View Full Version : Chernobyl's After-Effects Not as Dire as Predicted

September 5th, 2005, 06:00 PM

September 5, 2005
Chernobyl's After-Effects Not as Dire as Predicted, Report Says
International Herald Tribune

Nearly 20 years after the huge nuclear accident in Chernobyl, a new scientific report has found that its after-effects on health and the environment have proved not so dire as scientists had been previously predicted.

In light of these findings, the report concludes, compensation programs for "Chernobyl victims" should be scaled back to end the pervasive culture of "dependency" in the affected areas of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorus, which it calls "a major barrier to the region's recovery."

According to "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," a total of 4,000 deaths will probably ultimately be attributable to the accident - a large number, but fewer than the tens of thousands of deaths that were predicted at the time.

Only 50 excess deaths - all among reactor staff and clean up personnel - can be directly attributed to acute radiation exposure after Chernobyl's reactor 4 exploded in April 1986, according to a panel of more than 100 experts convened by United Nations agencies. The remainder will be due to a smattering of excess cancers in people exposed to radiation near Chernobyl in the wake of the accident.

But for the millions more ordinary people in Russia, Byelorus and Ukraine who were subjected to low levels of radioactive particles spread by the wind, health effects have proved generally minimal.

Defying previous forecasts, there has been no observed rise in the incidence of leukemia, a blood cancer widely associated with radiation exposure - except perhaps a small rise among workers who were in the contaminated plant. Nor has there been any detectable decrease in fertility or increase in birth defects, concluded the expert panel, called the Chernobyl Forum.

Indeed, the report concludes that "the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident" is "the mental health impact": Residents of the region, who view themselves as victims of a tragedy they poorly understand, are still beset by anxiety that has prevented them from restarting their lives.

"People have developed a paralyzing fatalism because they think they are at much higher risk than they are, so that leads to things like drug and alcohol use, and unprotected sex and unemployment," said Dr. Fred A. Mettler, health effect team leader of the Chernobyl Forum.

The only concrete health effect has been a somewhat unexpected outbreak of thyroid cancer in people who were young at the time of the accident and drank contaminated milk. Although 2,000 have come down with the disease, only 9 have died, because the disease is generally treatable.

"Early on there were all sorts of claims being made because people didn't have much accurate information," Dr. Mettler said. "Now, at last, we have the eight U.N. agencies and the three government involved coming to a consensus about the effects and what needs to be done."

A powerful explosion rocked the Number 4 reactor in Chernobyl power plant in the former Soviet Union on April, 1986, sending chunks of the reactor core into the surrounding fields and clouds of radioactive particles into the air. The fire burned for 10 days and released radioactive particles that were carried by the wind to large rural swaths of what is now Russia, the Ukraine and Byelorus. They settled in human bodies and homes, contaminated fields, forests, and livestock.

Despite the relatively low level of actual risk, seven million people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus still receive some kind of Chernobyl benefits, from monthly stipends to university entrance preference to free therapeutic yearly holidays. In Ukraine, the number of people designated as permanently disabled by the Chernobyl accident (and their children) increased from 200 in 1991 to 64,500 in 1997 and 91,219 in 2001 - even though the effects of radiation decline over time, the report noted. Both Ukraine and Byelorus still spend about 5 percent of their annual budget on Chernobyl victims.

Although 5 million people live in areas still classified as contaminated by Chernobyl, the vast majority are exposed to very low doses of radiation, with levels no higher than citizens in large areas of China, Brazil or Great Britain, where naturally occurring background radiation in soil is relatively high.

"People were evacuated from areas that now have dose levels lower than where I live in New Mexico," said Dr. Mettler, a world expert on the health effects of nuclear radiation at the University of New Mexico.

Although there is still a strong stigma against growing or eating agricultural products from anywhere in the area, concentrations of radioactivity "in agricultural food products produced in areas affected by the Chernobyl fallout are generally below national and international action levels," the report found.

The report acknowledged that there was a small core of people, probably numbering 100,000 to 200,000, who continued to be severely affected by the disaster. These include poor rural dwellers who live in the few severely contaminated areas, people with thyroid cancer and citizens who had been resettled in the wake of the disaster but who had never found a home or employment in their new communities.

"A small but important minority, those caught in the downward spiral, need substantial material assistance to rebuild their lives," the report said. This might include helping farmers decontaminate fields in high-risk areas and providing clean feed for their animals. as well as free vitamin supplements to minimize the ill effects of low level radiation.

