On this day in science history: Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion
In 1986, in Pripet, Russia, one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded in the world’s worst civil nuclear catastrophe. It sent a cloud of radioactive dust over Europe.
The disaster began during a systems test on 26 April 1986 at reactor number four of the Chernobyl plant. There was a sudden and unexpected power surge, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted, an exponentially larger spike in power output occurred, which led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of steam explosions. These events exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area, including Pripyat. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe. From 1986 to 2000, 350,400 people were evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to official post-Soviet data, about 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus.
|The abandoned city of Pripyat with Chernobyl plant in the distance, by Jason Minshull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have been burdened with the continuing and substantial decontamination and health care costs of the Chernobyl accident. A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency examines the environmental consequences of the accident. Another UN agency, UNSCEAR, has estimated a global collective dose of radiation exposure from the accident “equivalent on average to 21 additional days of world exposure to natural background radiation”; individual doses were far higher than the global mean among those most exposed, including 530,000 local recovery workers who averaged an effective dose equivalent to an extra 50 years of typical natural background radiation exposure each. Estimates of the number of deaths that will eventually result from the accident vary enormously; disparities reflect both the lack of solid scientific data and the different methodologies used to quantify mortality—whether the discussion is confined to specific geographical areas or extends worldwide, and whether the deaths are immediate, short term, or long term.
Thirty-one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. An UNSCEAR report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation at 64 as of 2008. The Chernobyl Forum predicts the eventual death toll could reach 4,000 among those exposed to the highest levels of radiation (200,000 emergency workers, 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas); this figure is a total causal death toll prediction, combining the deaths of approximately 50 emergency workers who died soon after the accident from acute radiation syndrome, nine children who have died of thyroid cancer and a future predicted total of 3940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia.
In a peer-reviewed publication in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006, the authors (following a different conclusion methodology to the Chernobyl Forum study, which arrived at the total predicted death toll of 4,000 after cancer survival rates were factored in) stated, without entering into a discussion on deaths, that in terms of total excess cancers attributed to the accident:
The risk projections suggest that by now Chernobyl may have caused about 1000 cases of thyroid cancer and 4000 cases of other cancers in Europe, representing about 0.01% of all incident cancers since the accident. Models predict that by 2065 about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident, whereas several hundred million cancer cases are expected from other causes.
Also based upon extrapolations from the linear no-threshold model of radiation induced damage, down to zero, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that, among the hundreds of millions of people living in broader geographical areas, there will be 50,000 excess cancer cases resulting in 25,000 excess cancer deaths.
For this broader group, the 2006 TORCH report, commissioned by the European Greens political party, predicts 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths. The environmental advocacy group Greenpeace reports the figure at 200,000 or more.
The Russian founder of that region’s chapter of Greenpeace also authored a book titled Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, which concludes that among the billions of people worldwide who were exposed to radioactive contamination from the disaster, nearly a million premature cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004. The book, however, has failed the peer review process. Of the five reviews published in the academic press, four considered the book severely flawed and contradictory, and one praised it while noting some shortcomings. The review by M. I. Balonov published by the New York Academy of Sciences concludes that the report is of negative value because it has very little scientific merit while being highly misleading to the lay reader. It characterized the estimate of nearly a million deaths as more in the realm of science fiction than science.
The accident raised concerns about nuclear power worldwide and slowed or reversed the expansion of nuclear power stations. The accident also raised concerns about the safety of the Soviet nuclear power industry, slowing its expansion for a number of years and forcing the Soviet government to become less secretive about its procedures. The government coverup of the Chernobyl disaster was a “catalyst” for glasnost, which “paved the way for reforms leading to the Soviet collapse”.
The final shutdown of the undamaged last reactor on the site took place ceremoniously on 15 Dec 2000.
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