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

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Judge Declares Washington DC Ban on Public Handguns Unconstitutional

Ruling overturns capital city's prohibition on carrying guns in pubic More

Pricey Hepatitis C Drug Draws Criticism

Activists are using the International AIDS Conference to criticize drug companies for charging high prices for life-saving therapies 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.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid