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Ukraine: New Report Says Chornobyl's Final Death Toll To Reach 4,000

Site of the disaster Although exact figures have been elusive, some experts have long estimated that the death toll stemming from the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine could reach the tens or even hundreds of thousands. But according to a new report, the number of total eventual victims may be far lower than those grim estimates -- that is, around 4,000. RFE/RL reports on the new findings by the Chernobyl Forum, a group that includes experts from eight United Nations agencies.

Prague, 6 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly two decades after the world's worst nuclear accident, a new UN report concludes that its consequences were not as dire as predicted.

The Chernobyl Forum report says that so far, some 50 people have been killed as a result of the explosion at Ukraine's Chornobyl power plant. Most were rescue workers who died within months of the accident because of exposure to high doses of radiation.

"Early on, the people who worked in the reactor and so on, there were about 30 deaths acutely from the accident and about another 20 have died over the next two years," World Health Organization expert Dr. Fred Mettler, one of the authors of the report, said.

Chornobyl's Reactor 4 exploded on 26 April 1986, sending a cloud of radiation over Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and much of Europe. The report finds that more than 600,000 people received high levels of exposure, including reactor staff, emergency and recovery personnel, and residents of the nearby areas. But it says that claims that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the accident are exaggerated.

Mettler told RFE/RL that the final death toll from the accident could reach up to 4,000 people. "There are about 4,000 children who got thyroid cancer and to date between about nine to 15 of those have died. That's a slow-growing disease so there may be some more that may in fact die from that," he said. "Then there's the issue of cancers and how many have died is mostly a projection based on dose and risk and the number for the people living in the highly contaminated areas and the people who were highly exposed is projected to be about 4,000 cases."
"There are about 4,000 children who got thyroid cancer and to date between about nine to 15 of those have died. That's a slow-growing disease so there may be some more that may in fact die from that." - UN's Mettler

Alongside deaths and diseases attributed to radiation, the report says that "the mental-health effect" of the accident on the local population is "the largest health problem" created by the explosion in the Ukrainian power plant. The authors say people in the affected areas lack the information they need to lead a healthy life. Many of them report a negative self-health assessment, expect their lives will be shorter and lack initiative.

Mettler said that one lesson that could be learned from the accident is that providing accurate information could lessen the psychological consequences of such disasters. "I think the other one is accurate and timely information from the governments to the media and the media to the people would avoid a huge amount of the subsequent psychological issues," Mettler said.

The report also concluded that, apart from a 30-kilometer area surrounding the Chornobyl site, radiation levels in the area have returned to acceptable levels. But it raised concerns about the condition of the sarcophagus surrounding the plant, and the disposal of radioactive waste from the accident.

The 600-page report, titled "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," includes recommendations to the government of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. It is set to be discussed today and tomorrow at a conference in Vienna under the aegis of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.

But environmental groups are already taking issue. "We think that the report is trying to minimize the impact and this is not only a lack of respect towards the victims but it also leads to dangerous recommendations, such as relocating people in contaminated zones, which would lead to even more victims in the future," Jan Van de Putte, a radiation expert with Greenpeace International, told RFE/RL.

He added that the report does not take into account other parts of Europe's population also exposed to Chornobyl's fallout, or noncancerous diseases that could be linked to radiation.

So far, the governments of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine -- the countries most affected by the disaster -- have yet to officially react to the report. But Rafael Arutyunian, deputy head of the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the UN's figures are exaggerated. AP quoted him as saying that the number of eventual Chornobyl-related deaths in Russia is expected to reach 100, adding that the situation in Belarus and Ukraine is likely to be similar.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.