But for the millions of other "victims," the first priority should be to encourage self-reliance - to "normalize their lives as quickly and as far as is possible," the report said - providing them good and realistic information about the minimal risks they face.

"The extensive system of Chernobyl-related benefits has created expectations of long-term direct financial support and entitlement to privileges, and has undermined the capacity of the individuals and communities concerned to tackle their own economic and social problems," the report concluded.

Noting that the collapse of the Soviet Union - and the end of Soviet era benefit programs - exacerbated the poverty of the region, the researchers concluded that people of the region should now be provided with incentives to develop small businesses, for example.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Soviet Union declared a 30-kilometer "exclusion zone" around the reactor, which still exists, and resettled hundreds of thousands of people. Agriculture was forbidden in contaminated areas, as was the collection of forrest products like berries and mushrooms. A host of compensation schemes were established.

But the report found that for most people, in many parts of the region affected by Chernobyl, such support was not scientifically justified any more.

Perhaps the most unexpected medical finding in the aftermath of Chernobyl was the outbreak of thyroid cancer, which was caused by children ingesting milk from cows that had grass contaminated with radioactive iodine dispersed during by the accident. Radioactive iodone, which is short lived, concentrates in the thyroid gland.

Other cancers and adverse health effects, when they occur, may be particularly difficult to link to the Chernobyl accident, because life expectancy dropped dramatically in the region after the fall of the Soviet Union. "The effect may be difficult to detect against the background noise," Dr. Mettler said.

September 5th, 2005, 07:10 PM

Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident
Published: Monday, 5-Sep-2005

A total of up to four thousand people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.

As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being 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," just released by the Chernobyl Forum. 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 is made up of 8 UN specialized agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), 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," explains 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 continued: "This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer. By and large, however, we have 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 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. Members of the Forum, including representatives of the three governments, will meet September 6 and 7 in Vienna at an unprecedented gathering of the world's experts on Chernobyl, radiation effects and protection, to consider these findings and recommendations.

Major Study Findings

Dozens of important findings are included in the massive report:

--Approximately 1,000 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 200,0001 emergency and recovery operation workers exposed during the period from 1986-1987, an estimated 2,200 radiation-caused deaths can be expected during their lifetime. --An estimated five million people currently live in areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine that are contaminated with radionuclides due to the accident; about 100,000 of them live in areas classified in the past by government authorities as areas of "strict control". The existing "zoning" definitions need to be revisited and relaxed in light of the new findings. -- About 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the accident's contamination and at least nine children died of thyroid cancer; however the survival rate among such cancer victims, judging from experience in Belarus, has been almost 99%. --Most emergency workers and people living in contaminated areas received relatively low whole body radiation doses, comparable to natural background levels. As a consequence, no evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility among the affected population has been found, nor has there been any evidence of increases in congenital malformations that can be attributed to radiation exposure. --Poverty, "lifestyle" diseases now rampant in the former Soviet Union and mental health problems pose a far greater threat to local communities than does radiation exposure. --Relocation proved a "deeply traumatic experience" for some 350,000 people moved out of the affected areas. Although 116,000 were moved from the most heavily impacted area immediately after the accident, later relocations did little to reduce radiation exposure. --Persistent myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation have resulted in "paralyzing fatalism" among residents of affected areas. --Ambitious rehabilitation and social benefit programs started by the former Soviet Union, and continued by Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, need reformulation due to changes in radiation conditions, poor targeting and funding shortages. --Structural elements of the sarcophagus built to contain the damaged reactor have degraded, posing a risk of collapse and the release of radioactive dust; -- A comprehensive plan to dispose of tons of high-level radioactive waste at and around the Chernobyl NPP site, in accordance with current safety standards, has yet to be defined.

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." But, says Dr Michael Repacholi, Manager of WHO's Radiation Program, "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."

The international experts have estimated that radiation could cause up to about 4,000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, i.e., emergency workers from 1986-1987, evacuees and residents of the most contaminated areas. This number contains both the known radiation-induced cancer and leukaemia deaths and a statistical prediction, based on estimates of the radiation doses received by these populations. As about quarter of people die from spontaneous cancer not caused by Chernobyl radiation, the radiation-induced increase of only about 3% will be difficult to observe. However, in the most exposed cohorts of emergency and recovery operation workers some increase of particular cancer forms (e.g., leukemia) in particular time periods has already been observed. The predictions use six decades of scientific experience with the effects of such doses, explained Repacholi.

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."

The report's estimate for the eventual number of deaths is far lower than earlier, wellpublicized speculations that radiation exposure would claim tens of thousands of lives. 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 reports are also reassuring, for 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.


Recommendations call for focusing assistance efforts on highly contaminated areas and redesigning government programs to help those genuinely in need. Suggested changes would shift programs away from those that foster "dependency" and a "victim" mentality, and replacing them with initiatives that encourage opportunity, support local development, and give people confidence in their futures.

In the health area, the Forum report calls for continued close monitoring of workers who recovered from Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) and other highly exposed emergency personnel. The Report also calls for focused screening of children exposed to radioiodine for thyroid cancer and highly exposed clean-up workers for non-thyroid cancers. However, existing screening programs should be evaluated for cost-effectiveness, since the incidence of spontaneous thyroid cancers is increasing significantly as the target population ages. Moreover, high quality cancer registries need continuing government support.

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 analyse 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 certain 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, according to the Report.

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 explains. "We need to focus our efforts and resources on real problems."

One key recommendation addresses the fact that large parts of the population, especially in rural areas, still lack accurate information and emphasizes the need to find better ways both to inform the public and to overcome the lack of credibility that hampered previous efforts. Even though accurate information has been available for years, either it has not reached those who need it or people do not trust and accept the information and do not act upon it, according to the Report.

This recommendation calls for targeting information to specific audiences, including community leaders and health care workers, along with a broader strategy that promotes healthy lifestyles as well as information about how to reduce internal and external radiation exposures and address the main causes of disease and mortality.

In the socioeconomic sphere, the Report recommends a new development approach that helps individuals to "take control of their own lives and communities to take control of their own futures." The Governments, the Report states, must streamline and refocus Chernobyl programs through more targeted benefits, elimination of unnecessary benefits to people in less contaminated areas, improving primary health care, support for safe food production techniques, and encouragement for investment and private sector development, including small and medium-size enterprises.

Notes Vinton, "The most important need is for accurate information on healthy lifestyles, together with better regulations to promote small, rural businesses. Poverty is the real danger. We need to take steps to empower people."

Answers to Longstanding Questions

How much radiation were people exposed to as a result of the accident?

With the exception of on-site reactor staff and emergency workers exposed on April 26, most recovery operation workers and those living in contaminated territories received relatively low whole body radiation doses, comparable to background radiation levels and lower than the average doses received by residents in some parts of the world having high natural background radiation levels.

For the majority of the five million people living in the contaminated areas, exposures are within the recommended dose limit for the general public, though about 100,000 residents still receive more. Remediation of those areas and application of some agricultural countermeasures continues. Further reduction of exposure levels will be slow, but most exposure from the accident has already occurred.

How many people died and how many more are likely to die in the future?

The total number of deaths already attributable to Chernobyl or expected in the future over the lifetime of emergency workers and local residents in the most contaminated areas is estimated to be about 4,000. This includes some 50 emergency workers who died of acute radiation syndrome and nine children who died of thyroid cancer, and an estimated total of 3,940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia among the 200,000 emergency workers from 1986-1987, 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas (total about 600,000). These three major cohorts were subjected to higher doses of radiation amongst all the people exposed to Chernobyl radiation.

The estimated 4000 casualties may occur during the lifetime of about 600,000 people under consideration. As about quarter of them will eventually die from spontaneous cancer not caused by Chernobyl radiation, the radiation-induced increase of about 3% will be difficult to observe. However, in the most highly exposed cohorts of emergency and recovery operation workers, some increase in particular cancers (e.g., leukemia) has already been observed.

Confusion about the impact has arisen owing to the fact that thousands of people in the affected areas have died of natural causes. Also, widespread expectations of ill health and a tendency to attribute all health problems to radiation exposure have led local residents to assume that Chernobyl related fatalities were much higher than they actually were.

What diseases have already occurred or might occur in the future?

Residents who ate food contaminated with radioactive iodine in the days immediately after the accident received relatively high doses to the thyroid gland. This was especially true of children who drank milk from cows who had eaten contaminated grass. Since iodine concentrates in the thyroid gland, this was a major cause of the high incidence of thyroid cancer in children.

Several recent studies suggest a slight increase in the incidence of leukemia among emergency workers, but not in children or adult residents of contaminated areas. A slight increase in solid cancers and possibly circulatory system diseases was noted, but needs to be evaluated further because of the possible indirect influence of such factors as smoking, alcohol, stress and unhealthy lifestyle.

Have there been or will there be any inherited or reproductive effects?

Because of the relatively low doses to residents of contaminated territories, no evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility has been seen among males or females. Also, because the doses were so low, there was no evidence of any effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes, delivery complications or overall health of children. A modest but steady increase in reported congenital malformations in both contaminated and uncontaminated areas of Belarus appears related to better reporting, not radiation.

Did the trauma of rapid relocation cause persistent psychological or mental health problems?

Stress symptoms, depression, anxiety and medically unexplained physical symptoms have been reported, including self-perceived poor health. The designation of the affected population as "victims" rather than "survivors" has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future. This, in turn, has led either to over cautious behavior and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct, such as consumption of mushrooms, berries and game from areas still designated as highly contaminated, overuse of alcohol and tobacco, and unprotected promiscuous sexual activity.

What was the environmental impact?

Ecosystems affected by Chernobyl have been studied and monitored extensively for the past two decades. Major releases of radionuclides continued for ten days and contaminated more than 200,000 square kilometers of Europe. The extent of deposition varied depending on whether it was raining when contaminated air masses passed.

Most of the strontium and plutonium isotopes were deposited within 100 kilometers of the damaged reactor. Radioactive iodine, of great concern after the accident, has a short half-life, and has now decayed away. Strontium and caesium, with a longer half life of 30 years, persist and will remain a concern for decades to come. Although plutonium isotopes and americium 241 will persist perhaps for thousands of years, their contribution to human exposure is low.

What is the scope of urban contamination?

Open surfaces, such as roads, lawns and roofs, were most heavily contaminated. Residents of Pripyat, the city nearest to Chernobyl, were quickly evacuated, reducing their potential exposure to radioactive materials. Wind, rain and human activity has reduced surface contamination, but led to secondary contamination of sewage and sludge systems. Radiation in air above settled areas returned to background levels, though levels remain higher where soils have remained undisturbed.

How contaminated are agricultural areas?

Weathering, physical decay, migration of radionuclides down the soil and reductions in bioavailability have led to a significant reduction in the transfer of radionuclides to plants and animals. Radioactive iodine, rapidly absorbed from grasses and animal feed into milk, was an early concern and elevated levels were seen in some parts of the former Soviet Union and Southern Europe, but, given the nuclide's short half life, this concern abated quickly. Currently and for the long term, radiocaesium, present in milk, meat and some plant foods, remains the most significant concern for internal human exposure, but, with the exception of a few areas, concentrations fall within safe levels.

What is the extent of forest contamination?

Following the accident, animals and vegetation in forest and mountain areas had high absorption of radiocaesium, with persistent high levels in mushrooms, berries and game. Because exposure from agricultural products has declined, the relative importance of exposure from forest products has increased and will only decline as radioactive materials migrate downward into the soil and slowly decay. The high transfer of radiocaesium from lichen to reindeer meat to humans was seen in the Artic and sub-Arctic areas, with high contamination of reindeer meat in Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. The concerned governments imposed some restrictions on hunting, including scheduling hunting season when animals have lower meat contamination.

How contaminated are the aquatic systems?

Contamination of surface waters throughout much of Europe declined quickly through dilution, physical decay, and absorption of radionuclides in bed sediments and catchment soils. Because of bioaccumulation in the aquatic food chain, though, elevated concentrations of radiocaesium were found in fish from lakes as far away as Germany and Scandinavia. Comparable levels of radiostrontium, which concentrates in fish bone, not in muscle, were not significant for humans. Levels in fish and waters are currently low, except in areas with "closed" lakes with no outflowing streams. In those lakes, levels of radiocaesium in fish will remain high for decades and, therefore, restrictions on fishing there should be maintained.

What environmental countermeasures and remediation have been taken?

The most effective early agricultural countermeasure was removing contaminated pasture grasses from animal diets and monitoring milk for radiation levels. Treatment of land for fodder crops, clean feeding and use of Cs-binders (that prevented the transfer of radiocaesium from fodder to milk) led to large reductions in contamination and permitted agriculture to continue, though some increase in radionuclide content of plant and animal products has been measured since the mid-1990s when economic problems forced a cutback in treatments. Some agricultural lands in the three countries have been taken out of use until remediation is undertaken.

