The 27th anniversary of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl reminds us of both a sad legacy and a positive impact on the future.
The bad news came first. Chernobyl stunned many with the first total core meltdown of a nuclear reactor. A massive amount of deadly radiation encircled the northern hemisphere, affecting three billion people, and entered human bodies through breathing and the food chain. Some of the 100-plus radioactive chemicals from Chernobyl last for hundreds and thousands of years.
How many did Chernobyl harm? Before scientific studies could be done, skeptics commonly used the number 31 – the number of rescue workers extinguishing toxic fires who absorbed a very high radiation dose and died in a matter of days.
Beginning just six years after the 1986 meltdown, medical journal articles began to show rising numbers of
people with certain diseases near Chernobyl. The first of these was children with thyroid cancer. Officials at a 2005 meeting in Vienna estimated 9,000 persons worldwide had developed cancer from the meltdown. But many anecdotes and studies had piled up, suggesting the real number was much greater.
In 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences published a book by a trio of Russian researchers, headed by Alexei Yablokov; one of us (JDS) edited the book. Yablokov’s team gathered an incredible 5,000 reports and studies. Many were written in Slavic languages and had never been seen by the public. The book documented high levels of disease in many organs of the body, even beyond the former Soviet Union. The Yablokov team estimated
985,000 persons died worldwide, a number that has risen since.
Government and industry leaders in the nuclear field assured the world that the lesson of Chernobyl had been learned, and that another full core meltdown would never occur. But on March 11, 2011 came the tragedy at Fukushima, releasing enormous amounts of radioactivity from not just one, but three reactor cores, and a pool storing nuclear waste. Again, the radioactivity circled the globe. Estimates of eventual casualties are in the many thousands.
In an odd way, Fukushima triggered the positive impact of Chernobyl. The two disasters are a major reason why few new nuclear reactors are being built, and why existing units are now closing. All but two (2) of 50 Japanese reactors remain shut. Germany closed six (6) of its units permanently and its government pledged to close the others by 2022. Swiss officials made a similar vow.
In the U.S., most plans to build dozens of new reactors have been scrapped or postponed. The nation’s first two reactor closings since 1998 occurred this year. More shut downs will follow, say nuclear executives who assert that nuclear power costs more to produce than from natural gas or wind. Reactors cost more largely due to greater dangers that require more time for construction, more staff to operate, more security measures, more regulations to comply with, and huge amounts to secure after shut down.
If Chernobyl harmed many people, it may also eventually save many lives by speeding the shut down of reactors. Fewer meltdowns would mean fewer casualties. But ending routine releases of radioactivity into the environment would also reduce the count. Studies have found that in local areas after reactor closing, fewer infants die, fewer children develop cancer, and eventually fewer adults develop cancer. Chernobyl left a tragic impact, but eventual outcomes will be positive ones.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project. He is the author of Mad Science: the Nuclear Power Experiment (OR Books, 2012).
Janette D. Sherman MD is an internist and toxicologist, and editor of Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.