One Nuclear Reactor Can Pollute Half the Globe - Part Two

November 5, 2010

This week's Update about the impacts of the Chernobyl accident was written by Cathie Sullivan. Cathie visited the ruined Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 2004 and spent several days speaking with local families displaced and suffering health damage from the accident. Since 1980 she has been interested in and studied the work of independent researchers in the field of health and radiation, especially the work of Dr. John Gofman.

In the last CCNS Update we described how the world's major nuclear powers, United Nations agencies, and the nuclear power industry have effectively controlled the public message about atomic radiation and human health.

The cover up of radiation's health effects started immediately after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In the following four years, while 100,000 weakened survivors died, the US authorities forbade all medical studies. The 1986 Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union is another example of the same cover up. Soviet doctors were forbidden to mention radiation in Chernobyl patient reports. Instead health problems were attributed to fatigue, smoking, diet, lifestyle, or irrational fear of radiation. Health data were kept secret, even from patients themselves, for three years after the accident.

Western governments and the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency also tailored Chernobyl's health message by ignoring thousands of studies done by independent local scientists and doctors working in communities around Chernobyl following the accident. These studies often showed worse health damage than did studies funded by Western governments or the UN. In 2009, summaries of 5,000 of these studies were first published in English by the New York Academy of Sciences. See: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 1181.

Some of the findings include:

1. Although half of Chernobyl's radioactivity fell outside of European Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, no health studies have included these areas. In other words, half of the total exposure to Chernobyl's radiation has been ignored.

2. The list of health damages is longer than Western studies show. Examples include: radiation-accelerated aging; brain damage in exposed individuals and their children; fully developed eye cataracts in young people; tooth and mouth abnormalities; blood, heart, lung, stomach, intestine and urinary problems plus bone and skin diseases; glandular problems, especially thyroid cancer and thyroid dysfunction. Genetic damage and birth defects were also found, especially in the children of clean-up workers and newborns in areas with high radiation areas. Immune system damage also increased viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections. For over 20 years, overall illness continues high in exposed populations and these health problems affect millions.

3. Of an estimated 750,000 Chernobyl clean-up workers, approximately 117,000 had died by 2005. Most of these were healthy young people in 1986.

4. Official sources say that in the 70 years following Chernobyl, cancer will claim about 18,500 lives and twice that number will get cancer. The independent scientists say that 18,500 is low by a factor of 21; that cancer deaths will be around 230,000 in Europe plus 19,000 outside Europe; and that environmental contamination will generate new cancers for hundreds of years.

Chernobyl's core lesson is that a very serious nuclear accident can risk the health of millions of people. Although reactors today are much safer than the Chernobyl reactor, we can never eliminate all possibility of a shattering nuclear accident from engineering failure, human error, or terrorist threat.

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