More than three decades ago, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian republic of the Soviet Union exploded. A fierce fire burned for the following two weeks, sending columns of radioactive gases and particles across the European landscape and beyond. The accident is an enduring subject of fascination — HBO recently adapted the event into a hit miniseries, and the site is a popular tourist destination — leading to conjecture and misconception.
For the past three decades, official reports of casualties and deaths from the Chernobyl accident have been surprisingly modest. Two people died immediately. Twenty-nine died in hospitals, and much later, 15 children died of Chernobyl-induced thyroid cancers. These numbers have been repeated in recent articles in Newsweek and LiveScience. Estimates of Chernobyl’s future health effects are also low: In 2006, researchers at the U.N. International Agency for Research on Cancer estimated that Chernobyl-induced cancers by 2065 will total 41,000, compared with several hundred million other cancers from other causes. Forbes even claimed that “only the fear of radiation killed anyone outside the immediate area,” by elevating rates of alcoholism and depression.
The actual numbers may be far higher. Unfortunately, Belarus (where 70 percent of Chernobyl fallout landed), Russia and Ukraine have no public tallies of Chernobyl-related fatalities to update the count. But other state data gives us a rough sense of the number of people affected by the disaster over time. In January 2016, for example, the Ukrainian government said 1,961,904 people in Ukraine were officially victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Ukraine also pays compensation to 35,000 people whose spouses died from Chernobyl-related health problems. These figures do not count Russia or Belarus, where estimates of cancers and fatalities are in the hundreds of thousands.
A Newsweek account says only that “a cloud of radioactive material rained down on the nearby towns and villages.” A United Nations report about recovery at Chernobyl, which sits on Ukraine’s northern border, says simply that “the disaster affected Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.” In HBO’s recent miniseries fictionalizing the disaster, a physicist briefing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev says the radiation will spread as far as East Germany.
The consequences of the accident reached much farther. The fallout map shows that Chernobyl radioactivity drifted widely across Europe, usually in areas with higher altitudes and precipitation. Indeed, Swedish scientists were the first to report the Chernobyl incident, because nuclear workers in Sweden set off radiation detection devices as they were walking into a plant on the Monday morning after the accident. In 1986, 7,000 farmers in northern England and southern Scotland had to pull their sheep from sale after Chernobyl fallout hit them. Two decades later, more than 350 farmers in Britain still faced restrictions on the movement of their animals and the sale of their meat.
Consumer goods harvested in Chernobyl-affected territories continue to travel around the globe. A few years ago, France stopped a large shipment of radioactive mushrooms from Belarus. Chernobyl-contaminated berries from Ukraine regularly enter European markets, and some of those berries are later imported to the United States.
Some seeking an upside to the disaster have heralded the good news that the ecosystem around Chernobyl has rebounded. One company that offers birding tours in the exclusion zone describes it as an “involuntary park” that teaches “key lessons on how wildlife doesn’t need us.” Scientists have found up to a sevenfold increase in some large mammals and concluded that, though radiation is not good for animals, people have an even more detrimental effect. The Guardian calls the Chernobyl zone a “wildlife haven.”
Such studies tend to concentrate on data from censuses and cameras tracking large, charismatic fauna such as wolves, wild horses and wild boar. Census data tells scientists how many animals there are but little about their health. With chronic low doses of radiation, health effects are subtle and difficult to detect. Biologists studying small animals such as mice, voles and birds report finding animals with more frequent mutations, physical deformities and reduced populations. A team of scientists from Texas Tech University found higher-than-expected mutation rates in Chernobyl rodents exposed to chronic low doses. Scientists have also observed abnormalities in barn swallows that breed there, including deformed feet and beaks, and the same radiation has suppressed the growth of pine trees. Such problems might affect large mammals, too, though they can’t be detected by satellite photography.
Chernobyl is often described as the most devastating nuclear disaster in human history. B usiness Insider, ranking it against other accidents at Fukushima and Three Mile Island, found Chernobyl the most damaging. The International Atomic Energy Agency rated Chernobyl a Level 7 accident, the highest rating possible.
While Chernobyl released the most radioactive fallout at one time in an accident, other nuclear events issued far more radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. The Chernobyl accident emitted between 50 million and 200 million curies of radioactivity. The first Soviet and American plutonium plants each spread an estimated 200 million curies of radioactive waste into the surrounding environments as part of daily operations. Until the Test Ban Treaty of 1963 took effect, the nuclear powers, including the United States and the U.S.S.R., blew up 520 nuclear weapons in the atmosphere in tests, creating emissions of long-lasting radioactive isotopes in the billions of curies.
Examining just one radioactive isotope is illuminating. Chernobyl issued an estimated 45 million curies of radioactive iodine (among other elements) — which is absorbed by human thyroids, and can cause thyroid disease and thyroid cancer — into the atmosphere. American and Soviet nuclear bomb tests released an estimated 20 billion curies of radioactive iodine between 1945 and 1962.
Chernobyl has come to stand for an enduring narrative that Soviet scientists and government officials were uniquely incompetent. “The Ferris wheel left in the city’s decaying amusement park still stands in testament to the folly of the corrupt, paranoid and inept Soviet system,” says USA Today. Grigori Medvedev’s book, “The Truth About Chernobyl,” promises an account of “absurdity and incompetence galore.”
In truth, the Soviet response to the disaster was impressive. The Soviets are most often criticized for waiting three days to inform the public of the accident; concealing it meant that people in neighboring nations, such as Poland, received protective prophylactive iodine later than is advisable. Soviet leaders did, however, act to protect their own citizens. Within 36 hours, they had relocated 50,000 residents of the city of Pripyat and were making plans to evacuate a large territory around the plant. (Japanese leaders waited a full two months before they admitted that three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had melted down in March 2011.)
Then there was the medical response, as observed by a team of American doctors who joined Soviet doctors to treat the injured firemen and plant operators at Hospital No. 6 in Moscow. The Americans were impressed by how good Soviet doctors were at estimating radiation dosage by studying a patient’s vital signs, and commented on the impressive range of Soviet treatments for radiation poisoning that were unknown in the West. Of the 19 patients who underwent risky transplantations of bone marrow or fetal liver, recommended by the American team, only one survived. More of the patients who had potentially fatal doses survived Soviet doctors’ treatments.