The Chernobyl Accident and Some Lessons for Zaparozhye

Photograph Source: Carl Montgomery – Flickr – CC BY 2.0

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1986 was the first very serious energy reactor accident to occur on the planet. (I leave aside the Windscale UK fire). The second was Fukushima in 2011. Both involved nuclear (not steam) explosions that contaminated the biosphere with the contents of the reactors, hundreds of tons of Uranium fuel contaminated with the radioactive fission products like Caesium-137, Strontium-90 and activation products like Plutonium-239. Focusing on Chernobyl, the disaster arguably destroyed the Soviet Union, caused more than a million cancer deaths in Europe, together with a significant increase in genetic diseases, and premature ageing in the most exposed populations like those of Belarus and Ukraine.

What the accident also revealed, was the failure of the radiation risk model based on the Hiroshima cancer lifespan study to predict or explain the health effects. Since, in the West anyway, the legal limits for exposure, based on this risk model (that of the International Commission on Radiation Protection, ICRP) were challenged by what was clearly emerging from the contaminated territories as a health meltdown, the cover-up cavalry took over. I was in Kiev in 2001 at the World Health Organisation conference giving an invited paper on infant leukemia, where I saw the IAEA scientists controlling the information.

From the audience Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian doctors and researchers were trying to show what was happening, whilst the IAEA and WHO controllers were trying to shut them up. It was theatre, and recorded for posterity by Wladimir Tchertkoff in his video documentary “Nuclear Controversies”. Tchertkoff died last week; another one bites the dust. In 2001 there was Alexey Yablokov, Wassily Nesterenko, Elena Burlakova, another brave scientist who consistently showed that the fallout from Chernobyl and other radioactive contamination was systematically destroying life on Earth. All dead now, and I am the Last of the Mohicans. Before he died, Yablokov wrote 2 books about the health consequences of the Chernobyl accident, one with me, and both filled with data on the dead, the sad, the sick, the babies, the cancer, the leukemia, the premature ageing, that followed internal radioactivity from the air, the food and the water.

In the West, Chernobyl victims lives were cast as a consequence of “radiophobia” since the Hiroshima model failed to predict anything. The “Dose was too low”.

Prof Yablokov and I with some other independent scientists addressed the risk model failure by founding the European Committee on Radiation Risk, in 1998. At that time, we also had Prof Alice Stewart and Dr Rosalie Bertell. Of the original core group, only Prof Inge Schmitz Feuerhake and I now remain. But through the help of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and a few other charities including the Goldsmith Foundation and also contributions from my USA attorney friend Stuart Smith (who died last year) we managed to develop an alternative model which does predict and explain the consequences of the Chernobyl contamination and also Fukushima explosions. It also explains the origin of the global cancer epidemic that began in 1980—atmospheric nuclear testing, the downstream genetic effects of exposure to Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons

Since Fukushima, more and more evidence has appeared both in the scientific peer review literature and in gray literature, that the radiation exposure issue is the most important failure of science and policy in human history. It is easy to show, using the numbers, using epidemiology, that more than 300 million people have developed cancer ascribable to the atmospheric weapons fallout of the 1960s. The ICRP risk model is in error for internal exposures by upwards of 10,000-fold. Yet nothing is done, and the evidence is suppressed.

Much of this evidence derives from Chernobyl studies. But attempts to publish the evidence in the scientific literature are consistently blocked by reviewers, and when the issue is taken into courts, the defence always pays up before it gets to a trial. Why? Because the world needs nuclear energy, and the military need nuclear bombs, nuclear submarines and Depleted Uranium weapons.

But from my perspective, as a scientist who has worked in this field for 30 years, Chernobyl is the pivot upon which the truth about radiation and health rests. In 1996, the European Commission created the Radiation Basic Safety Standards Directive BSS 96/29. The Greens asked for my advice. I anticipated health effects from the Chernobyl disaster (indeed I had been advised of some horrifying Chernobyl data from Petra Kelly of the German Greens in 1992) and suggested they introduce a suicide clause. This they did, and it appeared in the finalised legal instrument. It has remained in versions of this BSS ever since, and is also in the UK version after Brexit. It states that if new and important information appears that makes the scientific basis of the BSS law (the ICRP model) unsafe, all processes involving exposure must be reassessed and Justified (i.e. cost benefit). But governments do nothing; the law is ignored.

