'Expect the fallout to become worse': Chernobyl 30 years on

A gas mask in an abandoned building in the 'ghost town' of Pripyat near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Source: Getty Images

When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded on April 26, 1986 it was Sweden who first alerted the world to the unfolding disaster. Thirty years on, new research is showing the disaster may have been even more damaging than first thought.

The fear of radiation still disturbs the people of Sweden even 30 years on from the Chernobyl disaster.

There is talk of cancer clusters caused by the radioactive particles that blew on to the country with on the winds and rain in the days following the massive nuclear explosion and fire at reactor number four.

With the Chernobyl reactor deep within the secretive Soviet Union in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat, it took a Swedish nuclear worker to raise the first alarm about the nuclear disaster.

Walking into the Forsmark nuclear power plant near the Swedish town of Uppsala, Clifford Robinson set off a radiation detection alarm.

“They thought first of all there was a leak at the power plant itself and they started to investigate this,” Uppsala University applied nuclear physics researcher Mattias Lantz told SBS News.

“Later on the same day the authorities realised this must come from somewhere else, some other country and then they started to back track on winds, weather patterns and most likely it was somewhere in the Soviet Union.”

As Swedes realised the extent of what happened, a fear gripped the country – a fear of radiation and what would happen next.

“From a personal perspective I was a teenager at the time, I was very afraid about this,” Dr Lantz said.

“I lived in a small town right on the border where some of the [radioactive] rain fell and I always believed this myth in small communities: there’s so many cancers here and it’s due to the rain from Chernobyl.

“Many people have this in their mind, and so do I, but I work with this and know this doesn’t make sense.

“The Chernobyl accident itself was an explosion in a type of reactor that no other country in the world ever used because it’s inherently unsafe so the rest of the world decided this is not the reactor type we would like to build.”

There were also fears for Sweden’s agriculture industry and the country’s food sources.

“This was in spring, late April, so the growing season had not really started but farmers were told to keep the cows inside, not let them out and give them other fodder than them grazing outside,” Dr Lantz said.

“There were limitations put in effect and monitoring was put in place immediately so no radioactive milk was ever distributed in the stores and so on, so there has been no thyroid cancer increase in Sweden.

“There was some concern with the long term effect of radioactive cesium, which has a 30 year half-life, so we have limitations on food for general staple food there’s a certain limit and then there’s a slightly higher limit for mushrooms, berries, reindeer meat, roe deer meat – things that people don’t eat very often.”

Investigating lasting health effects

In the years since the disaster many studies have been done in an attempt to determine the lasting effects of the massive nuclear fallout.

Uppsala University senior applied nuclear physics lecturer Michael Osterlund told SBS News in countries outside of the immediately affected area, including Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, the health impact was low.

“Depending on which model you use you can calculate that there should be a number of incidents of cancer, but in real life you cannot detect that above the background of all other cancer cases that are taking place,” he said.

“There has been no medical affect that has been measureable in the Swedish population.”

Dr Lantz said a formula used by scientists to assume the likely impact on certain populations, called linear no threshold hypothesis, showed there would be about 100 extra cancer cases over 60 years in a country like Sweden.

“Since we have 30,000 people every year getting cancer you will never see this in the statistics,” he said.

However University of Melbourne associate professor Tilman Russ told SBS News the more scientists studied the fallout from Chernobyl, the worse the results became.

“We can expect the fallout to become worse,” he said.

“I’ve worked in medicine and public health for close to 40 years and no other area, no other industry has been inappropriately subjected to so much interference and manipulation by governments and industry groups to down play the risks.”

Dr Russ, who is also the co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, said recent research had found small doses of radiation were more harmful than first thought.

“Normal background radiation from the environment, from the stars, from rocks, from food and water is around two to three millisieverts per year,” he said.

“It is recommended workers in the nuclear industry receive no more than 20 millisieverts and members of the public no more than one millisieverts of additional radiation.

“Research on nuclear industry workers showed even a dose as low as one millisieverts per year, which is less than the background radiation, increased their risk of cancer demonstrably.”

He said people who received a dose of between 200 and 300 millisieverts would start to show health effects and a dose of 500 millisieverts would show itself in symptoms of radiation sickness including nausea, diarrhoea and hair loss.

The risk of developing leukaemia, thyroid cancer and other cancers was likely to increase after even low radiation doses, Dr Russ said, along with associated health problems that accompanied nuclear disasters.

These included depression, increased rates of alcoholism, heart and respiratory disease, mental health problems and suicide along with social isolation, dislocation and unemployment.

In the area surrounding the Chernobyl power plant more than 6000 children developed thyroid cancer in the wake of the disaster while workers and emergency services personnel succumbed to radiation sickness in the days and weeks following the explosion.

Dr Russ said the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which works with the World Health Organsation, had found it was most likely the Chernobyl disaster had resulted in between 30,000 to 40,000 extra cancer deaths worldwide.

He said authorities like the International Atomic Energy Agency had deliberately down-played the risks associated with nuclear power and the results of nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, where residents were still being told doses of under 100 millisieverts were not dangerous.

“The more we know about radiation and health the worse it looks,” he said.

“Cancers don’t have any particular signifier that identifies them as having been caused by radiation.”

More comprehensive cancer and health records need to be kept to allow doctors and scientists to identify when there has been a spike in cancers and diseases that could be linked to nuclear disasters, Dr Russ said.

However this was not done at the time of Chernobyl, or even Fukushima, so there are not sufficient records to conclusively prove any link between radiation and cancer.

What next for nuclear power?

In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster and its fallout, Sweden passed new laws that prevented any new nuclear power plants ever being built and four of the country’s 10 reactors are due to be decommissioned in the coming years.

Dr Osterlund said nuclear research was working at funding ways to reuse spent fuel rods to reduce nuclear waste and allow the nuclear power to be more widely used as an alternative to fossil fuels.

“There is research going on when it comes to generation four reactors which try to address some of these issues that people see with nuclear power today, for instance how to handle the waste,” he said.

“In generation four we would like to use the spent nuclear fuel as new fuel for these reactors in order to reduce the amount of long-lived isotopes that have to be taken care of for thousands of years.”

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