U.N. Revises Chernobyl Assessment

Published November 1, 2005

As of mid-2005, fewer than 50 deaths have been directly attributed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, with almost all the deaths being among highly exposed rescue workers, according to a new United Nations report.

The new numbers are presented in a landmark digest report, “Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts,” released September 5 by the Chernobyl Forum. The digest, based on a three-volume, 600-page report and incorporating the work of hundreds of scientists, economists, and health experts, assesses the 20-year impact of the largest nuclear accident in history.

The Chernobyl Forum is made up of eight U.N. specialized agencies: the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization, United Nations Development Program, Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Environment Program, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, and the World Bank, as well as the governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine.

Major Findings

Dozens of important findings are included in the massive report, among them:

  • Approximately 1,000 onsite reactor staff and emergency workers were heavily exposed to high-level radiation on the first day of the accident. Among the more than 200,000 emergency and recovery operation workers exposed during the period from 1986 to 1987, about 1 percent, or an estimated 2,200 heavily exposed reactor staff and emergency workers, are expected to succumb to radiation-caused deaths.
  • About 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in those who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the contamination, and at least nine exposed children have died of thyroid cancer. Overall, however, the survival rate among such cancer victims, judging from experience in Belarus, has been almost 99 percent.
  • Most emergency workers and people living in contaminated areas received relatively low whole-body radiation doses, comparable to natural background levels. As a consequence, no evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility among the affected population has been found, nor has there been any evidence of increases in congenital malformations that can be attributed to radiation exposure.
  • Poverty, “lifestyle” diseases now rampant in the former Soviet Union, and mental health problems pose a far greater threat to local communities than does radiation exposure.
  • Persistent myths and misconceptions about the threat of radiation have resulted in “paralyzing fatalism” among residents of affected areas.

Mental Health Primary Concern

The report labels the mental health impact of Chernobyl as “the largest public health problem created by the accident” and partially attributes this damaging psychological impact to a lack of accurate information.

The mental health problem manifests as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on government assistance.

The team of international experts found no evidence for any increases in the incidence of leukemia and cancer among affected residents.

The international experts have estimated radiation could eventually cause up to about 4,000 deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, most notably emergency workers, evacuees, and residents of the most-contaminated areas. That estimate includes both the known radiation-induced cancer and leukemia deaths and a statistical prediction based on estimates of the radiation doses received by these populations.

As about a quarter of people die from spontaneous cancer not caused by Chernobyl radiation, the radiation-induced increase of only about 3 percent will be difficult to observe.

“This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received high radiation doses,” the report stated. “By and large, however, we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with a few exceptional, restricted areas.”

S. Fred Singer ([email protected]) is president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project.

For more information …

“Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts,” released September 5 by the Chernobyl Forum, is available online at http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Focus/Chernobyl/index.shtml.