Publication Laka-library:
Chernobyl - Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment

AuthorA.Yablokov, V.Nesterenko, A.Nesterenko
DateDecember 2009

From the publication:


   More than 22 years have passed since the Chernobyl catastrophe burst upon and
changed our world. In just a few days, the air, natural waters, flowers, trees, woods,
rivers, and seas turned to potential sources of danger to people, as radioactive substances
emitted by the destroyed reactor fell upon all life. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere
radioactivity covered most living spaces and became a source of potential harm for all
living things.
   Naturally, just after the failure, public response was very strong and demonstrated
mistrust of atomic engineering. A number of countries decided to stop the construction
of new nuclear power stations. The enormous expenses required to mitigate the negative
consequences of Chernobyl at once “raised the price” of nuclear-generated electric power.
This response disturbed the governments of many countries, international organizations,
and official bodies in charge of nuclear technology and led to a paradoxical polarization
as to how to address the issues of those injured by the Chernobyl catastrophe and the
effects of chronic irradiation on the health of people living in contaminated areas.
   Owing to the polarization of the problem, instead of organizing an objective and
comprehensive study of the radiological and radiobiological phenomena induced by
small doses of radiation, anticipating possible negative consequences, and taking adequate
measures, insofar as possible, to protect the population from possible negative effects,
apologists of nuclear power began a blackout on data concerning the actual amounts of
radioactive emissions, the doses of radiation, and the increasing morbidity among the
people that were affected.
   When it became impossible to hide the obvious increase in radiation-related diseases,
attempts were made to explain it away as being a result of nationwide fear. At the
same time some concepts of modern radiobiology were suddenly revised. For example,
contrary to elementary observations about the nature of the primary interactions of
ionizing radiation and the molecular structure of cells, a campaign began to deny non-
threshold radiation effects. On the basis of the effects of small doses of radiation in some
nonhuman systems where hormesis was noted, some scientists began to insist that such
doses from Chernobyl would actually benefit humans and all other living things.
   The apogee of this situation was reached in 2006 on the 20th anniversary of the
Chernobyl meltdown. By that time the health and quality of life had decreased for
millions of people. In April 2006 in Kiev, Ukraine, two international conferences were
held in venues close to one another: one was convened by supporters of atomic energy
and the other by a number of international organizations alarmed by the true state
of health of those affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe. The decision of the first
conference has not been accepted up to now because the Ukrainian party disagrees
with its extremely optimistic positions. The second conference unanimously agreed that
radioactive contamination of large areas is accompanied by distinctly negative health
consequences for the populations and predicted increased risk of radiogenic diseases in
European countries in the coming years.
    For a long time I have thought that the time has come to put an end to the opposition
between technocracy advocates and those who support objective scientific approaches
to estimate the negative risks for people exposed to the Chernobyl fallout. The basis for
believing that these risks are not minor is very convincing.
    Declassified documents of that time issued by Soviet Union/Ukraine governmental
commissions in regard to the first decade after 1986 contain data on a number of
people who were hospitalized with acute radiation sickness. The number is greater by
two orders of magnitude than was recently quoted in official documents. How can we
understand this difference in calculating the numbers of individuals who are ill as a
result of irradiation? It is groundless to think that the doctors’ diagnoses were universally
wrong. Many knew in the first 10-day period after the meltdown that diseases of the
nasopharynx were widespread. We do not know the quantity or dose of hot particles that
settled in the nasopharyngeal epithelium to cause this syndrome. They were probably
higher than the accepted figures.
    To estimate doses of the Chernobyl catastrophe over the course of a year, it is critical to
consider the irradiation contributed by ground and foliage fallout, which contaminated
various forms of food with short-half-life radionuclides. Even in 1987 activity of some of
the radionuclides exceeded the contamination by Cs-137 and Sr-90. Thus decisions to
calculate dose only on the scale of Cs-137 radiation led to obvious underestimation of
the actual accumulated effective doses. Internal radiation doses were defined on the basis
of the activity in milk and potatoes for different areas. Thus in the Ukrainian Poles’e
region, where mushrooms and other forest products make up a sizable share of the food
consumed, the radioactivity was not considered.
    The biological efficiency of cytogenic effects varies depending on whether the radiation
is external or internal: internal radiation causes greater damage, a fact also neglected.
Thus, there is reason to believe that doses of irradiation have not been properly estimated,
especially for the first year after the reactor’s failure. Data on the growth of morbidity
over two decades after the catastrophe confirm this conclusion. First of all, there are
very concrete data about malignant thyroid disease in children, so even supporters of
“radiophobia” as the principal cause of disease do not deny it. With the passage of time,
oncological diseases with longer latency periods, in particular, breast and lung cancers’,
became more frequent.
    From year to year there has been an increase in nonmalignant diseases, which has raised
the incidence of overall morbidity in children in areas affected by the catastrophe, and
the percent of practically healthy children has continued to decrease. For example, in Kiev,
Ukraine, where before the meltdown, up to 90% of children were considered healthy, the
figure is now 20%. In some Ukrainian Poles’e territories, there are no healthy children,
and morbidity has essentially increased for all age groups. The frequency of disease has
increased several times since the accident at Chernobyl. Increased cardiovascular disease
with increased frequency of heart attacks and ischemic disease are evident. Average
life expectancy is accordingly reduced. Diseases of the central nervous system in both
children and adults are cause for concern. The incidence of eye problems, particularly
cataracts, has increased sharply. Causes for alarm are complications of pregnancy and the
state of health of children born to so-called “liquidators” (Chernobyl’s cleanup workers)
and evacuees from zones of high radionuclide contamination.
    Against the background of such persuasive data, some defenders of atomic energy
look specious as they deny the obvious negative effects of radiation upon populations. In
fact, their reactions include almost complete refusal to fund medical and biological stud-
ies, even liquidating government bodies that were in charge of the “affairs of Chernobyl.”
Under pressure from the nuclear lobby, officials have also diverted scientific personnel
away from studying the problems caused by Chernobyl.
   Rapid progress in biology and medicine is a source of hope in finding ways to prevent
many diseases caused by exposure to chronic nuclear radiation, and this research will
advance much more quickly if it is carried out against the background of experience that
Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Russian scientists and physicians gained after the Chernobyl
catastrophe. It would be very wrong to neglect the opportunities that are open to us today.
We must look toward the day that unbiased objectivity will win out and lead to unqualified
support for efforts to determine the influence of the Chernobyl catastrophe on the health
of people and biodiversity and shape our approach to future technological progress and
general moral attitudes. We must hope and trust that this will happen.
   The present volume probably provides the largest and most complete collection of
data concerning the negative consequences of Chernobyl on the health of people and
on the environment. Information in this volume shows that these consequences do not
decrease, but, in fact, are increasing and will continue to do so into the future. The main
conclusion of the book is that it is impossible and wrong “to forget Chernobyl.” Over
the next several future generations the health of people and of nature will continue to be
adversely impacted.

                                              PROF. DR. BIOL. DIMITRO M. GRODZINSKY
               Chairman, Department of General Biology, Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences,
                            Chairman, Ukrainian National Commission on Radiation Protection