New Report Pegs Eventual Chernobyl Toll at 4,000 Deaths

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident of 20 years ago could eventually claim 4,000 lives, according to a report based on the findings of more than 100 scientists. This number is far below previous estimates that the accident would claim tens of thousands of lives.

The report, "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," released by the Chernobyl Forum, found that to date, fewer than 50 deaths have been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster. Most of the victims were highly exposed rescue workers, many of whom died within months of the accident.

According to the report, approximately 1,000 on-site reactor staff and emergency workers were heavily exposed to high-level radiation on the first day of the accident. Of the more than 200,000 emergency and recovery operation workers exposed during the period from 1986-87, an estimated 2,200 radiation-caused deaths can be expected during their lifetime.

About 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from its contamination and at least nine children died of thyroid cancer. However, the survival rate among such cancer victims, based on the experience in Belarus, has been almost 99 percent.

The report was developed to "help to settle the outstanding questions about how much death, disease and economic fallout really resulted from the Chernobyl accident," said Dr. Burton Bennett, chairman of the Chernobyl Forum and an authority on radiation effects. He said that while workers and thyroid cancer victims had been seriously affected, "we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, within a few exceptional, restricted areas."

Except for the still closed, highly contaminated 30-kilometer area surrounding the reactor, and some closed lakes and restricted forests, radiation levels have mostly returned to acceptable levels. "In most areas, the problems are economic and psychological, not health or environmental," said Dr. Mikhail Balonov, a radiation expert with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mental Health

The report noted that alongside radiation-induced deaths and diseases, the mental health impact of Chernobyl has been the "largest public health problem created by the accident." It noted that persistent myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation have resulted in "paralyzing fatalism" among residents of the affected areas. These residents have negative self-assessments of their health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative and dependency on assistance from the state.

The report called for focusing assistance efforts on highly contaminated areas and redesigning government programs to help those genuinely in need. Suggested changes would shift programs away from those that foster "dependency" and a "victim" mentality, and replace them with initiatives that encourage opportunity, support local development and give people confidence in the future.

The Chernobyl Forum is made up of eight UN agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization, United National Development Programme, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and the World Bank, as well as the governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

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