The long-term health and environmental impacts of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, while severe, were far less catastrophic than feared, according to a major new report by eight U.N. agencies.
The governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, the three countries most affected by radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, should strive to end the "paralyzing fatalism" of tens of thousands of their citizens who wrongly believe they are still at risk of an early death, according to the study released Monday.
The 600-page report found that as of the middle of this year, the accident had caused fewer than 50 deaths directly attributable to radiation, most of them among emergency workers who died in the first months after the accident. In the wake of the world's largest nuclear disaster, there were numerous predictions of mass fatalities from radiation.
The report said that nine children had died of thyroid cancer, but that the survival rate among the 4,000 children in the region who had developed thyroid cancer has been 99 percent. An expected spike in fertility problems and birth defects also failed to materialize, the study found.
"The health effects of the accident were potentially horrific, but when you add them up using validated conclusions from good science, the public health effects were not nearly as substantial as had at first been feared," Michael Repacholi, manager of the World Health Organization's radiation program, said in a statement.
U.N. scientists predicted about 4,000 eventual radiation-related deaths among 600,000 people in the affected area, including emergency workers and residents. That is consistent with predictions in the aftermath of the accident by scientists in the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were then a part.
But the vast majority of residents and emergency workers received relatively low doses of radiation, comparable to naturally occurring levels of exposure, the report said.
Officials said that the continued intense medical monitoring of tens of thousands of people in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus is no longer a smart use of limited resources and is, in fact, contributing to mental health problems among many residents nearly 20 years later. In Belarus and Ukraine, 5 percent to 7 percent of government spending is consumed by benefits and programs for Chernobyl victims. And in the three countries, as many as 7 million people are receiving Chernobyl-related social benefits.
"The monitoring of people with incredibly low doses uses huge amounts of resources and does more psychological harm than good," said Fred Mettler, a professor of radiology at the University of New Mexico who chaired one of three health groups in the study, titled "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts." The study, involving more than 100 scientists, was compiled by U.N. agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, and representatives of the governments of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
Shortly after midnight, on April 26, 1986, after a complex chain of events at the Chernobyl plant, the water coolant vaporized and an explosion destroyed the reactor. The plant caught fire and plumes of radioactive material were released. Soviet authorities at first did not report the accident, but radioactive material was quickly detected in Scandinavian countries. Radioactive material continued to be released for another 10 days, spreading across Europe.
Over the next four years, a massive cleanup operation involving 240,000 workers ensued, and there were fears that many of these workers, called "liquidators," would suffer in subsequent years. But most emergency workers and people living in contaminated areas "received relatively low whole radiation doses, comparable to natural background levels," a report summary noted. "No evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility among the affected population has been found, nor has there been any evidence of congenital malformations."
In fact, the report said, apart from radiation-induced deaths, the "largest public health problem created by the accident" was its effect on the mental health of residents who were traumatized by their rapid relocation and the fear, still lingering, that they would almost certainly contract terminal cancer. The report said that lifestyle diseases, such as alcoholism, among affected residents posed a much greater threat than radiation exposure.
The report said that an immediate priority is to re-secure the reactor. After the disaster, a concrete sarcophagus was built over the plant, but it was hastily constructed and is showing signs of wear. "The main potential hazard of the shelter is a possible collapse of its top structures and release of radioactive dust into the environment," the report said.
David Zhania, emergencies minister in Ukraine, said last week that a new steel shelter for the plant would cost nearly $2 billion and that the country hoped to have it built by 2008 or 2009. About 28 foreign governments have already agreed to contribute more than $750 million to the project.
The report also found that except for a nearly 20-mile exclusion zone around the reactor, radiation levels have returned to acceptable levels in many areas where land had been abandoned for fear of contamination. "By radiological criteria alone a significant part of the abandoned agricultural lands (more than 70 percent) could be returned to economic use," the report said.
The abandonment of large tracts of land, combined with a ban on hunting, has led to a dramatic increase in wild animals and birds, including wolves, elk, wild boars, white-tailed eagles, owls, cranes and black storks.
"Without a permanent residency of humans for 20 years, the ecosystems around the Chernobyl site are now flourishing," the report said. "It looks like the nature park it has become."