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

    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

    US Leaders Who Served in Vietnam War Look Back and Ahead

    In New York Times opinion piece, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain and former Senator Bob Kerrey say as US strengthens relations with Vietnam, it is important to remember lessons learned from war

    Who Are US Allies in Fight Against Islamic State?

    There is little but opportunism keeping coalition together analysts warn — SDFs Arab militias are not united even among themselves, frequently squabble and don’t share Kurds' vision for post-Assad Syria

    Learning Foreign Language Helps US Soldiers Bridge Culture Gap

    Effective interaction with local populations part of everyday curriculum at Monterey, California, Defense Language Institute

    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.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora