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Fewer Deaths and Illnesses Than Originally Believed Attributed to Chernobyl

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 produced by Andre De Nesnera from Washington, VOA's Amy Katz looks at the findings of the U.N. study.

On April 26th, 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 United Nations Development Programme.

Fewer than 50 people have died as a direct result of radiation from the accident, but more deaths are expected according to Dr. Fred Mettler, a scientist working for the IAEA. "The report indicates, particularly with regard to fatal cancers, that in the most highly exposed group, the death toll is probably going to be in the range of about 4,000 deaths."

That number is much lower than previous estimates. Dr. Mettler presented more positive news about thyroid cancer. After the accident there were 4,000 cases of the disease, mostly among young children, but the survival rate was 99 percent.

The report also looked at the reproductive health of people exposed to the radiation. According to Dr. Mettler, the data suggests, "At this point, given the dose levels and the data, there is no evidence of increased deformities in the contaminated areas as compared to the clean areas."

The mental health of the victims was another key component in the report. Early reports of dire consequences for those living in the area impacted their lives greatly. Dr. Mettler adds, "The psychologists and psychiatrists on the groups described it as 'paralyzing fatalism.' That was one of the words they used. Another was a lack of confidence, lack of control over their futures, which is a fatalistic issue."

Anxiety and stress-related illnesses were fairly common, according to Dr. Mettler. 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 publics about Chernobyl in order to address the fears and myths still connected with the 1986 tragedy.