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Ukraine: Expert Says Outlook For Chornobyl Research Bleak

Washington, 15 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A radiation scientist says bitter debates over the health consequences following the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine in 1986 are interfering with the study of long-term medical issues related to the disaster.

Keith Baverstock, a scientist working for the World Health Organization's European Center for Environment and Health in Rome, made the comment in an article published last week in the British Medical Journal.

Baverstock says the debate over the health consequences of the accident goes back as far as 1992 when reports linking the nuclear explosion and the sudden rise of thyroid cancer in children in the region were published.

Baverstock says the reports were widely met with skepticism by many in the international medical and radiological community, mostly because scientific evidence indicated that the radioactive substance "iodine 131" -- which is produced as the result of a nuclear explosion -- had a low carcinogenic (or cancer-producing) potential.

Baverstock chided scientists and doctors, saying they should have been more receptive to the likely correlation between the sudden rise in thyroid cancer and the radioactive fallout.

Childhood thyroid cancer has a very low spontaneous incidence in most countries, he says, about one in one million children every year. The fact that the annual incidence of thyroid cancer in the region grew to 100 for every one million after the accident, should have "left little room for doubt that something was seriously amiss," Baverstock wrote.

Says Baverstock: "It is a cautionary tale of how scientific instinct can mislead: help could have been provided more quickly had it not been for this debate."

According to Baverstock, the long-term outlook for learning more from the Chornobyl accident is "bleak."

Baverstock says economic and political upheavals have made it difficult for the countries of the former Soviet Union to respond to the immediate public health crises, let alone conduct rigorous medical studies on the effects of the radiation fallout.

He also says that the initial skepticism about the health dangers and "acrimonious debate in the international scientific community" have done little to encourage collaboration between international agencies supporting either humanitarian relief or serious medical research.

Lastly, he cites "unproductively competitive" research in America which focuses on finding the exact characteristics of a radiation-caused cancer, instead of looking at the problem as a whole. The reason for the narrow focus, says Baverstock, is that Americans are looking for ways to determine eligibility for compensation for radiation-induced cancers.

Interest in this kind of compensation, he says, was fueled by a report last year by the U.S. National Cancer Institute which said that millions of Americans were exposed to potentially dangerous radiation as a result of atomic bomb tests conducted by the U.S. government in the 1950s and 1960s.

Baverstock warns that the nuclear industry, especially in America, may be so worried about lawsuits and having to pay enormous amounts of money that "significant sums could be spent to frustrate legitimate research in hope of avoiding much larger sums of compensation.

Baverstock says that if the lessons of a disaster on the scale of Chornobyl are to be learnt, then international cooperation is essential.

He says he is dismayed by the lack of coordination between Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and the many international, national and private agencies in the region working to solve the health crisis.

Says Baverstock: "Improved coordination has been universally advocated over the past five or six years, yet the position has not improved. Either no one organization commands both the authority and the confidence of the other organizations to allow it to coordinate effectively, or the participating organizations do not want to cooperate as their real aims differ from those they proclaim."

Baverstock suggests setting up an organization similar to that of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation -- a joint American-Japanese project which was created after the atomic bombings in Japan.

Baverstock says the foundation, which still continues its research today, is a model of international cooperation and remains the main source of knowledge about the effects of radiation on human health.

He says that if the Chornobyl nuclear accident had occurred in Europe or America, the population would have expected to be compensated, either individually or on the basis of a national health care program.

Unfortunately, says Baverstock, given the economic circumstances in the former Soviet Union, those victims exposed have little chance of compensation. But he adds that they would benefit from international aid to at least obtain adequate treatment for their health problems.

Concludes Baverstock: "The global community needs to learn from their experience: those who benefit from the production of nuclear electricity should finance an independent international foundation to coordinate research and provide humanitarian aid."