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Myths: A clearer picture of Chernobyl

It’s fairly common to see the words “Chernobyl” and “disaster” paired together. (A search for the term “Chernobyl disaster” using Yahoo turns up over 6.5 million returns.) But was the damage that great? Professor Rafael Arutyunyan, Ph.D. in physics and mathematics and first deputy director of the Institute of Safe Nuclear Power Engineering at the Russian Academy of Sciences feels there are some of the misconceptions surrounding the accident. Here’s his take on them.

Myth: The accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant damaged the health of hundreds of thousands of people.

Facts: The Russian Medical Radiation Monitoring Register tracked 500,000 people for at least 20 years after the accident, looking for serious consequences such cancers and birth defects. It attributes 200 out of 400 cases of thyroid carcinoma, including one fatality, to the incident. The Register found no other ill health effects that could be traced to Chernobyl.

The biological effects of radiation are measured in millisievert (mSv). Of the 2.8 million people who were close to the disaster zone, 2.5 million received an additional amount of radiation of less than 10 mSv, or one-fifth the average global background radiation. Fewer than 2,000 people received an additional dose of about 100 mSv, which is 33% less than residents of Finland, Belgium, and Russia’s Republic of Altai receive annually.

Here’s another way to look at it: Residents living for 20 years in the lightly contaminated areas surrounding Chernobyl receive addition radiation equal to the radiation patients typically receive from a whole-body computer tomography (CAT) scan.

A relevant example of radiation effects on humans is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which killed 210,000. Only 480 of the 86,000 survivors of the tragedy who were regularly screened by the Japanese medical register since 1950 died of radiation-related cancer.

For reference, the death rate from cancers not connected to radiation among any given group of 2.8 million people, irrespective of where they live, is between 4,000 and 6,000 annually, or 80,000 to 120,000 per 20 years.

Myth Two: The genetic consequences of the Chernobyl have been horrific.

Facts: During 60 years of research, the scientists have never documented any genetic mutations connected with radiation. And 20 years after Chernobyl, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, deciding there was no reason to speak about potential genetic mutations, downgraded the related risks by 90%.

Myth: The environment was damaged more severely than human beings.

Facts: According to most experts in radiation, when the health effects on humans are minimal, the effects on the environment are even smaller.

In Chernobyl, only the area next to the destroyed reactor was damaged. This is where trees in the so-called Red Forest received up to 2,000 roentgens. Since then, the environment in and around Chernobyl has fully recovered, which would not have been possible in a chemical disaster.

Here’s a yet another myth, this one debunked by Paul Lorenzini, a nuclear engineer who once served as general manager of operations at the Dept of Energy’s nuclear facilities in Hanford, Washington.

Myth: “The people of Chernobyl were exposed to 90 times greater radiation than that from the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.”

Fact: About 20,000 people died from radiation exposure at Hiroshima and Nagasaki within two to four months after the bombs were dropped. Only 28 died during a similar period after Chernobyl. The myth arises from a comparison showing similar radioactive-fallout levels between the two events. But this comparison ignores the primary and most deadly source of radiation exposure in Japan, the direct burst of gamma and neutron radiation from fissioning within the bomb. There was little to no gamma or neutron radiation at Chernobyl.
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