GOMEL, Belarus — Three decades after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded and sent a plume of radiation as far away as the United Kingdom, fears remain that the world’s worst nuclear disaster could still trigger cancer, illness and more deaths.
The initial accident on April 26, 1986, killed at least 28 people when an explosion during a routine test destroyed reactor No. 4 at the plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, then part of the former Soviet Union. The reactor was later entombed in a sarcophagus of steel and concrete to contain the radiation, but it started leaking. A new cover for the reactor is due to be completed in 2017.
The total death toll from cancer from the accident is projected to reach 4,000 for people exposed to high doses of radiation, and another 5,000 deaths among those who had less radiation exposure, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
At the same time, those organizations say there is no evidence of higher rates of death or illness for the 5 million people still living on contaminated lands in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
USA TODAY’s Kim Hjelmgaard takes us inside of Chernobyl Exclusion Zones for a closer look at the impact of the disaster decades later. Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
Some doctors, scientists and health workers who live and work in the region insist the death toll will be far higher — up to 1 million under a worst-case scenario study published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2011. They acknowledge it’s difficult to separate natural rates of cancer and illness in the general population from cases that could be attributed to Chernobyl, but they say the clinical evidence on the ground is overwhelming.
“The government in Ukraine speaks very openly about the fact that it thinks the problem of Chernobyl is firmly in the past — that the majority of deaths have already been accounted for, and that with each passing anniversary things will only get better,” said Liudmyla Zakrevska, president of Children of Chernobyl, a group based in Kiev, Ukraine, that raises money to treat children connected to the accident. “We are constantly trying to show the authorities that in reality this problem is not going anywhere.”
Zakrevska said there are “thousands upon thousands of Chernobyl children who have severely compromised immune systems.”
Not all experts consider the current situation so dire.
“The biggest health danger from Chernobyl is from panic and stress caused by very inaccurate reporting by the news media,” said Michael Fox, a radiation biologist at Colorado State University. “We are constantly exposed to both internal and external sources of radiation with no problem unless it is very high.”
Fox said the consensus of “the mainstream scientific community is that Chernobyl was not as bad as we feared.”
Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist from Belarus who specializes in Chernobyl’s impact on children, was jailed for his criticism of the country’s public health policies after the disaster. He said there are no healthy children in some areas of Ukraine, where he now works, and illness rates have increased for all age groups.
“I don’t like the term ‘low dose’ (radiation) because it is made up by advocates of nuclear energy,” Bandazhevsky said. “If any amount of radiation gets inside the human body, it decays there, and so the dose is never ‘low.’” he said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based pro-nuclear energy lobby group, said studies have “found no evidence of increases in solid cancers, decreased fertility or congenital malformations” because of Chernobyl.
Keith Baverstock, a former radiation adviser for the World Health Organization and now with the University of Eastern Finland, believes Chernobyl will kill between 30,000 and 60,000 people.
This May 9, 1986, photo shows the stricken reactor No. 2 of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant of Chernobyl after the explosion caused severe damage and radioactive fallout that spread across Europe. Ukraine’s Health Minister, Andry Serduik, said April 22 that more than 12,500 people put to work clearing up the reactor explosion had died since the disaster. It was the first time such a major figure expressed himself, and foreign experts were quick to shed doubt on it. (Photo: AFP)
This is a 1986 aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, showing damage from an explosion and fire on April 26, 1986, that sent large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. (Photo: Tass via AP)
An employee checks the level of radiation in theChernobylreactor inMay 1986. (Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
A Chernobyl nuclear power plant worker holding a dosimeter to measure radiation level is seen against the background of a sarcophagus under construction over the fourth destroyed reactor on this photo taken in 1986. On May 12, 1986, the leading Soviet daily newspaper ‘Pravda’ published its first photograph from the site, shot three days earlier from a helicopter by Volodymyr Repik. “If I had been ordered now to get aboard and go, I would not have gone _ you might have easily died there for nothing,” said the 65-year-old Repik. (Photo: Volodymyr Repik, AP)
A unique photo of the fourth destroyed reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant made by the plant’s photographer, Anatoliy Rasskazov, in the first hours after the deadly April 26, 1986, explosion. A highly radioactive vapor trail is seen coming from the heart of the destroyed reactor. He died in 2010 of Chernobyl-related cancer. (Photo: Anatoliy Rasskazov, AP)
A cemetery of radioactive highly contaminated vehicles is seen near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Nov. 10, 2000. Some 1,350 Soviet military helicopters, buses, bulldozers, tankers, transporters, fire engines and ambulances were used while fighting against the April 26, 1986, nuclear accident at Chernobyl. All were irradiated during the clean-up operation. (Photo: Efrem Lukatsky, AP)
In this 1986 photo, a helicopter throwing chemicals to suppress radiation approaches the fourth destroyed reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (Photo: Volodymyr Repik, AP)
