Chernobyl's effects less dire than feared

New study projects fewer health problems, deaths from meltdown

September 06, 2005|By Charles Piller and Alissa J. Rubin | Charles Piller and Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VIENNA, Austria - Nearly two decades after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster spread radioactive fallout across much of Europe, a United Nations study has concluded that the health effects have been far less extensive than feared.

The researchers confirmed 56 deaths, nine children who died of thyroid cancer and 47 emergency workers who died of acute radiation poisoning or radiation-induced cancer. They projected that 3,940 more people will die of cancer, according to the report released yesterday.

Virtually all of the deaths are expected to be among the 200,000 emergency workers and the nearly 400,000 people who lived in the immediate area in Ukraine.

The death estimate is about half what several recent studies projected and a small fraction of the up to 150,000 deaths predicted shortly after the 1986 accident.

The higher projections of health effects resulted in part from miscalculations about the amount of radiation to which many people were exposed. But a U.N. official said the countries affected by the accident also deliberately tried to inflate the severity of its impact to boost the amount of money flowing to the area.

Kalman Mizsei, an assistant U.N. secretary-general and deputy coordinator on Chernobyl, said there had been "a vast interest in creating a false picture" in the respective countries involved: initially the Soviet Union and, after its breakup, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

That contributed to misinformation and fear among the local people, who believed they were on the verge of receiving diagnoses of fatal diseases. Those countries then spent large amounts of money to help supposed victims, helping to create "a dependency culture," Mizsei said.

There was "a tendency to attribute all health problems to exposure to radiation, [which] ... have led local residents to assume that Chernobyl-related fatalities were much higher," concluded the more than 100 scientists, health experts and economists who worked on the study.

Their 550-page report found no evidence of genetic or reproductive problems among Chernobyl-area survivors.

Most people living beyond the 19-mile "exclusion zone" around the nuclear plant received minor doses of radiation, lower than the background radiation found in some other regions of the world, according to the report.

The exclusion zone will be unsafe for decades because of high levels of radioactive cesium 137.

The study, the most definitive look at the effect of Chernobyl, endorsed earlier estimates that the economic costs of the disaster would total several hundred billion dollars.

The meltdown of the plant's reactor spread radioactive particles across 77,000 square miles of Europe, reaching as far as the Arctic Circle.

Most of the fallout consisted of short-lived isotopes whose radiation decayed in a matter of weeks, according to the report. Most of the longer-lasting radiation landed within 62 miles of the plant.

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