Chornobyl Ten Years Later - The Facts

Dr. David R. Marples
University of Alberta
March 21st 1996

Chornobyl Ten Years Later - The Facts

The disaster at Chornobyl on 26 April 1986 contaminated an area of about 100,000 square miles. This area encompassed about 20% of the territory of Belarus; about 8% of Ukraine; and about 0.5-1.0% of the Russian Federation. Altogether the area is approximately the size of the state of Kentucky or of Scotland and Northern Ireland combined. The most serious radioactive elements to be disseminated by the accident were Iodine-131, Cesium-137, and Strontium-90.

Ten years after the event, Chornobyl remains shrouded in controversy as to its immediate and long-term effects. The initial explosion and graphite fire killed 31 operators, firemen and first-aid workers and saw several thousand hospitalized. Over the summer of 1986 and in the period 1986-90 it also caused high casualties among cleanup workers. According to recent statistics from the Ukrainian government, over 5,700 "liquidators" have died, the majority young men in their 20s. A figure of 125,000 deaths issued by the Ukrainian ministry of health appears to include all subsequent deaths, natural or otherwise, of those living in the contaminated zone of Ukraine.

According to specialists from the WHO, the only discernible health impact of the high levels of radiation in the affected territories has been the dramatic rise in thyroid gland cancer among children. The comment appears unwarranted in light of regional research. In Belarus, for example, a study of 1994 noted that congenital defects in the areas with a cesium content of the soil of 1-5 curies per square kilometer have doubled since 1986, while in areas with over 15 curies, the rise has been more than 8 times.

Among liquidators and especially among evacuees, studies have demonstrated a discernible and alarming rise in morbidity since Chernobyl when compared to the general level among the population. This applies particularly to circulatory and digestive diseases, and to respiratory problems. Less certain is the concept referred to as "Chernobyl AIDS," the rise of which may reflect more attention to medical problems, better access to health care, or psychological fears and tension among the population living in contaminated zones. Rises in children's diabetes and anemia are evident, and again appear much higher in irradiated zones. The connection between these problems and the rise in radiation content of the soil have yet to be determined.

To date, the rates of leukemia and lymphoma--though they have rise since the accident--remain within the European average, though in the upper 75th percentile. One difficulty here is the unreliability or sheer lack of reporting in the 1970s. The induction period for leukemia is 4-15 years thus it appears premature to state, as have some authorities, that Chernobyl will not result in higher rates of leukemia.

As for thyroid cancer, its development has been sudden and rapid. Today about 1,000 children in Belarus and Ukraine have contracted the disease and it has yet to reach its peak. One WHO specialist has estimated that the illness may affect one child in ten living in the irradiated zones in the summer of 1986, hence ultimate totals could reach as high as 10,000. Though the mortality rate from this form of cancer among children is only about 10%, this still indicates a further 1,000 deaths in the future. Moreover, this form of cancer is highly aggressive and mestastasizes rapidly if not operated upon. The correlation between thyroid gland cancer and radioactive fallout appears clear and is not negated by any medical authority today.

Turning to the question of the Chernobyl reactor itself, it continues to pose enormous problems for newly independent Ukraine and for the nuclear industry in general. In the spring of 1984, eight years after Chernobyl, the IAEA belatedly declared the reactor unsafe. G-7 pressure has forced Ukraine to agree to the closure of the station by the year 2000, but Ukraine's price tag--some $4.4 million to shut down Chernobyl and to construct a new thermal power station in the vicinity--has been offset by only about 50% from G-7 subsidies and loans. Both the director of the Chernobyl plant, Serhii Parashyn, and former director Mikhail Umanets, have vocalized their view that the station's lifespan is only 50% complete and that Chernobyl today is safer than other Soviet-made RBMK (graphite-moderated) reactors at Ignalina (Lithuania, an RBMK-1500); and the Russian stations of Sosnovyi Bor (near St. Petersburg), Kursk, and Smolensk.

Both Ukraine and Belarus face significant energy crises and have been reliant on expensive imports of oil and gas from Russia and Turkmenistan. Both have turned back to the nuclear option. Yet the industry remains short of skilled personnel; adequate and well-paid safety regulators; and reliable reactor units. Several potentially serious mishaps have occurred in Ukraine, including two recent accidents that involved leakages of radiation at Zaporizhzhya-4 (April 1995) and Chornobyl-1 (November 1995, now acknowledged to have been a Class 3 accident on the international scale rather than Class 1 initially reported).

In addition to such a serious dilemma, the funding of a new sarcophagus over the destroyed reactor has not been determined. The current structure, which cover some 20 tons of radioactive fuel and dust, is cracking and is not anticipated to last more than a further 10-15 years. Though plans have been formulated to re-cover the original concrete shell, the financial backing for such a structure is problematic. Moreover, the present plan will likely entail the permanent closure of Chornobyl-3 and as such is regarded with skepticism by those of Ukraine's energy sphere who wish to continue reliance upon nuclear power.

It is fair to say that the dangers presented by former Soviet nuclear power stations today exceed those of one decade ago. In the meantime some 3.5 million people live in contaminated zones. Even evacuees are known to be dissatisfied with their new homes. From a necessary panacea, evacuation of those living in zones with high soil contamination today has become an unpopular and slow-moving process.

Finally the lack of consensus on the effects of the Chornobyl disaster helps no one. It does not help the economically floundering governments of Ukraine and Belarus; it places a serious impediment on the work of charitable and humanitarian organizations; and the one-sided statements to the effect that morbidity and diseases may have causes other than Chornobyl; or that they are caused by "radiophobia"; detract from the prime need, which is to provide aid for a population facing an acute health crisis with inadequate resources.

Ultimately, it will be seen that Chornobyl has compounded a health crisis of extraordinary dimensions. Thyroid gland cancer is proof of the relationship between the 1986 disaster and Belarus and Ukraine's dilemmas today.

David R. Marples,
University of Alberta, Canada,

Copyright © 1996 Dr. David Marples

since March 1st 1997