Two Soviet technicians control the level of water radioactivity in front of a group of Soviet and foreign newsmen who have been permitted to enter the Kiev area on May 09,1986, in the 30 km forbidden area around Chernobyl after the nuclear plant No. 4 reactor’s blast, on April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear accident of the 20th century. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Finnish authorities test milk after the Chernobyl catastrophe on April 30, 1986. (Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
On Oct. 2, 1989, in the Tchernobyl area, a woman holds a disabled, newly-born pig victim of the radioactivity fallout of the Chernobyl power plant accident in 1986. (Photo: Laes Grandstrand, AFP/Getty Images)
This is a view taken in September 1986 of Ternopolskoye village in the Kiev region, which provided new homes for evacuated people from the Chernobyl nuclear plant area. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Valentin Maslyuk, 59, undergoes his dialysis treatment at home. He was one of the 600,000 ‘likwitators’ who were sent to Chernobyl to clean up after the disaster. Soon after he had high blood pressure, a stroke, diabetes and disabling bone pains that make sleep impossible. Radiation specialists expected nearly 1 million people to develop cancer as a direct result of the accident. In Belarus, next door to Ukraine, almost 400,000 people were forced to leave their homes and become environmental refugees as a result of the contamination left by the explosion. Around 2,000 towns and villages have been abandoned and become a radioactive desert, overgrown with poisoned vegetation and fenced off by barbed wire. Twenty years after the disaster, 99% of the land in Belarus was contaminated; 25% of Belarusan farmland was a nuclear wasteland. Thyroid cancer has increased by 2,400%. Congenital birth defects have increased by 250% and there was a 1,000% increase in suicides in the contaminated areas. (Photo: Tom Stoddart, Getty Images)
Ukrainian Academy of Sciences member Vyacheslav Konovalov, who has studied biological mutations appearing since the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, shows a dried human deformed fetus in his laboratory in Zhytomyr, 75 miles west of Kiev, Ukraine, on March 11, 1996. The fetus died after 12 weeks. Konovalov found dozens of new bacteria and viruses and new forms of plant and animal diseases after the Chernobyl catastrophe. “We’re all victims of civilization. These are just the ones who suffered most,” he said. (Photo: Efrem Lukstdky, AP)
Five-year-old Alec Zhloba, a Leukemia cancer patient, looks on in a children cancer unit at a hospital in Gomel, Belarus, on March 19, 1996. Traces of medical treatment are seen on his head, which became bald after chemotherapy. The 1986 deadly explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant sent radioactive clouds through Ukraine, Belarus and much of Europe. (Photo: Efrem Luktasky, AP)
Vika Chervinska, an 8-year-old Ukrainian girl suffering from cancer, waits to receive treatment with her mother at the children’s hospital in Kiev, on April 18, 2006. Greenpeace said in a report that more than 90,000 people were likely to die of cancers caused by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, countering a United Nations report that predicted the death toll would be around 4,000. The differing conclusions underline the contentious uncertainty that remains about the health effects of the world’s worst nuclear accident. (Photo: Oded Balilty, AP)
Kostya Parshukov, 12, undergoes a procedure to withdraw cells from his thyroid gland on March 12, 1996, to test for the presence of cancer cells at the Institute of Endocrinology in Kiev. Dr. Yuri Hayda performs the test. (Photo: GNS)
Young patients fill a room at the Institute of Endocrinology on March 22, 1996, in Kiev, where they are being treated for thyroid illnesses resulting from exposure to an excess of radiation. (Photo: GNS)
A medical worker bends over a 17-year-old girl who had just undergone a thyroid cancer surgery at the intensive care unit of the Endocrinology Institute in Kiev, Ukraine, on Nov. 30, 2000. Thyroid glands attract radiation, and thyroid cancer is gradually claiming victims in the Ukraine. While no cases were registered in Ukraine from 1981 to 1985, 1,217 people, most of whom were children or adolescents at the time of the Chernobyl explosion, were operated on for thyroid cancer between 1986 and 1999. (Photo: EFREM LUKATSKY, Associated Press)
Yulia Kostina, 9, from the southern Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, is embraced by her mother at the intensive-care unit of the Endocrinology Institute in Kiev, Ukraine, Nov. 30, 2000. Kostina underwent cancer surgery to remove thyroid and lymphatic nodes. (Photo: Efrem Lukatsky, AP)
Volodya Gutsyev, 62, looks into a small mirror to adjust the opening to his throat from a traecheotomy as he recovers from surgery due to cancer to his larynx at the oncology clinic on April 6, 2016 in Gomel, Belarus. (Photo: Sean Gallup, Getty Images)
Rosa Tsaryevna, 60, recovers from surgery to her thyroid at the oncology clinic on April 6, 2016, in Gomel, Belarus. While the link between radiation contamination from Chernobyl and many health conditions in the region remains controversial, scientists agree that a dramatic rise in thyroid cancer cases since 1986 is due largely to exposure toradioactive iodine inpeopleyounger than 18 at the time. Radioactive iodine was among the cocktail of radioactive isotopes the Chernobyl blast spewed into the atmosphere. However, the head of the Gomel clinic, Vladimir Tatchykhin, said thyroid cancer rates in the Gomel region are continuing to rise even though most of the afflicted under-18 generation has already undergone treatment. Gomel, the biggest city in southeastern Belarus, lies in a zone still contaminated with low levels of radioactive fallout and lies directly between two exclusion zones where authorities deem radiation levels too hazardous for people to return. Tatchykhin said he has also observed a steady increase in other types of cancer, including cancer to the tongue, larynx, breast, skin, prostate, colon and rectum. Rosa said she also underwent surgery for breast cancer several years ago. (Photo: Sean Gallup, Getty Images)