Mon, Apr 17, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Truth and fiction in the Chernobyl nuclear accident

By Kalman Mizsei and Loisa Vinton

The 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident of April 26, 1986 is prompting a new wave of alarmist claims about its impact on human health and the environment. As has become a ritual on such commemorative occasions, the death toll is tallied in the hundreds of thousands, and fresh reports are made of elevated rates of cancer, birth defects and overall mortality.

This picture is both badly distorted. All reputable scientific studies conducted so far have concluded that the impact of radiation has been less damaging than was feared. A few dozen emergency workers who battled the fire at the reactor succumbed to acute radiation sickness. Studies are still under way into elevated rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease among the "liquidators" who worked at the reactor site in the months following the accident. And some 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer, attributed to radioactive iodine absorbed through consumption of milk in the weeks immediately following the accident.

There has been real suffering, particularly among the 330,000 people who were relocated after the accident. About that there is no doubt. But, for the 5 million people living in affected regions who are designated as Chernobyl "victims," radiation has had no discernable impact on physical health.

This is because these people were exposed to low radiation doses that in most cases were comparable to natural background levels. Two decades of natural decay and remediation measures mean that most territories originally deemed "contaminated" no longer merit that label. Aside from thyroid cancer, which has been successfully treated in 98.5 percent of cases, scientists have not been able to document any connection between radiation and any physical condition.

Where a clear impact has been found is mental health. Fear of radiation, it seems, poses a far more potent health threat than does radiation itself. Many residents of affected areas firmly believe themselves to be condemned by radiation to ill health and early death.

In part, this is because the initial Soviet response was secretive: Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader at the time, addressed the issue on television only weeks later, on May 14, 1986. Misonceptions have taken root, and these have outlasted subsequent efforts to provide reliable information. Combined with sweeping government benefit policies, such myths created a "culture of dependency" among affected communities.

The UN Chernobyl Forum, a consortium of eight UN agencies and representatives of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, reinforced these findings. Chernobyl Forum was created to address the prevailing confusion concerning the impact of the accident, both among the public and government officials, by declaring a clear verdict on issues where a scientific consensus could be found. The forum succeeded in this effort, and a fresh and reassuring message on the impact of radiation was made public in September [an easily digestible summary is available at www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf.]

The forum's findings should have brought relief, for they show that the specter haunting the region is not invincible radiation, but conquerable poverty. What the region needs are policies aimed at generating new livelihoods rather than reinforcing dependency; public-health campaigns that address the lifestyle issues that undermine health across the former Soviet Union; and community development initiatives.

This story has been viewed 4851 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top