Chernobyl at 30: Thousands Still Living in the Shadow of Nuclear Disaster
'The suffering caused by Chernobyl shows why we need to get rid of nuclear power for good,' says Greenpeace
Chernobyl at 30: Thousands Still Living in the Shadow of Nuclear Disaster
The human face of Chernobyl: Greenpeace project portraits of survivors onto damaged reactor. (Photo: Daniel Mueller/ Greenpeace)
By Deirdre Fulton / commondreams.org

It's been 30 years since an explosion decimated reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl's nuclear power plant, killing 31 nuclear and rescue workers, sickening thousands more, and forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate. 

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear disaster in history, exposing hundreds of millions of people in 40 different countries to at least some dose of radioactivity.

Its repercussions continue to be felt far and wide.

Just this week, the Associated Press described Belarus, where 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl landed, as "a nation showing little regard for the potentially cancer-causing isotopes still to be found in the soil."

AP reported:

On the edge of Belarus' Chernobyl exclusion zone, down the road from the signs warning "Stop! Radiation," a dairy farmer offers his visitors a glass of freshly drawn milk. Associated Press reporters politely decline the drink but pass on a bottled sample to a laboratory, which confirms it contains levels of a radioactive isotope at levels 10 times higher than the nation's food safety limits.

Meanwhile, a teacher from Belarus's heavily contaminated Mogilev region tells Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe officer Andrey Allakhverdov that around 40 percent of her students have health problems: asthma, diabetes, and cancer or weak immune, respiratory, and digestive systems.

"The suffering caused by Chernobyl shows why we need to get rid of nuclear power for good," Allakhverdov wrote on Monday.

But as ABC News wrote on Tuesday, "the long-term health effects of Chernobyl remain intensely disputed."

USA Today reported: "The total death toll from cancer from the accident is projected to reach 4,000 for people exposed to high doses of radiation, and another 5,000 deaths among those who had less radiation exposure, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations and the World Health Organization."

And in its account titled, "Thirty Years After Chernobyl, We're Still Calculating How Much Cancer It Caused," Slate noted that in 2006, an international team of scientists predicted a total of 22,800 radiation-induced cancers, excluding thyroid cancers, among the 572 million people who got at least some exposure to Chernobyl radioactivity.

Regarding thyroid cancer, which "warranted separate special scrutiny" due to how the thyroid "is uniquely affected by a specific radioactive isotope, iodine-131," author and radiation expert Timothy J. Jorgensen explained at Slate:

Unfortunately, at Chernobyl, the one type of cancer that could have easily been prevented was not. The population surrounding Chernobyl was not warned that iodine-131—a radioactive fission product that can enter the food chain—had contaminated milk and other locally produced agricultural products. Consequently, people ate iodine-131–contaminated food, resulting in thyroid cancers.

For the local population, iodine-131 exposure was a worst-case scenario because the people were already suffering from an iodine-deficient diet; their iodine-starved thyroids sucked up any iodine that became available. This extremely unfortunate situation would not have happened in countries such as the United States or Japan, where diets are richer in iodine.

Thyroid cancer is rare, with a low background incidence compared to other cancers. So excess thyroid cancers due to iodine-131 can be more readily spotted in cancer registries. And this, in fact, has been the case for Chernobyl. Beginning five years after the accident, an increase in the rate of thyroid cancers started and continued rising over the following decades. Scientists estimate that there will ultimately be about 16,000 excess thyroid cancers produced as a result of iodine-131 exposure from Chernobyl.

And many of those who are at risk feel that they've been abandoned by their governments.

Indeed, "[w]ith the contaminated regions poor and of little influence, there [is] little appetite to reopen the issue," Oksana Kadun, head doctor at Ivankov hospital, the closest to the exclusion zone, told ABC.

ABC reports that in some areas of Ukraine, the "government pays people compensation for Chernobyl—known by Ukrainians as 'coffin money.' But with the country on the edge of default, the government has been curtailing the payments for some and reclassifying areas previously deemed contaminated."

To that end, Greenpeace on Tuesday was projecting survivors' portraits onto Chernobyl's damaged reactor.

"Every day these survivors must make decisions on how to reduce or limit their exposure to radiation," Greenpeace said in a call to action. "Shopping, cooking, eating, working outside or heating their homes are daily choices that can put their families at risk."

The message continued: "Worse still, these same governments want to spend billions on extremely risky nuclear energy while ignoring their responsibility to support those who still live in the shadow of Chernobyl's radioactive legacy."

"It is unjust to cut programs to protect Chernobyl survivors," Greenpeace declared, "And it's madness to spend more money on nuclear power when safe and clean renewable energy is affordable and ready to empower communities."


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Chernobyl at 30: Thousands Still Living in the Shadow of Nuclear Disaster