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The 1986 Chernobyl Accident; Thirty Years On

13 April 2016

The thirtieth anniversary of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) near the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, will be marked on 26 April 2016.

This is still the most serious accident to occur in the nuclear power industry. The explosion and fire from a damaged reactor released considerable amounts of radioactivity into the environment, which spread over much of the western Soviet Union and Europe.

More than 350,000 people were relocated from within affected areas in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Today many of these areas remain abandoned. Thirty years on we remember the emergency response personnel who gave their lives to protect others and reflect on the many people whose lives continue to be affected by the accident.

In 2008 the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published its assessment of the radiation levels and health effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident. It reported that the accident caused the deaths, within a few weeks, of 30 workers and radiation injuries to over a hundred others.

In the first few weeks after the accident, controls on contaminated food were not implemented in all areas, leading to the consumption of milk with high Iodine-131 concentrations. This resulted in significant radiation doses to the thyroid and increased rates of thyroid cancer, particularly in children living in the most exposed parts of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

At the time of the UNSCEAR Report in 2008 there had been close to 7,000 cases of thyroid cancers amongst children in the affected area (UNSCEAR 2008), a large fraction of this attributable to the accident. The number of deaths from thyroid cancers in this group was less than one per cent of the total number of cases.

Estimates of radiation related health effects vary. A United Nations study published in 2005 estimated an increase of about 4,000 cancer deaths in the exposed population associated with the radiation from the Chernobyl accident (WHO/IAEA/UNDP 2005). Such estimates are uncertain and any increase attributable to radiation is difficult to discern against the much higher total number of cancers that occur, and which are unrelated to the accident (the ‘baseline’ cancers).

There continues to be health issues, both physical and psychological. The Chernobyl Forum Report in 2006 concluded that mental health effects were the most significant public health consequence of the accident.

First responders and clean-up workers had the greatest exposure to radiation and studies show that their rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder remain elevated two decades later.

Residents, particularly very young children, who lived near the plant when it exploded, or in severely affected areas, have been the subject of considerable research related to psychological consequences. General population studies report increased rates of self-rated ill health as well as clinical and subclinical depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, long-term mental well-being continues to be a concern.

While there remains increased radiation in the environment around the accident site, the radiation levels have reduced over the last 30 years due to radioactive decay and other processes. Some species of mammals are found to be thriving without the effect of human contact in the contaminated areas. A nature reserve zone extending north from Chernobyl power plant into Belarus reverted to forest over time. Wildlife including elk, deer, wild boar, and wolves are now in abundance. In 2011 the sealed zone around the Chernobyl reactor was opened up for those who wish to learn more about the tragedy that occurred in 1986.

The Chernobyl reactor is currently enclosed in a large concrete sarcophagus, which was quickly built to allow continuing operation of the other reactors at the plant (the final operating reactor was shut down in 2000). This sarcophagus has a design-based lifespan of 30 years.

A “New Safe Confinement” was to have been built by the end of 2005; however, it has suffered ongoing delays and is expected to be completed in late 2017.

Lessons learnt from the accident have led to improvements in safety, monitoring and emergency response. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) will continue to monitor and assess the impact of the Chernobyl accident as well as the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, on people and the environment.

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