News / Health

Chernobyl Disaster Leads to Advances in Science, Medicine

Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant stands encased in lead and concrete following the April 1986 accident, which released a cloud of radiation that circled the world in Pripyat, 1988 (file photo)
Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant stands encased in lead and concrete following the April 1986 accident, which released a cloud of radiation that circled the world in Pripyat, 1988 (file photo)

Multimedia

Tatiana Vorozhko

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant did much more than change the lives of hundred thousands of affected people.  It also contributed greatly to Western science.  Physicists  and medical professionals learned a great deal from the Chernobyl disaster.

Many people abroad learned about the Chernobyl nuclear plant's explosion well before the population of the Soviet Union.  However, Western scientists had little access to the Chernobyl site and medical data for a long time.

In 1991, Alexander Sich, an American of Ukrainian descent, was the first - and for the long time the only - Western scientist who worked in the Chernobyl zone, together with Ukrainian and Russian researchers.

"The scientists were isolated because it was a zone and also people by that time have forgotten about the accident," noted Sich.  "The people didn't have the right equipment."

As Sich recalls, his biggest shock came when he realized that the helicopters that were pouring the mixture of sand, boron and other elements on the burning reactor were missing their target - the exposed and super-hot, nuclear core.  As a result, the reactor continued to burn for ten days, and the core went into a complete meltdown

"In fact because the core was never covered, the melted fuel actually 'froze' [solidified] itself after 9 days," added Sich.

The scientist says that while the complete core meltdown at Chernobyl was a major disaster, it fell far short of the catastrophe many nuclear power critics had feared, the so-called "China Syndrome."  In that scenario, the exposed core of a nuclear reactor becomes so hot that the molten material literally burns its way down through the earth.  Chernobyl, at least, proved that to be a myth.

However, as soon as the reasons for the explosion became clear, Western nuclear experts lost interest in Chernobyl.

"Once the West understood what caused the accident and this type of the reactors don't operate on the West, that kind of thing can never happen in the West," Sich added.  "They were happy with that and they moved on."

But in the areas of medicine, pharmacology and emergency preparedness, the lessons from Chernobyl are still being learned.  Alla Shapiro lived in Kyiv in 1986, and worked at the Kyiv Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion.  She learned about the nuclear plant accident from her father.  

"He called me to tell that he was listening to the Voice of America in the middle of the night, which was his usual thing to do to get the information, and the broadcast was that the nuclear plant in Pripyat - that there was a nuclear explosion," Shapiro recalled.   

Later, Shapiro and other doctors were sent to the affected area, where she took blood samples from the population.

"The striking thing was how misinformed the population was at the village that was so close to the reactor," Shapiro added.  "People didn't take any precautions. Nobody gave potassium iodide to children or adults in that area. And people were encouraged to use their products, collect mushrooms in the woods, and to burn leaves in the fall. So that the smoke, the mixture of radioactive isotopes, was in the air and people were breathing it."

Now, 25 years after the catastrophe, Shapiro works as a medical officer in the Office of Counter-Terrorism and Emergency Coordination, part of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.  Her job is to make America ready for similar accidents, which involve radiation, or for the biological, chemical or nuclear terrorist attacks.

"The main [thing] is to have [a] high level of preparedness," Shapiro explained.  "And the preparedness would include training the physicians and medical personal and informing the population in timely manner.  With the first signs of radiation exposure, people have to go into shelters and then [comes] evacuation.   And in case of radioactive iodine, it is mandatory that people have to receive potassium iodide."

Back in the Soviet Union, Shapiro recalls information was concealed not only from the population, but from medical professionals as well.   

"[A] Librarian told me that they were forced to take all the literature with the word 'radiation' and put it in [an] archive," Shapiro said.

The Chernobyl disaster provided the field of medicine with some other valuable lessons as well.  

"There are two big areas where eyes opened for the physicians on both sides of the World," Shapiro noted.  "That radiation burns really attributed to prognosis and outcome of the patients with acute radiation poisoning, that radiation burns really kill patients, if they are extensive -  even for the patients who underwent bone marrow transplant.  Bone marrow transplant can't save [all] patients.  So, selection of the patients for bone marrow transplant is really crucial."   

In the United States, the drugs for preventive treatment and alleviation of the effects of radiation poisoning are being developed.  Shapiro and her colleagues at FDA collaborate with pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions on that task.

Any technological disaster that takes human lives is a tragedy. But it can also teach lessons for the future if the information is shared and made accessible to experts all over the World.

You May Like

IS Militants Release 49 Turkish Hostages

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reports that no ransom was paid and no conditions accepted for the hostages' release; few details of the release are known More

Photogallery IS Attacks Send Thousands of Syrian Kurds Fleeing to Turkey

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey to defend a Kurdish area from attack by the Islamic militants More

Video Sierra Leone's Ebola Lockdown Continues

Thousands of health workers are going door to door in the West African country of 6 million, informing people of how to avoid Ebola, handing out soap More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’i
X
Jeff Seldin
September 20, 2014 10:28 PM
Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid