Chernobyl: About One Million Victims

Paul Fusco (Magnum), ‘liquidator’ Nicolai Yanchen with leg cancer (1997)

About a Million Victims: Alexei Yablokov on the Human Effects of Chernobyl

Last month was the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. A year ago on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl I translated an interview which journalist Manfred Kriener did in German with Alexei Yablokov, a biologist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and at the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 the deputy chairman of the Ecological Commission of the Russian Parliament. In 2009 the New York Academy of Sciences published an English version of his and other Russian scientists’ extensive study Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, the most (only?) in-depth study of the disaster.

What follows in abbreviated form are Yablokov’s answers to the key questions surrounding the human health and mortality effects of the Chernobyl disaster. The yawning chasm between his words and estimates and the official ones of the WHO/IAEA will become readily apparent.

On the question of how many really died of the effects of the Chernobyl disaster:

Yablokov points out that there are two possible methodologies for defining the number of victims.

The first method calculates the total radiation dose the population has suffered on the basis of the amount of radioactive material emitted during the meltdown. It then calculates the mortality rate using the official dose-response relationships.

The uncertainty with this method lies in the estimate of the amount of material emitted. The official soviet estimate was 50 million curies. Other experts say it was more like 5 billion curies. Also, the radioactive burden on the population varied greatly from day to day and region to region due to the composition of the radioactive cloud changing every day and over time and variable local weather patterns of wind and rainfall.

Despite all these uncertainties, Yablokov says independent US and Canadian experts using this methodology have calculated the total number of dead, globally in past, present and future, as between 900,000 and 1.8 million people.

The second method compares the real mortality rate in the most radioactively contaminated areas with the rate in the less contaminated areas. In 1996 the EU published a special atlas in which the specific caesium contamination of all European countries was documented. Russia and the Ukraine also have detailed contamination maps and linked mortality rates. More strongly contaminated areas (up to 40 becquerels per square metre or more) had increased mortality rates of between 3.75 and 4.2% in the fifteen years after the disaster. Based on these data, Yablokov’s rough estimate of the total global number of victims of Chernobyl is 1.03 million people. These numbers must be global because only 43% of the radioactive material fell on Russia and the previous soviet republics.

On the question of the WHO estimate of 9,000 potential deaths from Chernobyl:

Yablokov points out that there has been an agreement between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1959 by which the WHO is bound to the IAEA in all matters concerning radioactivity. He and others have been picketing the WHO building in Geneva on this matter around the clock every day for three years, reminding the WHO of the Hippocratic Oath and medical ethics.

On the question of the mortality rates of the ‘liquidators’, the workers sent to Chernobyl to gain control of the reactor in meltdown:

Yablokov points out that the differences in the estimates of the liquidators’ mortality rates differ as significantly as the estimates of the general mortality rates. According to Yablokov’s research, there were not the purported 600,000 workers in action but in reality there were 830,000. Of these, up to 2006, between 112,000 and 125,000 had died, with an average life expectancy of 43 years. Yablokov estimates of these 14,000-15,000 died directly because of their work at Chernobyl.

On the question of the extent of Chernobyl-induced cancers:

Yablokov refers to the assessments of Dr Mikhail Malkow, a radiological physicist from Minsk. He calculates about 90,000 cancers just for Europe alone. Yablokov points out that beside the very visible thyroid cancers, there were many cases of leukaemia, breast cancer and brain tumours in children. Yablokov is of the opinion that the actual increase in mortality is due not to cancers but to heart diseases. Although the mechanisms are not yet fully understood, it was discovered that the majority of ‘sudden deaths’ among the irradiated had large quantities of radioactive caesium in their heart muscles.

On the question of other health effects:

Here again there are two methodologies: one can look at the general health statistics before and after the Chernobyl disaster, or one can compare the health of populations in strongly contaminated areas with that of populations in less contaminated areas. Yablokov lists neurological diseases from organic brain damage, chromosomal damage, neonatal deformities, cataracts, vascular vegetative disorders, immune system dysfunctions. The latter are one of the main causes of premature ageing, with strongly contaminated people looking 5-7 years older than they are.

On the question of whether the topic of Chernobyl and its disastrous effects still has a role in public opinion in Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus:

Yablokov is of the opinion that the official propaganda has succeeded in largely calming public opinion. The mantras of ‘it’s time to forget’ and ‘there are no serious problems’ are constantly repeated. The loudest voices on the topic are those of the surviving ‘liquidators’, but only when they don ‘t get the range of benefits legally due to them.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 9, 2012.

4 Responses to “Chernobyl: About One Million Victims”

  1. Reblogged this on PORTAFOLIO. BITACORA DE UN TRANSFUGA. 2000.2010.

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