Nuclear Accident At Chernobyl And The Future Of Nuclear Power

Chernobyl has been the worst accident in the history of the nuclear power industry, and in many ways the worst accident ever in human efforts to tap into the energy of the Universe. Indeed, the nuclear industry has nearly given us the same result as all out nuclear war. In and by itself, this ought to be enough to convince us to either limit future development of nuclear power strategies or abandon it all together. Indeed, the former has partially occurred. Relatively few additional nuclear power plants have been built in the last 20 years and those that have been initiated before that and have come on line, have been subjected to stringent safety protocols. This is certainly as it should be.

In general, deaths associated with nuclear accidents such as the one at Chernobyl may have been spectacularly underestimated or spectacularly overestimated depending on your point of view. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) together seem to agree that deaths from the Chernobyl explosion and it’s immediate aftermath are at about 4,000 whereas an other group has recently and independently assessed the real count at 985,000 and counting.

Indeed, the long ago assessment of 4,000 deaths associated with Chernobyl appears to mainly be associated with the the immediate deaths which occurred subsequent to the explosion and with the immediate effects of the pattern of radioactivity immediately dispersed subsequent to the explosion and fire at the main reactor. The later and much more exacting analysis counts not only the initial acute effects of the crisis but also the longer term lingering effects of sizable amounts of radioactivity that resulted in the accelerated deaths of many, mostly from increased cancer rates that may have never increased by the level they did without the initial releases of radiation. In addition to a major increase in chromosomal alterations produced by higher levels of radiation, that will not be going away any time soon, the compromise of basic physiologic systems and, in particular, the immune system would certainly be expected to compromise the general capacity of the populace to ward off disease and contribute in some cases to an early decline and death for some. Indeed, a considerably earlier death for many given the wide spread release of radioactivity is not unreasonable, and that it could be as high as the 985,000 given seems alarming, but possible.

In the years since 1990 the populations of Bellarus, Ukraine, and Russia have all been in decline. Deaths occurring in each of those three countries taken together would collectively add up to a number well in excess of one million. Thus, the estimation of 985,000 deaths which would primarily have to come from these three countries is not a problem — it just adds the 985,000 to an already very large number. Birth rates in all three countries are also declining as they are in many countries. Immigration into and emigration from ea h of these countries is something that changed after 1990 as the Cold War ended and the USSR was divided up into Russia and the other separate republics, but once again does not call into question either the 4,000 or the 985,000 numbers given above.

A substantial amount of radiation was released from Chernobyl and distributed around the world mostly as Cesium-137, Iodine-131, Stromtium-90 and Plutonium isotopes: Plutonium-239 and 240. Much of the radioactive fallout landed in Bellarus, Ukraine and Russia. Secondarily fallout went to Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Sweden and the U.K. Also, lessen amonts, about 10 percent of the total radioactivity released went into Asia — mostly Eastern Turkey and Central China. North America received only about one percent of the total radioactivity released from Chernobuyl.

Overall, the general state of health of the most highly hit regions after the radiation releases at Chernobyl has been compromised. The genetic impact of increased chromosomal damage has occurred in regions where there has been major fallout. in the period from 1900 to 2000 cancer mortality increased by 40 percent, and more so in the most highly contaminated provinces and less in those provinces less contaminated by radionuclides. In the major regions affected the data on plants and animals is also instructive. While it is more difficult to predict the long range effect in plants, the data in animals on tumor rate, immunodeficiencies, and decreasing life expectancies parallel what is seen in humans.

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