A number of measures applied to forests in affected countries and in Scandinavia have reduced human exposure, including restrictions on access to forest areas, on harvesting of food products such as game, berries and mushrooms, and on the public collection of firewood, along with changes in hunting to avoid consumption of game meat where seasonal levels of radiocaesium may be high. Low income levels in some areas cause local residents to disregard these rules.

What were radiation-induced effects on plants and animals?

Increased mortality of coniferous plants, soil invertebrates and mammals and reproductive losses in plants and animals were seen in high exposure areas up to a distance of 20-30 kilometers. Outside that zone, no acute radiation-induced effects have been reported. With reductions of exposure levels, biological populations have been recovering, though the genetic effects of radiation were seen in both somatic and germ cells of plants and animals. Prohibiting agricultural and industrial activities in the exclusion zone permitted many plant and animal populations to expand and created, paradoxically, "a unique sanctuary for biodiversity."

Does dismantlement of the Shelter and management of radioactive waste pose further environmental problems?

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. Also, some structural parts of the shelter have corroded in the past two decades. The main potential hazard posed by the shelter is the possible collapse of its top structures and the release of radioactive dust.

Strengthening 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 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. Much of this waste was placed in temporary storage in trenches and landfills that do not meet current waste safety requirements.

What was the economic cost?

Because of policies in place at the time of the explosion and the inflation and economic disruptions that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, precise costs have been impossible to calculate. A variety of estimates from the 1990s placed the costs over two decades at hundreds of billions of dollars. These costs included direct damage, expenditures related to recovery and mitigation, resettlement of people, social protection and health care for the affected population, research on environment, health and the production of clean food, radiation monitoring, as well as indirect losses due to removing agricultural lands and forests from use and the closing of agriculture and industrial facilities, and such additional costs as cancellation of the nuclear power program in Belarus and the additional costs of energy from the loss of power from Chernobyl. The costs have created a huge drain on the budgets of the three countries involved.

What were the main consequences for the local economy?

Agriculture was hardest hit, with 784,320 hectares taken from production. Timber production was halted in 694,200 hectares of forest. Remediation made "clean food" production possible in many areas but led to higher costs in the form of fertilizers, additives and special cultivation processes. Even where farming is safe, the stigma associated with Chernobyl caused marketing problems and led to falling revenues, declining production and the closure of some facilities. Combined with disruptions due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, recession, and new market mechanisms, the region's economy suffered, resulting in lower living standards, unemployment and increased poverty. All agricultural areas, whether affected by radiation or not, proved vulnerable.

Poverty is especially acute in affected areas. Wages for agricultural workers tend to be low and employment outside of agriculture is limited. Many skilled and educated workers, especially younger workers, left the region. Also, the business environment discourages entrepreneurial ventures and private investment is low.

What impact did Chernobyl and the aftermath have on local communities?

More than 350,000 people have been relocated away from the most severely contaminated areas, 116,000 of them immediately after the accident. Even when people were compensated for losses, given free houses and a choice of resettlement location, the experience was traumatic and left many with no employment and a belief that they have no place in society. Surveys show that those who remained or returned to their homes coped better with the aftermath than those who were resettled. Tensions between new and old residents of resettlement villages also contributed to the ostracism felt by the newcomers. The demographic structure of the affected areas became skewed since many skilled, educated and entrepreneurial workers, often younger, left the areas leaving behind an older population with few of the skills needed for economic recovery.

The older population has meant that deaths exceed births, which reinforces the perception that these areas are dangerous places to live. Even when pay is high, schools, hospitals and other essential public services are short of qualified specialists.

What has been the impact on individuals?

According to the Forum's report on health, "the mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date." People in the affected areas report negative assessments of their health and well-being, coupled with an exaggerated sense of the danger to their health from radiation exposure and a belief in a shorter life expectancy. Anxiety over the health effects of radiation shows no signs of diminishing and may even be spreading. Life expectancy has been declining across the former Soviet Union, due to cardiovascular disease, injuries and poisoning, and not radiation-related illness.

How have governments responded?

