Building peace in the minds of men and women

Featured articles

Chernobyl: the political fall-out continues


Empty room with portraits in Pripyat, Northern Ukraine.

Just how bad was the world’s worst nuclear disaster? The answer lies hidden within a web of politics and scientific uncertainty enmeshing the UN and eastern European governments.

Fred Pearce
Environmentalist, journalist, consultant for the British weekly magazine, The New Scientist.

A sigh of relief ripples across Europe as engineers prepare to shut down Chernobyl, the world’s most feared nuclear power plant, on December 15th. Politicians have finally brokered a deal in which Western donors foot the bill of about two billion dollars to close and fully entomb the Ukrainian reactors. Yet for many ordinary citizens, the nightmare continues.

Just a few months ago, on April 26th, thousands marched solemnly through the towns of Belarus, Ukraine and eastern Russia to commemorate the dead from the nuclear disaster 14 years before. At 1:26 am bells tolled to mark the moment when a Chernobyl reactor blew and a deadly radioactive fall-out began to blanket their fields and towns.

But as well as mourning, there was fear. Fear of the continuing radiation, which could claim thousands more. And fear of speaking out of turn. That night, Yuri Bandazhevsky, rector of the Gomel Medical Institute in Belarus until his arrest last year, was in forced internal exile in the capital of Minsk. He is one of many researchers who say their work has been suppressed or ignored by governments anxious to play down the radiation risks their citizens still face.

Estimates of the death toll to date range from the 32 offered by UN nuclear scientists to the 15,000 suggested by some Ukrainian researchers. In June, scientists at the UN’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported that “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation, apart from a high level of thyroid cancer in children [from which] few should die.” Yet the previous day the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, appeared to disagree when he said: “The catastrophe is far from over. It continues to have a devastating effect not only on the health of the people, but on every aspect of society.” So what is the truth? And how do these disparities arise?

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant reduced the Number Four reactor to an inferno spewing out a radioactive cloud for ten days. It released a hundred times more radioactivity than the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. For several days there was total silence, before the panic evacuation of some 116,000 people from an exclusion zone that stretched up to 30 kilometres from the plant.

Only years after the accident did the public learn that a larger zone some 150 kilometres away near the Belarus town of Gomel and extending into Russia suffered heavy fall-out in rain shortly after the accident. It emerged in 1989 that a fifth of Belarus had been significantly contaminated. Some 400,000 people were resettled. And today around four million people still live in areas with some acknowledged contamination.

Official secrecy inside the Soviet Union and its successor governments about the extent of the contamination continues to bedevil the task of keeping people safe, says Greenpeace’s Chernobyl specialist Tobias Muenchmeyer. Researchers inside the affected countries agree. “A regime of secrecy was accepted in our country from the very first second the catastrophe happened,” says Vladimir Chernousenko, the Ukrainian scientist who co-ordinated the post-accident clean-up.

A partial information blackout by governments, combined with scientific caution, has helped lead UN agencies into seriously underestimating the death toll, Muenchmeyer believes. Critics of the nuclear industry such as Rosalie Bertell, president of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health in Toronto, say there is another political reason. They point to a 1959 agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, which said that “the IAEA had the primary responsibility for encouraging, assisting and co-ordinating research on, and the development and practical application of atomic energy.” According to Bertell, “the IAEA has since considered itself to be the watchdog over information about radiation health effects which is distributed to the public.” Bertell and other organizations this year called for the WHO to amend the agreement.

The most important radioactive isotopes released at Chernobyl were iodine and caesium. Iodine-131 has a half-life (the time it takes for half the atoms of a radioactive isotope to decay) of eight days. It was mostly inhaled and eaten in contaminated food. Caesium-137 has a half-life of some 30 years. It is still present in soils and vegetation and continues to contaminate people through foodstuff. Some lesser isotopes have half-lives of hundreds or even thousands of years. 

Controversy over the casualty list

Who suffered? In the front line were the “liquidators”—the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 soldiers and public employees drafted in to make the reactor safe and bury contaminated waste. Some 50,000 of them worked on top of the reactor. “They were supposed to stay on the roof to fight the fire for only 90 seconds, then be replaced. One can easily guess this did not happen,” says Jean-Pierre Revel, senior health official at the International Federation of the Red Cross. As a result, 237 liquidators were hospitalized; 32 died.

But since then, the Soviet Union and its successors have been unable or unwilling to keep track of this most-at-risk group. According to Leonid Ilyin, a former Russian member of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, “none of these men was registered by name. None was checked [for subsequent health] on a regular basis. They all went back to their homes.” This failure is probably the largest organizational cause of the disputes over Chernobyl’s death toll. Last April, Viacheslav Grishin, president of the Chernobyl League—a Kiev-based organization that claims to represent the liquidators—said 15,000 liquidators had died and 50,000 were handicapped. His source was a controversial estimate by Chernousenko, based on likely cancer rates from radiation doses that he believes the liquidators received.

Cancers have been the biggest long-term medical fear. By 1991, doctors were reporting many cases of thyroid cancer among children under four at the time of the disaster. In 1992, a group of Western researchers, including Keith Baverstock of the WHO, agreed that Chernobyl was the likely cause. Yet it was only in 1995, after some 800 cases had emerged, that the UN system formally accepted the finding. This delay had serious implications in finding and treating the disease, which is not fatal if caught early enough.

