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.