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The news of a massive disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station rocked the world in 1986. As information gradually emerged about the scale of the catastrophe – and its impact on all forms of life – we were shaken and fearful of the consequences, no matter how far we were from the blast site. Here Dr Ian Fairlie – an internationally acknowledged expert on Chernobyl – explains what happened. This anniversary must surely reinforce our commitment to a world without nuclear power.

“April 26, 2021 marked the 35th anniversary of the world’s largest nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. In 1996, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, 1996) described the accident as the “foremost nuclear catastrophe in human history” and WHO (IPHECA, 1995) estimated that the total radioactivity from Chernobyl was 200 times that of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The explosions and resulting 10-day graphite fire at Reactor 4 ejected about half of its contents which reached the stratosphere. The accident’s effects were therefore widespread: over 4,000,000 km2, ie 42% of the land area of Western Europe, was seriously contaminated. The most contaminated countries were the former USSR republics of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. But Finland, Sweden, Norway, Austria and the Balkan and Slavic countries were also seriously affected by high levels of radioactive contamination. Even the United Kingdom – over 2,500 kilometres from Chernobyl – was affected: more than 360 sheep farms were subjected to restrictions due to the Chernobyl contamination. Ultimately, fallout from Chernobyl was distributed over the entire northern hemisphere of the world.

Approximately 50 people died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, however it is estimated tens of thousands of cancer fatalities and other health effects will continue to arise over several decades into the future due to the Chernobyl plumes depositing large amounts of radioactivity over Europe and the rest of the world, see Box below.

In 1986, most governments and official nuclear agencies strenuously denied or equivocated over the accident’s effects (Medvedev, 1990). The then UK Government, for example, was shown to have minimised Chernobyl’s effects (Edwards, 1989) and to have misled the public (Weaver, 1986). In 2019, Professor Kate Brown’s excellent exposé “Manual for Survival” illustrated the dire extent of the former USSR’s cover-up of the health effects.

The official cover-up sadly continues to this day with agencies such as the WHO, IAEA, OECD, UNSCEAR and the ICRP remaining silent on the matter. But the multiple award-winning TV mini-series Chernobyl in 2019 brought home to millions of viewers the human tragedies arising from Chernobyl, the duplicity of the USSR government, and the continuing mendacious cover-ups by official agencies.

The nuclear disaster is now more than a generation away, yet the word ‘Chernobyl’ still resonates throughout the world. Sadly, it appears that the UK government which continues to support new nuclear reactors has not learned anything from the Chernobyl accident in 1986 or the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 for that matter.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana once stated “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Let’s hope that the UK Government will change its nuclear policies.”

BOX: Chernobyl’s grim tally

  • 5 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia still live in highly contaminated areas
  • 400 million people live in less contaminated areas
  • 42% of western Europe’s land area was contaminated
  • ~40,000 fatal cancers predicted
  • 6,000 thyroid cancer cases to date, 16,000 more expected
  • increased levels of radiogenic leukemias, cardiovascular diseases, and breast cancers
  • new evidence of radiogenic birth defects, mental health effects and diabetes
  • new evidence that children in contaminated areas suffer radiogenic illnesses

REFERENCES

Brown K (2019) Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. Penguin, London.

Edwards R (1989) Chernobyl fallout 40 times worse than admitted. The Guardian. 28 January, 1989.

IAEA/WHO/EC (1996) One Decade After Chernobyl: Summing up the Consequences of the Accident.

IPHECA Health Consequences of the Chernobyl accident. Results of the IPHECA pilot projects and related national programmes. Scientific Report. WHO. Geneva. 1996

Medvedev Zhores (1990) The Legacy of Chernobyl. Norton. New York and London.

Weaver D (1986) How Ministers Misled Britain about Chernobyl. New Scientist. October 9.