In reflecting upon the aftermath of the world's most devastating nuclear disaster, which happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power station 20 years ago in the early hours of 26 April, it is noteworthy to find that consensus has yet to be met on precise numbers of its victims.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred at 01:23 a.m. on 26 April, 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripiat, Ukraine. Because there was no containment building, a plume of radioactive fallout drifted over large areas of the former U.S.S.R., western Europe and the eastern United States. In the U.S.S.R., Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were badly contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 336,000 people. Official post-Soviet data indicates that about 60% of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus. According to the 2006 TORCH report, the disaster released more than 300 times the radioactive fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, half of which landed outside the three Soviet republics: in total 34% of the Earth's surface was contaminated by it.
The countries of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, now independent, have been burdened with continuing and substantial decontamination and health care costs. Soviet-era secrecy has obfuscated arriving at an accurate figure for the number of deaths, for example Soviet authorities forbade doctors to cite "radiation" as a cause of death; presumably some other cause e.g. "pneumonia" was instead ascribed on death certificates in such cases. Most of the expected cancer deaths have yet to occur, and will be difficult to attribute specifically to the accident.
A 2005 report (Chernobyl Forum), led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World health organisation (WHO), concludes that 56 direct deaths are a result of the immediate events at Chernobyl. This is the sum of 47 "liquidators" - those sent in immediately to stabilise the blazing reactor and the 9 children who are known to have died from thyroid cancer as a result of ingesting radioactive iodine from the radioactive plume. They estimate that up to 9000 people, of the more than 6 million most heavily exposed to radiation from Chernobyl will die from some form of cancer as a consequence.
Greenpeace, however, has challenged these figures in a new report. Based on research at the Belarus National Academy of Sciences, the Greenpeace report concludes that worldwide 2 billion people have been affected by the fallout from Chernobyl and that 270,000 of them will develop cancer as a consequence of this, of which 93,000 will prove fatal. In contrast, the Chernobyl Forum, which is a group of 8 U.N. agencies along with the governments of those most heavily contaminated countries Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, is adamant that the toll is in the thousands only (not that this is insignificant!).
Gregory Haertl, a spokesman for the Geneva-based WHO said the organisation stood by its figures of 9000, while Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner Ivan Blokov has accused the IAEA of "whitewashing the impacts of the most serious nuclear accident in human history".
As I noted in my previous posting "Chernobyl (26th April 2006); 20 Years On" it is not only the deaths that occurred directly or even those that may subsequently be attributed to the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster itself, e.g. cancer and other diseases of radiation exposure in relation to those who were thereby contaminated. The decline in social conditions, fragmentation of communities and a pervading spirit of despair has undoubtedly contributed to unhealthy lifestyle changes (e.g. cigarettes and vodka) amid the cloud of thinking that Chernobyl will "get you" or your children in the end, and the future is dark and hopeless. This may well have led to many more deaths or will do than Chernobyl did alone.
Official estimates from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are that around 25,000 people died by 2005 , but 20 years on, many of the "survivors'" descendents are still suffering the effects of the nuclear fallout. There are problems (also noted in nuclear workers - men) that radiation exposure of a parent who remains apparently healthy may show-up as birth defects in their children. Out of the 3 million people that the Ukrainian government recognise as victims of Chernobyl, 642,000 are children, and many of this population continue to live in the vicinity of the moth-balled power station, despite the fact that the soil and water are heavily radioactively contaminated for 30 km around.
Chernobyl's last functioning reactor was shut down in December 2000, and the 3500 people who still work there are mainly involved in maintaining the giant concrete sarcophagus used to contain further emissions of radiation. The initial shell was installed fairly rapidly, but over the years huge steel girders have been installed in order to prop up the foundations and external walls of the sarcophagus. It is thought that presently the sarcophagus is in a "satisfactory condition" but that it must be further stabilised before a second and stronger wall, nicknamed "The Arch" can be built. The 190 metre wide and 200 metre long "Arch" will be made in the shape of a half-cylinder and will literally slide over the existing sarcophagus: I presume thereby providing containment even in the event that the latter does finally collapse as has been feared practically since its construction, as it was - and had to be, given the prevailing circumstances - put up in a rapid and perhaps shoddy manner. The steel structure of the Arch will weigh in at more than 18000 tonnes - more than twice the steel used to make the Eiffel Tower.
As far as future emissions from Chernobyl are concerned, let's hope that is the end of it, but either way, the human legacy looks set as a perennial problem.