The resettlement and rehabilitation programs launched in Soviet conditions proved unsustainable after 1991 and funding for projects declined, leaving many projects unfinished and abandoned and many of the promised benefits under funded. Also, benefits were offered to broad categories of "Chernobyl victims" that expanded to seven million now receiving or eligible for pensions, special allowances and health benefits, including free holidays and guaranteed allowances. Chernobyl benefits deprive other areas of public spending of resources, but scaling down benefits or targeting only highrisk groups is unpopular and presents political problems.

Given significant reduction of radiation levels during past twenty years, governments need to revisit the classification of contaminated zones. Many areas previously considered to be at risk are in fact safe for habitation and cultivation. Current delineations are far more restrictive than demonstrated radiation levels can justify.

The report identifies the need to sharpen priorities and streamline the programs to target the most needy, noting that reallocating resources is likely to face "strong resistance from vested interests". One suggestion calls for a "buy out" of the entitlement to benefits in return for lump sum start-up financing for small businesses.

Full Summary [http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Focus/Chernobyl/pdfs/05-28601_Chernobyl.pdf]


July 11th, 2006, 02:53 PM
The Times July 10, 2006

Danger from radiation is exaggerated, say scientists
By Mark Henderson, Science Editor

THE dangers of radiation to human health have been exaggerated significantly, according to scientists who have examined the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago.

Research into the aftermath of the meltdown at the Soviet nuclear reactor has suggested that low levels of radioactivity are not as harmful as believed — and may even be beneficial.

Evidence from people and animals exposed to fallout has convinced experts that the risks of radiation follow a much more complex pattern than predicted.

Generally, the hazards are thought to rise directly with increasing doses of radiation. But the new theory suggests that there is a threshold, below which any amount of exposure is probably safe. The theory will be outlined on Thursday during a BBC Two Horizon documentary. It will intensify controversy over the safety of nuclear power in the week in which the Government’s energy review is expected to back a new generation of atomic plants.

Scientists on the programme said that there was mounting evidence that the dangerous reputation of radiation and nuclear energy was unjustified.

Mike Repacholi, of the World Health Organisation radiation programme, said: “People hear radiation, they think of the atomic bomb and they think of thousands of deaths. They think that the Chernobyl reactor accident was equivalent to the atomic bombing in Japan, which is absolutely untrue.”

The Chernobyl disaster was initially predicted to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. Two decades later the death toll stands at 56. The United Nations Chernobyl Forum estimates that no more than 4,000 people will die as a direct result of fallout, while radiation may be a contributory factor in another 5,000 deaths.

Dr Repacholi said that even these estimates could be too high. While 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been detected in the Chernobyl region, with 15 deaths, many can be attributed to better detection because of the screening conducted after the disaster.

The main negative health impacts of Chernobyl were not caused by the radiation, but a fear of it, he said. “We know that there were low doses of radiation received by a large number of people. We don’t want to minimise the effects but we also know that the fear and anxiety about radiation was a much greater factor and it’s this fear which has caused a huge number of health complaints that have overloaded the healthcare system.”

The low number of deaths and adverse health effects suggests that the low levels of radiation to which people around Chernobyl were exposed were not as dangerous as had been assumed.

Further evidence has been taken from wildlife in the most contaminated area around the reactor. Research by Professor Ron Chesser, of Texas Tech University, found that mammals exposed to 8 to 15 millisieverts of radiation a day — equivalent to 8,000 chest X-rays — showed none of the genetic damage that his team had expected. “The radioactivity, even though it was very high according to all of our measures, was not enough to result in any appreciable measure of DNA damage in animals that lived their entire life in this area,” Professor Chesser said. “This was something that that we really didn’t expect.” Other research into natural background radiation also suggests that low levels of exposure do not cause genetic damage or cancer.

Antoine Brooks, of Washington State University, said: “We have, through our fear of radiation, parlayed it into a major player, which it is not.”

Horizon: Nuclear Nightmares will be broadcast on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursday.


More than 135,000 people were evacuated from the area after the blast in April 1986; many died or suffered acute radiation sickness

The area around the reactor became known as the Zone of Alienation. Wind spread radioactive fallout throughout Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Western Europe. Some British farms still undergo radioactivity soil checks

Thirty-one died immediately. The toll has now reached fifty-six

Belarus, with a population of 10 million, was worst affected after the disaster

Copyright 2006 (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/section/0,,549,00.html) Times Newspapers Ltd.