Thursday, September 08, 2005

Lessons from Chernobyl

This week saw some good news. According to a group of experts, we should not expect a large number of deaths due to the accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. Four thousand people is certainly a lot. But some had feared that tens of thousands might die. This number of deaths from radiation induced cancer is in fact only 3% of the 25% who will die from cancer anyway. And in many cases it will not be possible to see elevated rates of cancers in the statistics. The exception to this will be in the most highly irradiated 100,000 people, such as emergency workers. Here it is possible to detect a rise in the rates of leukemia, a cancer of the blood and the most common form of radiation induced cancer.

So many people in the region, though, have lived the past 20 years believing their lives will be curtailed by the contamination they received. In fact, most people received a relatively small dose, well within the normal range that humans receive. Yet their lives have been blighted because of the fear of something that cannot be seen or touched or tasted was far worse than reality. Chernobyl remains such an icon in history. But Bhopal was by far the worst industrial accident.

Incidentally, in the forthcoming Economist piece there is a chart showing a rise in birth defects in Belarus. In both contaminated and uncontaminated regions the rise is the same. Radiation has not made it less safe to have children. So what is causing the rise? Better reporting, say the scientists.

Humans vs animals
Meanwhile in the 10km immediately surrounding the reactor, where agriculure, industry and houses are forbidden, the largest wildlife are doing very well indeed. The area has become a wildlife sanctuary for moose, roe deer, Russian wild boar, foxes, river otters, rabbits as well as the endangered black stork. (See the report here) . As it notes, the effects of humans on wildlife are worse than the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

Chernobyl wiki
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Motorcylist Elana Filatova has explored the towns and villages around the Chernobyl reactor by bike. Her photostories from the region can be found at Kid of Speed.