Toxic memories

Chernobyl | A 20-year-old disaster continues to haunt Eastern Europe, but children from Belarus are finding a haven in the United States

Issue: "Faculty follies," April 29, 2006

In the eerily empty town of Pripyat, Ukraine, where 47,000 Soviet citizens once lived, a rusty Ferris wheel sits in a desolate amusement park against a bleak landscape, serving as a stark reminder of a city frozen in time. Five days before the park's scheduled opening in the spring of 1986, Reactor No. 4 exploded less than a mile away at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, spewing a cloud of 190 tons of radioactive material over millions of unsuspecting Europeans, and spawning the worst nuclear accident in history.

It took nearly 36 hours to evacuate Pripyat's residents, mostly workers at the doomed power station and their families. They have never returned to their homes. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, which displaced more than 300,000 people across portions of Ukraine, Belarus, and Western Russia, and consigned millions to live in large swaths of radioactive-contaminated areas for the last two decades.

Statistics on the number of residents expelled from all that was familiar by Chernobyl's fallout aren't disputed. Experts also agree that some 5 million people still live in contaminated areas in Eastern Europe. But the disaster's 20th anniversary does bring fresh controversy to questions disputed since the day the plant's hulking reactor exploded: How many people became sick or died because of the massive release of radiation? How many more in contaminated areas will face a similar outcome?

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The United Nations' World Health Organization released a report in mid-April that said the number of those facing death from cancers caused by Chernobyl radiation would likely reach 9,300. That figure echoed another UN study conducted last year by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which predicted that the disaster would cause some 9,000 deaths.

But some Russian scientists sharply disagree with the UN's findings and say the death toll could reach up to 90,000 in the coming decades. Volodymyr Bebeshko, a professor at the Ukrainian Center for Radiation Medicine, participated in the UN's study but refused to endorse its findings. "They are very clearly trying to misrepresent the consequences," he said.

The huge disparity in death-toll estimates may be partly due to the already poor living conditions in the most contaminated areas. Researchers for the IAEA say that the rural populations most affected by radiation are impoverished, have poor diets, and have high rates of alcohol abuse. They say it's difficult to distinguish Chernobyl-related health problems from those stemming from chronically unhealthy lifestyles. Negligent record-keeping by Soviet officials after the disaster also makes confirming deaths and diseases difficult.

Most experts do agree about one alarming trend: The rate of thyroid cancer in children has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. That cancer has assaulted between 4,000 and 5,000 people who were children living in the regions that now make up Ukraine or Belarus when the reactor exploded. In the years preceding the disaster, only about 10 children were diagnosed with the disease each year. Most victims of Chernobyl-related thyroid cancer have survived with treatment, but physicians are concerned that the disease will persist as a major health problem for years to come.

Some mystery still surrounds what led to the Chernobyl disaster on the morning of April 26, 1986, but most accounts say that plant workers had been performing tests on the reactor when the explosion occurred, exposing the reactor's core and spewing tons of toxic radiation. Faulty safety procedures led to the accident and heightened the consequences: In the hours after the explosion, witnesses said company bosses huddled in shelters underground while hundreds of workers stood outside waiting for instructions and breathing in poisoned air. Dozens of firefighters arrived on the scene, heading straight to the accident site without masks or protective suits.

About 1,000 plant workers and emergency personnel bore the brunt of the inferno, and 134 were officially diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome. A UN report says 28 people died from radiation sickness the first year, and 19 more who suffered from radiation syndrome died in subsequent years.

Those closest to the reactor in the hours and days after the accident received the highest doses of radiation exposure. Some 116,000 residents evacuated the area immediately, and another 230,000 moved later from other highly contaminated areas. Today a 20-mile "dead zone" still surrounds the plant, where government officials warn that the environment is not suited for long-term residency by humans.

While the highest doses of radiation were limited in scope, the explosion spewed huge clouds of radioactive material over hundreds of miles. Scientists detected trace amounts of radiation in deer meat in Norway and rainfall in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Larger amounts of radiation were detected as far away as Sweden, where officials denounced the Soviet government for waiting nearly three days to tell its own citizens and the rest of the world what had happened at Chernobyl.


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