Playing politics and crushing dissent

The conclusion had been initially controversial partly because the evidence from Hiroshima and Nagasaki suggested that there should be far fewer cases. But politics also entered the equation. The Economist magazine speculated that “if the health risks have been underestimated or understated, the American government could face new lawsuits on everything from the Nevada [nuclear] tests to theThree Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.”

At any rate, there are now some 1,800 recorded cases of thyroid cancer attributed to Chernobyl. In the most contaminated districts, such as Gomel, childhood rates are 200 times those in western Europe. Estimates of the total number of cases expected to arise in the future range from a “few thousand,” suggested by the IAEA, to the 66,000 predicted for a single group—Belarusian children under four at the time of the disaster—by WHO scientist Elisabeth Cardis, who stressed that “the risk estimates are very uncertain.” 

What about other cancers which take longer to develop? Officially, the WHO stands by its assessment of 1996 that while “there have been some reports of increases in the incidence of specific malignancies in some populations living in contaminated territories and in liquidators, these reports are not consistent and could reflect differences in the follow-up of exposed populations.” But some of its scientists are sceptical.They ask not what can be proved, but what can be expected on the basis of known science.

Based on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Baverstock expects an “excess” of some 6,600 fatal cancers, including 470 leukaemia cases. But a team of Belarusian doctors claims to have found leukaemia rates four times the national average among heavily exposed liquidators. And there are fears that, as with thyroid cancer, rates could be far higher than expected. But scientific uncertainty should not detract from the fact that there are political reasons why the truth about the disaster may remain hidden, as says Muenchmeyer of Greenpeace. National governments, who act as gatekeepers for most of the statistics reaching UN agencies, have a political agenda, he says. The Ukraine is running 14 nuclear reactors with another four under construction, according to the IAEA “So the Ukraine doesn’t want to ruin the image of nuclear power by stressing the harm done by Chernobyl,” says Muenchmeyer, “but they also want aid for health programmes. So then they are interested in showing the burden. Often they contradict themselves within a few days.” 

The Belarus government has consistently downplayed the disaster, even though the country received an estimated 70 per cent of the fall-out. “They decided that the territory and the number of people affected are so great, and the government so poor, that they cannot solve the problem. They decided to shut down dissent,” says Muenchmeyer. This has hampered research and apparently prevented findings by local scientists from reaching UN agencies. 

Two years ago, Rosa Goncharova of the Institute of Genetics and Cytology in Minsk reported evidence that congenital abnormalities were turning up in the children of those irradiated by Chernobyl. She told a conference that since 1985, cases of cleft palate, Down’s syndrome and other deformities had increased by 83 per cent in the areas most heavily contaminated, 30 per cent in moderately contaminated areas and 24 per cent in “clean” areas. 

But two years later, when contacted for this article, Cardis of the WHO said she had “not received copies of the paper ” by Goncharova. Nor had she received copies of work by the director of the independent Belarusian Institute of Radiation Safety (Belrad), Vasily Nesterenko. He had found that in the most contaminated areas, the incidence of diseases of the circulatory system had risen fourfold and deaths among children from respiratory diseases were up 14-fold (see interview).

The dangers of the twilight zone

And consider the fate of Yuri Bandazhevsky, whose case has been taken up by Amnesty International. As rector of the Gomel Medical Institute, he carried out autopsies at the city’s forensic morgue, on bodies whose deaths were not considered connected to Chernobyl. He examined their internal organs and compared them to the organs of rats that he had fed grain containing radioactive caesium. He was shocked by his findings: “The pathological modifications of the kidneys, heart,liver and lungs was identical to those among the experimental rats.” From this he concluded, “that accumulation of radiocaesium in the organs played a major role in the triggering of pathological responses.” In other words, it made them ill and even killed them.

His paper went ignored. His subsequent criticism of the post-Chernobyl research conducted by the Ministry of Health brought him more enemies. And last summer he was arrested on unspecified bribery charges, and locked up for six months. His computer and all his files were confiscated and he remains confined to Minsk “under investigation.”

People are still being exposed to radiation from Chernobyl. In large areas of Belarus in particular the environment is still heavily contaminated. The WHO says “some foods produced by private farmers do exceed [WHO limits].” But it points out that most large farms minimize take-up of radioactivity in soils by deep ploughing and applying fertilizers. “No food produced by collective farms now exceeds the limits.”

But thousands of people rely on private farms, according to Belrad’s Nesterenko, who maintains that a quarter of the food grown inside the contaminated zone supersedes official radioactivity limits. More than 500 villages are drinking contaminated milk. Moreover, many people rely on “wild” produce such as mushrooms, berries and hunted meat—the most risky food of all says the WHO’s Baverstock.

And, of course, there are the people who return to live a twilight life inside the exclusion zone, replanting their contaminated gardens, gathering food from the forests and raiding abandoned food stores. Most are old women, who judged that the radioactivity could do them little harm at their age. But there are recent unconfirmed reports of a baby being born there. The tragedy, as Kofi Annan said, goes on.

Read more: 

Chernobyl: before and afterThe UNESCO Courier, September 1990

Chernobyl today, The UNESCO Courier, April 1996

Belarus: Facing the disaster aloneThe UNESCO Courier, October 2000


Subscribe to The UNESCO Courier for thought-provoking articles on contemporary issues. The digital version is completely free.

Follow The UNESCO Courier on: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.