Since 2016 evidence has emerged (and published in the scientific literature) that the Japanese Lifespan Study of the Hiroshima victims was dishonestly manipulated by dismissing the control group who were not in the city at the time of the bomb. Additionally, evidence has emerged that the main cause of the cancers in the Japanese at Hiroshima was not the external prompt gamma radiation, but exposure to the Black Rain, radioactive microparticles of Uranium-234 from the un-fissioned remnants of the bomb. The Japanese government conceded this in 2021 when it lost the case taken by the Black Rain hibakushas who developed cancer but had been too far from the detonation to have any external dose.

Despite all this, and other evidence, “new and important evidence” government agencies in Europe and the UK sit on their hands whilst people die.

So, what does all this mean for us today? What is its relevance to what is happening in Ukraine. There are three points. They all follow from the huge errors in the radiation risk model. The first is that a nuclear war is unwinnable and will destroy what’s left of the genetic integrity of life on Earth. But let’s hope that doesn’t happen. What may happen is bad enough.

Start with Depleted Uranium. I studied DU effects in Iraq and in Kosovo. The levels of cancer and genetic birth defects were astronomical, higher than seen at Hiroshima. I have written elsewhere about this. So, if the West (or anyone) uses DU, the same effects will appear locally and also remotely wherever the wind blows. We have seen the effects of Chernobyl on childhood leukemia in Wales and Scotland where the particles came down in the rain. I have an epidemiological paper on this submitted to a journal right now. And another paper where I show that someone has been using Uranium weapons in Ukraine already, with increases in Uranium particles in the air filters deployed near the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Reading UK.

Then there is Zaporozhye. This one is a very real and potential nightmare. The nuclear energy site on the East bank of the Kakhovka lake involves six VVER 1000MW pressurized water reactors together with their spent fuel pools and spent fuel dry storage systems. All reactors are currently in cold shutdown, but that does not make them safe, and particularly it does not make the spent fuel pools and spent fuel dry storage assemblies safe. When you take the spent fuel out of one of these reactors, you are talking about 312 rod assemblies totalling 66 tons of spent enriched Uranium, containing a list of very radioactive fission products and neutron activation alpha emitters like Plutonium.  These go into a water pond to cool, and when a bit cooler, they go to dry storage where they are cooled to about 350 degrees. How long they stay in the water, and how long they are in the dry storage I don’t know. But since they have nowhere else to go, presumably until there is some solution developed where they are stuck in the ground, like the Swedish Forsmark operation that I have had a lot to do with they are still there. The half live of the longest element, U-238 is about 4.7 Billion Years (Yes).

OK, So what’s the problem? If the cooling fails, then the assemblies melt and when this happens they pool in the bottom of the containment vessel, the neutron flux goes vertical and you have an atomic explosion. Such an explosion would certainly make it impossible to cool the other assemblies and they also would melt and explode. In the 6 reactors, which have run for about 30 years, there are theoretically 6 x 30 x 66 x 2 tons assuming two refuellings a year. Where is my calculator? Ah, that is 23,760 tons of Uranium, plus the trimmings. Well I may have this a bit wrong—but you get the picture.

This would certainly wipe out Ukraine, and quite possible Europe, perhaps further afield.

An early version of a single exploding spent fuel tank scenario was the Chelyabinsk (Kyshtym) explosion in 1957, which cause the contamination of 52,000 sq km with hot particles and where 10,000 people were evacuated. Those who have watched Tarkovski’s “Stalker” will see the landscape.

This is all possible. Loss of coolant is the problem. So how could that happen?

A direct hit on a water fuel pool is unlikely: these are inside the main reactor containment. A direct hit on the Dry Storage systems? Well, I don’t know how well protected these are.

A wipeout of all the backup electricity for the pumps—they have backup diesel generators. But what if those also go down, as they did in Fukushima? Well, also very unlikely—but recall Murphy’s law. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.

No. There is one very nasty possibility. If the dam holding back the lake is blown, then there is no cooling water. And this is something that is entirely feasible. Then, as far as I can see, away we go, goodbye Europe.

What can be done to avert this?

Well, I can see that the IAEA are freaking out. They want to take control of the NPP. But I can’t see that averts the possibility of the loss of the lake. I see the IAEA as a project aimed at supporting NATO’s project in Ukraine with some radiation fig leaves. I have dealt with the IAEA and not trust them an inch—they are an emanation of the United States and do not believe that DU is dangerous.

What must be done is that the possibility of Ukraine destroying the dam must be made to be zero. And Quickly.

Dr Chris Busby is the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Riskand the author of Uranium and Health – The Health Effects of Exposure to Uranium and Uranium Weapons Fallout (Documents of the ECRR 2010 No 2, Brussels, 2010). For details and current CV see For accounts of his work see and