Chernobyl Postmortem: Unresolved Obstacles Continue to Plague the Nuclear Industry

By Yablokov, Alexey V. | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Chernobyl Postmortem: Unresolved Obstacles Continue to Plague the Nuclear Industry


Yablokov, Alexey V., Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


Year after year, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl continues to capture the attention not only of industry specialists but of the public, the media, and the United Nations as well.(1) Despite uncertainties over the true level of radioactive fallout, the number of people immediately affected, or the number of future cancer victims, Chernobyl is associated with the worst technical catastrophe in human history.

Thirteen years after the disaster, it is time to ask whether the nuclear industry has learned sufficient lessons to ensure that another Chernobyl doesn't happen again. For many, the Chernobyl disaster confirmed their fears and suspicions about nuclear power. And it remains incumbent on the nuclear industry to address and debunk these fears if it ever hopes to restore trust. So far, it has failed to do so.

Small Doses, Little Harm?

Thirteen years ago, debate still raged over whether there is a threshold for the effects of radiation. Below that threshold, some believed, radiation was harmless. By now, the vast majority of scientists have concluded there is no such threshold. Indeed, any additional doses of radiation, no matter how small, can damage a living organism.

In the years since Chernobyl, the world has continued to sharpen radiation standards. Under the 1990 international standards, the maximum safe dose equivalent for persons working with radioactive substances was lowered to a 78th of what had been allowed under the first standard established in 1925.(2)

Another vital change has occurred in our perspective on the effects of small doses of radiation. An increasing number of researchers have confirmed the Petkau-effect - first hypothesized in the 1950s - which suggests that small radiation doses received by an organism over an extended period cause more serious damage than the same dose received over a shorter period.(3) Research has demonstrated that organisms exposed to minimal doses of radiation display a marked increase in sensitivity.(4)

These theories were tragically confirmed in the territories affected by small doses of radioactive emissions from Chernobyl. Official forecasts of merely a few additional cases of cancer by the end of this century have been disproved by a hundredfold increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer.

Another unexpected consequence of human exposure to small radiation doses was a significant increase in the number of spontaneous miscarriages. Establishing the exact number is extremely difficult because of incomplete medical statistics, but individual observations seem to tell the story. Consider, for instance, that in Sweden the number of successful conceptions decreased by 600 in June and July of 1986.(5) In Greece, the number of live births from January through March of 1987 was 2,500 lower than expected.(6) The same decline was observed in Italy, Germany, Belorussia, and even in the United States.(7)

If one extrapolates from these data to the whole territory polluted by Chernobyl emissions, one can assume that the first consequence of Chernobyl was that tens of thousands of pregnancies were terminated, mainly in Europe.

Another of Chernobyl's effects was the upswing of newborn children with anomalies and deformities. There was a three- to fourfold increase in the number of congenital defects of the nervous system in newborn children conceived during the second half of 1986 in several cities in Turkey affected by fallout from Chernobyl.(8) In 1994 and 1995, in Belorussia alone, up to 600 abortions were carried out annually following chromosome analysis that indicated these unborn children suffered congenital disorders arising from exposure to low doses of radiation.

Another terrible consequence of Chernobyl's low-dose pollution is the sharp increase in the number of retarded children. A comparison of 2,213 newborns in the polluted territories of Belorussia, Russia, and the Ukraine with 2,120 children born in nearby unpolluted territories has shown that more than half of the children born in the former regions display signs of retarded mental development. …

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