Alps Still Contaminated by Radiation from Chernobyl
Alps Still Contaminated by Radiation from Chernobyl
By: Maryann DeLeo
Source: Associated Press International "Report: Alps still contaminated by radiation from Chernobyl." Associated Press Archive. (May 2, 1998).
About the Author: The Associated Press (AP), one of the world's largest news-gathering and -disseminating organizations, is owned by more than 1,500 newspapers around the world. Its resources include digital, visual, aural, and electronic media. In addition, the AP maintains an extensive archive of photographs, articles, reports, and speeches.
When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, 1986, four reactors were in operation, and two more were under construction. Fatigued and inadequately trained employees, operating without adequate safety precautions, were testing the reactor core system's stability during a power shut-down when a chain of events overheated the reactor, causing an explosion and core fire that killed thirty-two people outright and spewed massive amounts of radioactive material into the air for nine days.
Because much of the debris settled in the area immediately around Chernobyl,—Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine—these countries were the most heavily contaminated, a catastrophe that affected about seven million people. Shifting winds, however, carried nuclear particles and contaminated dust to Scandinavia, northern France, the United Kingdom, the southern regions of Germany, Switzerland, Poland, and the Baltic states.
Effects of the Chernobyl explosion were far-reaching and long-lasting. The leaking "sarcophagus," of reactor 4 gave off vast amounts of more than one hundred radioactive contaminants, three of which were predominant: strontium-90, which has a radio-active half-life of twenty-nine years, cesium-137, with a half-life of thirty years; and iodine-131, which has a half-life of eight days. This means that high levels of cesium and strontium will remain in the environment for the foreseeable future. (Half-life is the length of time required for half of the atoms in an element to dissipate.)
Although most of the radioactive iodine decayed quickly, other contaminants were readily absorbed by the creatures living in areas affected by the radiation cloud, sharply increasing their risk of developing leukemia as well as thyroid and other forms of cancer. In addition, radiation was absorbed by soil, water, plants, and trees. Contaminated grains and crops were eaten by animals and humans, leading to the ingestion of more radioactive materials, both in foodstuffs and dairy products. As animals and humans both drank the water, and fish swam in it, still more radioactive materials were consumed. Radiation in the atmosphere was absorbed by clouds, which literally rained down onto the earth again, increasing contaminants in water and sewage systems still further.
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In Belarus, where more than 50 percent of the radioactive fallout came to rest, about one-quarter of the farmland has been contaminated and is no longer usable. In Ukraine, where forestry and related industries are extremely important components of the country's economy, 40 percent of the forests have been contaminated.
A surprising amount of partially contaminated agrarian land is still in use, although the governments of Belarus and Ukraine have tried to limit the amount of radiation in the food chain with programs that teach farmers the safest ways to manage their farmland and by providing "clean" food for livestock. While this helped large commercial agrarian establishments, it did little for the thousands of subsistence farmers who keep livestock and grow crops for their own consumption and small-scale market trade.
In Ukraine the timber industries have been devastated, as have food and living environments for countless birds and small animals. As yet, no published studies have documented the long-term impact of this contamination on rural communities that depend on the forests as a source of food—birds, small game, berries, and mushrooms—and construction materials.
In the explosion's immediate aftermath, an area spanning eighteen kilometers (roughly thirty miles) around the reactor was deemed fully contaminated and uninhabitable. Residents were eventually evacuated from this area and forced to relocate, but their lives were changed irrevocably. Having been exposed to radioactive contamination, they had to anticipate potential future health concerns such as the development of leukemia as well as thyroid and other types of cancer.
Although people were eventually forced to move, the government initially underplayed the magnitude of the disaster and did not evacuate people in the hardest-hit areas rapidly enough; neither did authorities ensure that all affected citizens were given iodine to diminish the risk of thyroid cancer. Taken together, the forced relocations, lack of adequate emergency health management, and economic losses have been enormous. Not surprisingly, the incidence of depressive disorders and alcohol abuse has also increased dramatically in the regions affected most by Chernobyl.
Yet another aspect of life after Chernobyl has become even more complex and abstract: Millions must learn how to live in a world filled with insidious radiation, which cannot be seen, heard, or felt in any direct way. Livestock that have eaten plants and grains grown on irradiated soil taste no different than those that were not; children look healthy until they develop cancer. The emotional and psychological effects are devastating: Not only do people live knowing that radiation is present, they're uncertain about their long-term health, and have lost faith in their leaders.
Although public reports tried to minimize the severity of the disaster's effects, people could see dramatic increases in leukemia, thyroid cancer—particularly among children and young adults, and birth defects, which have risen 250 percent since the explosion, according to the Chernobyl Children's Project International (CCPI) and statistics released by the Belarus government.
Due to the paucity of trained local care providers and the very extensive needs of these children, many of them are institutionalized. The Vesnova Orphanage, a facility with poor sanitary conditions and inadequate health care that houses many of them, was dragged into the limelight of global media by the CCPI. This helped bring about a major construction project and secured greater professional staffing at the facility, markedly improving the quality of care there.
Because regions farther away from Chernobyl—much of Europe and, eventually, the entire world—were exposed to significantly less radiation, the effects on long-term health have been more difficult to assess. The World Health Organization has estimated that the increased incidence of thyroid and other types of cancer (various forms of leukemia and solid tumor cancers) may be difficult to distinguish from other factors. It is known that soil in areas exposed to fallout registered elevated levels of radiation more than a decade after the incident. This suggests that people have been exposed to at least low-level radiation over that time, either by ingestion or direct exposure, thereby increasing the possibility of long-term health effects.
Jacob, P., T. I. Bogdanova, E. Buglova, et. al. "Thyroid Cancer Risk in Areas of Ukraine and Belarus Affected by the Chernobyl Accident." Radiation Research 165, no. 8 (January 2006): 1-8.
Chernobyl.info. "The International Communications Platform on the Longterm Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster." 〈http://www.chernobyl.info/〉 (accessed December 18, 2005).
Greenpeace International. "Whitewashing Chernobyl's Impacts." 〈http://www.greenpeace.org/international/press/releases/whitewashing-chernobyl-s-impac〉 (accessed December 18, 2005).
World Nuclear Association. "Chernobyl Accident: September 2005." 〈http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/chernobyl/inf07.htm〉 (accessed December 18, 2005).