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

Multimedia US Nurse ‘Cured of Ebola,’ NIH Says

Nina Pham, Texas nurse who treated first Ebola patient in US, received no experimental drugs; WHO expects vaccine surge in 2015 More

Video Islamic State Militants Encroach on Baghdad

Iraqi capital not under ‘imminent threat,’ US military says, amid worries about foothold More

Video Hong Kong Protesters Focus on Holding Volatile Mong Kok

Activists say holding Mong Kok is key to their movement's success, despite confrontations with angry residents and police 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.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid