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Chernobyl at Ten:
Half-lives and Half Truths

by John M. LaForge


The 10th anniversary was no party.

"I have seen the beginning of the end of the world," is how Michael Mariotte, editor of The Nuclear Monitor, put it after visiting Chernobyl's doomed landscape, everything dead or dying for miles around. "The end of the world begins in Pripyat, Ukraine, a once-thriving city of 45,000. Now it sits crumbling, abandoned, a mute but overwhelming testament to technological arrogance gone amok."[1]

Pripyat was the city nearest Chernobyl's Unit 4, the reactor that exploded on April 26, 1986 and burned dangerously until October, spewing tons of cancer-causing isotopes around the world.[2]

Mr. Mariotte is not known for emotional writing in The Monitor, but anyone who can stand to investigate the unfolding human consequences of the world's worst industrial catastrophe can understand his choice of words. Izvestia called it "the greatest technological catastrophe in world history."[3]

Cancers and other disease caused by Chernobyl's radioactive poisons are being recorded thousands of kilometers from the reactor site. The ninety million people who lived in the path of the very worst fallout are learning the hard way that damage done by ionizing radiation is unrelenting, cumulative and irreversible.

In the first part of this article (Spring 1996 Pathfinder) I compared the recent trivialization of Chernobyl's consequences to news accounts that appeared soon after the explosions and fire. For example, while the commercial press now tell us that the disaster "spread radiation across parts of Europe," the fact is that the federal EPA announced in mid-May 1986 that, "Airborne radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear accident is now so widespread that it is likely to fall to the ground wherever it rains in the United States."[4]

In this part I look at how much radiation Chernobyl evidently added to the "background," at official skewing of the inevitable long-term effects, and at recent reports of its human health consequences.

Answers are Blowin' in the Wind

How much radiation was released? What percentage of which isotopes were thrown into the atmosphere. Was it mostly iodine-131? How much of the total was made up of the far more dangerous cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium?

Piecing together the truth is a dizzying job of ferreting out bias and vested interest. The pro-nuclear Time magazine reported in 1989 that perhaps "one billion or more" curies were released, rather than the 50 to 80 million estimated by Russian authorities.[5] One curie is the amount of radiation equal to the disintegration of 37 billion atoms -- 37 billion becquerels -- per second. It is a very large amount of radiation.

The U.S. government's Argonne National Lab has said that 30 percent of the reactor's total radioactivity -- 3 billion of an estimated 9 billion curies -- was released.[6] And scientists at the U.S. Lawrence Livermore National Lab suggested that one-half of the core's radioactivity was spewed -- 4.5 billion curies, according the World Information Service on Energy, quoting Science, 6-13-86.

Vladimir Chernousenko, the chief scientific supervisor of the "clean up" team responsible for a 10-kilometer zone around the exploded reactor, says that 80 percent of the reactor's radioactivity escaped, something like seven billion curies.[7] At the Union of Concerned Scientists, senior energy analyst Kennedy Maize, concluded that "the core vaporized" -- all 190 tons of fuel, and all 9 billion curies.[8]

Former Chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Joseph Hendrie, concluded likewise, saying "They have dumped the full inventory of volatile fission products from a large power reactor into the environment. You can't do any worse than that."[9]

The Russians and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claimed in a 1986 report, that 50 million curies of radioactive debris, plus another 50 million curies of rare and inert gasses were discharged. However, the rocketing incidence of cancers, leukemias and other radiation-induced illnesses, leads scientists to suspect that the higher radioactive fallout estimates are likely. Pandemic numbers of thyroid cancers led even the cautious Dr. Alexander Sich, in his Chernobyl cover story for the May 1996 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to conclude that the "higher [radiation] release estimates support the conclusions drawn by medical experts."

Geneticist Valery N. Soyfer, founder of the former Soviet Union's first molecular biology laboratory, analyzed the 1986 report to the IAEA, which has since been condemned as a cover-up. Dr. Soyfer says that if only 100 million curies were vented, then world "background radiation doubled at once."[10] This claim was unsupported by accompanying evidence, but if "background" was doubled by 100 million curies, then it was multiplied 180 times by the release of Chernobyl's "full inventory." Nineteen months after the disaster, in Nov. 1987, the U.S. government officially doubled its estimate of the "background" radiation to which we are exposed every year.[11]

Thyroid Cancers: More, Sooner, Untreatable

Dr. Soyfer further discovered that the Soviets focused on and publicized the fallout's radioactive iodine content, but understated the amounts of other far more dangerous isotopes. While 10 to 15 percent of the fallout was iodine-131, the long-lived radionuclides strontium-90 and cesium-137 made up more than two thirds of the total contamination.[12]

Furthermore, the Soviet's 1986 estimate of future cancer deaths was based only on the impact of iodine-131, and then only on external doses. As a result, the IAEA misled the world about Chernobyl's cancer threat. People contaminated with iodine-131 ingested it, first by breathing, then by drinking contaminated milk for six weeks. Thyroid cancer is caused by the iodine-131. Its rates are today ten times higher than the increase any scientist had anticipated. The U. N. has said that the number of thyroid cancers among children in Belarus -- where 70 percent of the fallout landed -- are 285 times pre-Chernobyl levels.[13]

The British Medical Journal reported in 1995 that the rate of thyroid cancer in the region north of Chernobyl -- Ukraine and Belarus -- is 200 times higher than normal, and the (British) Imperial Cancer Research Fund found a 500 percent increase in thyroid cancers among Ukrainian children between 1986 and 1993.[14]

Fear is growing among physicians treating the young radiation victims, because the thyroid cancers are appearing sooner than expected and growing quicker than usual. Dr. Andrei Butenko, at Kiev Hospital No. 1 in Ukraine, says of his patients, "Routine chemotherapy seems to have lost its effectiveness; something has changed in the immune system."[15]

Cesium's Genetic Assault: the 300 Years War

Cesium-137 contamination is probably Chernobyl's most devastating and ominous consequence. The body can't distinguish cesium from potassium, so it's taken up by our cells and becomes an internal source of radiation. Cesium-137 is a gamma emitter and its half-life of 30 years means that it stays in the soil, to concentrate in the food chain, for over 300 years. While iodine-131 remains radioactive for six weeks, cesium-137 stays in the body for decades, concentrating in muscle where it irradiates muscle cells and nearby organs.[16]

Strontium-90 is also long-lived and, because it resembles calcium, is permanently incorporated into bone tissue where it may lead to leukemia.

The Soviets acknowledged in 1986 that the influence of cesium-137 on cancer death rates would be nine times that of iodine-131. They said that the effects of strontium-90 would "perhaps have, along with cesium-137, the most important meaning."[17]

Early Findings Go from Bad to Worse

Exposure to radiation more often results in genetic and reproductive damage than cancer. These hereditary disorders are unlimited in time, since they pass from generation to generation in the sperm and ovum. So, as geneticist Soyfer points out, Chernobyl's enduring biological legacy will be that of inherited diseases, deformities, developmental abnormalities, spontaneous abortions and premature births.

Some recent epidemiological studies confirm the worst of these inevitable effects. The June 25, 1995 Washington Post reported that birth defects in the areas most heavily poisoned have doubled since 1986.

In a long page one story, the Aug. 2, 1995 New York Times reported that life expectancy has plummeted in Russia, making it the first nation in history to ever experience such a public health status reversal. Male life expectancy is now the lowest in the world (below even India or Bolivia) and, at the same time, infant mortality rose 15 percent in both 1993 and 1994, and there are now epidemic rates of heart disease and cancer. Dr. David Hoel, an epidemiologist at the Medical University of S. Carolina, is studying whether Chernobyl's radiation is a major factor in the spread in cancers and birth defects. "Everyone assumes the connection," he said.

The journal Nature has published a study of children born in 1994 to mothers exposed to Chernobyl's fallout in 1986. Researchers studied 79 families 186 miles from Chernobyl and found never-before-observed "germ-line" mutations: changes in DNA of the sperm and ovum. Such mutations are passed on from generation to generation.[18]

Nature has also reported that in Greece, 2,800 kilometers from Chernobyl, where radiation exposures were far lower than in areas close to the reactor, leukemia has been diagnosed at rates 2.6 times the norm in young people who were in the womb when the reactor exploded. The British epidemiologist Dr. Alice Stewart found long ago that only one diagnostic X-ray to the pregnant abdomen increases the risk of leukemia in the offspring by 40 percent.[19] However, the report from Greece is the first to link Chernobyl's wreckage to increased leukemia incidence in children exposed in utero.[20] The report has moved some experts to again warn that the low levels of radiation to which people are exposed every day "could contribute to cancer."

Even the stodgy New York Times has reported that "cancers are now believed to be the result of smaller [radiation] doses, and the amount of damage inflicted by a given dose is now believed to be larger."[21]

In a related study, two U.S. geneticists analyzing animals inside Chernobyl's 6-mile radius found that small rodents known as voles "sustain an extraordinary amount of genetic damage." The study found that "the mutation rate in these animals is . . . probably thousands of times greater than normal." Two findings called "ominous" were, first, that one-third of the mutations that the scientists expected to see were not even detected -- probably because they were lethal. "It could be that the animals were never born," said Dr. Robert Becker of Texas Technical Univ. Second, "the vole mutations were cumulative, increasing with each succeeding generation." Both researchers doubted that any species could sustain such a mutation rate indefinitely.[22]

Acceptable Whole-Earth Poisoning

The extent of Chernobyl's radioactive, biological and ecological damage, and the depth its psychological and economic devastation are incalculable.

What everyone does know about nuclear reactors is that they have a record of whole-earth poisoning, and that their potential for more of the same is considered acceptable -- authorized in advance. This potential, for unlimited and uncontrollable radiation "accidents," has been deliberately developed, promoted, protected, ignored and then denied, or forgotten.

Sadly, denial and forgetfulness only make another Chernobyl inevitable.

(Part One ran in NUKEWATCH The Pathfinder, Summer 1996, part Two in Winter 1996/1997 EDITION; an edited compilation of both parts is published in Earth Island Journal, Summer 1997, EIJ, 300 Broadway, No. 28, San Francisco, CA 94133.)


  1. The Nuclear Monitor, newsletter of Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), April 1996.

  2. St. Louis Post Dispatch (SLPD), 7-23-90.

  3. SLPD, 4-26-90.

  4. Associated Press, 5-15-86.

  5. Time, 11-13-89.

  6. The Chicago Tribune, 6-22-86.

  7. "The Truth About Chernobyl," Critical Mass: Voices for a Nuclear-Free Future, Ruggiero and Sahulka, Eds., 1996 by Open Media, p. 127.
    [See Also: Chernobyl, Insight from the Inside, by Vladimir M. Chernousenko, Springer-Verlag, 1991. --ratitor]

  8. Not Man Apart, the journal of Friends of the Earth, March 1987.

  9. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, 5-19-86.

  10. SLPD, 4-24-87.

  11. The New York Times, 11-20-87.

  12. SLPD, 4-24-87.

  13. The New York Times, 11-29-96.

  14. The Washington Post, 3-25-95.

  15. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 12-12-94.

  16. Caldicott, H., Nuclear Madness, 1994, Norton, p. 137.

  17. SLPD, 4-24-87.

  18. The New York Times, 4-25-96.

  19. Caldicott, Ibid., p. 43.

  20. St. Paul Pioneer, 7-25-96.

  21. The New York Times, 6-23-96.

  22. The New York Times, 5-7-96, B6.

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