Almost 20 years after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, a United Nations study says the effects of radiation on people and the environment are far less than previously expected. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the findings of the U.N. study.
On April 26, 1986, a major accident occurred at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl, located about 80 kilometers north of Ukraine's capital Kiev and close to the border with Belarus. The accident, considered the worst in the history of nuclear power, was due to a flawed reactor design and the ensuing explosion spread radioactive material over much of Europe. The three countries affected the most were Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Thirty-one people were killed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Initial reports predicted tens of thousands of cancer deaths over time as a result of the released radiation and suggested land in the surrounding area would be contaminated for decades.
However, almost 20 years after the Chernobyl tragedy, a new report says negative effects of released radiation from the nuclear accident on people and the environment are far less than earlier predictions.
The report was the result of a two-year study by hundreds of scientists, economists and health experts, including some from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. It was commissioned by a group known as "The Chernobyl Forum," bringing together eight specialized agencies of the United Nations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Agency - or UNDP.
Louisa Vinton is a senior UNDP executive (Senior Program Manager for Europe and the CIS).
"And the whole idea was to get a U.N.-wide consensus on what exactly the impact of the accident was. Because without a clear understanding of what the impact was, it is impossible to have good guidance and good guidelines for solutions to the problems that people face in the affected areas," Ms. Vinton says.
Ms. Vinton says scientists found that the number of people who died as a result of the initial release of nuclear radiation was low.
"To date, the figure that they pinpoint is 50 people, most of whom died of acute radiation syndrome in the days, weeks and months after the accident," Ms. Vinton says. "So these were people who were exposed to extremely high doses. They were what were called "liquidators": they were engaged in trying to liquidate the consequences of the accident at the reactor. And then overall, and this is based on highly sophisticated medical modeling and probability, the figure that they have come down to as the number of people who will die over time, of consequences from the accident, is four-thousand."
That number, says Dr. Mike Repacholi, radiation expert at the World Health Organization, is also lower than previous estimates.
"Earlier media reports suggested there would be tens or hundreds of thousands of people who would die as a result of radiation exposure, through cancer or other effects. When you compare, just in Russia, every year, that about 100-thousand people die on the roads, four-thousand -- or four percent -- from a major nuclear accident is, I guess, a reassuring thing that the accident wasn't worse, or didn't cause greater health effects," Dr. Repacholi says.
Dr. Repacholi also says there were fears of increased incidences of thyroid cancer, especially among children.
"Now the good thing is, or the good news is, that thyroid cancer is almost always curable. And in fact, about 99 percent of the people who got those thyroid cancers, in fact recovered. But there was about -- nine that we know of died of thyroid cancers. So the numbers are fairly low from what was initially anticipated, at least," Dr. Repacholi says.
The U.N. report also notes that the impact of other cancers, such as leukemia, is statistically insignificant in the populations affected by the Chernobyl radiation. Louisa Vinton from the UNDP puts to rest another, what she calls, Chernobyl myth.
"One of the real strong fears that people had at the time and continues to this day, are fears about the impact on reproductive health," Ms. Vinton says. "And that's an interesting find too: the report finds no scientifically credible evidence of any impact on deformities, birth defects, genetic effects on people."
Ms. Vinton also addresses other fears, some tied to the environmental impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe, especially on regions close to the nuclear power plant.
"The findings of the scientists were very paradoxical, because what you would expect from the mythology of Chernobyl would be kind of deformed and mutated plants and animals and if anything, an area struggling to regain any kind of natural balance," Ms. Vinton says. "And what the scientists found was yes, there was an impact, up to a year after the accident. But then nature recovered very, very quickly. And today, the area is an oasis of biodiversity and could, in fact, be used as something of a nature preserve, because plants and animals, flora and fauna are flourishing there simply because they have been isolated from any human impact."
The U.N. report says large parts of the populations in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine -- the three countries most affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe -- still don't have adequate and reliable information about the effects of the nuclear accident. The report says the governments must find better ways to inform their public about Chernobyl in order to address the fears and myths connected with the 1986 tragedy.