening effect. In normal populations there is a very high incidence of
    “occult” thyroid cancers (with no clinical symptoms), which is up to 28% in
    Japan and 35% in Finland, and a hundred to a thousand times higher than the
    incidence of “Chernobyl” cancers. After the accident more than 90% of
    children in contaminated areas started to be tested for thyroid cancers
    every year. It is obvious that such vast screening resulted in finding the
    normally undetected occult cancers.

    What is really surprising, however, is that data collected by UNSCEAR and
    the Forum show 15% to 30% fewer cancer deaths among the Chernobyl emergency
    workers and about 5% lower solid cancer incidence among the people in the
    Bryansk district (the most contaminated in Russia) in comparison with the
    general population. In most irradiated group of these people (mean dose of
    40 mSv) the deficit of cancer incidence was 17%. Nor did the incidence of
    hereditary disorders increase. These epidemiological data should be used as
    a proper basis for realistic projection of the future health of millions of
    people officially labeled “victims of Chernobyl”, rather than an assumption
    (LNT) on linear no-threshold relationship between irradiation and medical
    effect. This assumption tells that even near zero radiation dose can lead no
    cancer death and hereditary disorders. LNT assumption was used by Chernobyl
    Forum to estimate 4000 to 9336 future cancer deaths among people who
    received low radiation doses, lower than lifetime natural doses in many
    regions of the world. Greenpeace had less hesitations and in its report of
    April 2006 calculated six million cancer deaths due to Chernobyl event. Dr.
    Lauriston Taylor, the late president of the U.S. National Council on
    Radiological Protection and Measurements deemed such practice to be “a
    deeply immoral use of our scientific heritage”.

    UNSCEAR’s sober conclusion is that the people living in “contaminated
    regions of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine “need not live in fear of serious
    health consequences”, and forecasts that “generally positive prospects for
    the future health of most individuals should prevail.” In centuries to come,
    the catastrophe will be remembered as a proof that nuclear power is a safe
    means of energy production.

    Zbigniew Jaworowski MD PhD DSc is a Professor Emeritus of the Central
    Laboratory for Radiological Protection, Warsaw and former Chairman of the
    United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation

  12. Jillian Talbot May 7, 2006 at 9:24 pm #

    Very sad for all Richard’s family and friends to hear of his untimely passing. My condolences to family and friends.

    Regards, Jillian, Kevin and Albert Talbot

  13. Jay Gutierrez June 2, 2006 at 11:50 am #

    I really think that we are missing the point. Look at the history of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Bikini Beach, and Chernobyl. If you do some, or alot of research on “radiation hormesis”, you will see it works. These were bad things that happened, but did we learn anything? Yes! What it boils down to is that those that were exposed to low level radiation are actually much better off. I have accidentially been practicing radiation hormesis for years. I mine a stone that was originally for jewelry, but now I sell just for healing purposes. I finally found out that the reason it has been helping people with everything from acid reflux to brainstem gliomas, was the 2mRem a day it is putting out. From the past, we already know the long term effects. Actually, this kind of hormesis is easy to get. I just wish I could be able to tell everyone how this kind of therapy is helping people. I have testimony, lab reports, and scientific data that proves it. Any questions? jaynighthawk@comcast.net.

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