Russia and the Environment

Health effects from Chernobyl
Posted by: , December 5, 2011, 2:44 am
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Chernobyl Accident


An environmental disaster affected nearly 75 million people in recent history.  April 26, 1986.  Although this date may not ring a bell to all Westerners, this is a significant date in nuclear history, especially for all citizens of post-Soviet countries.  Though there have been several nuclear reactor explosions and disasters, such as Hiroshima or Three Mile Island, the Chernobyl accident is by far the worst to date internationally.  Chernobyl was a monumental international disaster, even though it occurred in the Ukraine, which at the time was a republic of the Soviet Union and located 375 miles from Moscow (Hawkes et al 1).  The Chernobyl disaster heightened anxiety about nuclear power internationally and decreased the rate thereafter of the nuclear science race (Hawkes et al 215).

This accident resulted from an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor located on the Pripyat River (Hawkes et al 2).  The nuclear reactor exploded on April 26, 1986 at 1:23 am, local Moscow time (Hawkes et al 14).[1]  Although there had been other nuclear explosions within years of the Chernobyl disaster, Chernobyl triumphs them all and is the largest nuclear explosion to date.

According to French physicist Georges Lochac, “the explosion was initiated in the machine by the emergence of a powerful flow of magnetic leptonic monopoled…which transmuted the nuclear fuel in the reactor and its emission” (Akkerman 13).  Ultimately, as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, approximately 350,000 people were evacuated and 40,000 people died (Akkerman 13). Additionally, the Chernobyl accident affected roughly 75 million people living in the Soviet Union, and 9 million citizens continued to live in contaminated areas after the disaster (Akkerman 14).  Though it has been twenty-five years since the disaster, not all of the effects from the Chernobyl disaster are known, and scientists are still continuing to discover negative effects.  While those living in post-Soviet countries were impacted most by the accident, internationally, the world was affected, particularly in areas of psychological and physical health due to the amount of radioactivity released, which also caused iodine deficiency (ID).

Here is a picture that shows the effect of radiation in the surrounding areas of Chernobyl, which even include other continents:

International effect due to Chernobyl accident (The Chernobyl Catastrophe 2).

The safety of Chernobyl prior to the explosion 

Before the explosion, approximately 20,000 people lived in the town of Chernobyl, which had been established for the purpose of serving the nuclear plant (Hawkes et al 4).  Internationally, but also locally, anxiety had heightened about nuclear advancements, so Soviet scientists constantly had to reassure citizens of the plant’s safety.  Nikolai Fomin was Chernobyl’s chief engineer, and he understood the anxiety of the citizens.  He reassured them by explaining that Chernobyl is environmentally safe for the land and for the people (Hawkes et al 6).  Furthermore, Fomin reported in an article “the odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years.  The plants have safe and reliable controls that are protected from any breakdown with three safety lines” (Hawkes et al 7).

Background of nuclear explosion

Unfortunately, however, the citizens’ fear was confirmed on April 26, 1986, when tubes filled with hot water leaked radiation.  The nuclear reactor contained 1,600 metal tubes that were filled with water and pressure (Hawkes et al 11).  The tubes were unusually hot with water with an overwhelming amount of pressure as well (Hawkes et al 12).  After the explosion, radioactivity and extreme levels of heat were released (Hawkes et al 12).  After the fact, Soviet scientists could not believe that this has happened due to its unlikelihood (Hawkes et al 13).

Significant health effects due to Chernobyl disaster

The explosion caused many negative effects including a halt to nuclear power, psychological and physical health effects. The Chernobyl accident caused an aspect of Soviet defeat because the citizens felt the Soviet scientists were unable to live up to the promises that they had set; they proved they were unable to protect their citizens from radiation, which caused disastrous health effects (Akkerman 13).  For example, initially, 237 workers, who helped clean up the Chernobyl accident, were diagnosed with health problems: 28 people died in 1986, with a grand total of 47 work-related deaths were reported by 2004 (Sumner 31).

While there are numerous negative health-related problems caused by the Chernobyl accident, exposure to radiation is among the worst of the problems.  For example, the radiation released from the explosion caused all types of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer.  Although it is hard to decipher who was diagnosed with cancer due to Chernobyl and who was not, it is clear that the number of those diagnosed with cancer increased after the Chernobyl accident (Sumner 31).    Childhood cancer was usually detected within ten years of the accident.  Thyroid cancer was particularly prevalent among children of Chernobyl because the younger the person is, the higher risk he or she has of developing thyroid cancer (Sumner 32).   For example, by 2005, there were 4,000 children of Chernobyl who were diagnosed with thyroid cancer due to exposure in the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia (Sumner 32).  Thyroid cancer, however, was not the only form of cancer diagnosed as a result of exposure to radiation.  Overall, there were more cases of diagnosed cases after Chernobyl accident in 1986, according to the graph below.

There is an obvious increase in number of cancer cases since Chernobyl (The Chernobyl catastrophe 29).

(The Chernobyl Catastrophe 29).

Although the radiation appeared to be invisible, its effects were deadly (Kuchinskaya 407).  23% of the territory was contaminated with radionuclides (Kuchinskaya 409).   In order to compensate for the economic effects of Chernobyl, the Soviet government issued money; however, many citizens referred to this as “coffin money” because of the deadly effects of Chernobyl (Kuchinskaya 415).  In addition to an increase in thyroid cancer, other serious health concerns arose from Chernobyl.  For example, “chronic diseases, heart conditions, gastritis, memory problems, chronic fatigue” are all issues that have increased in children after the accident of Chernobyl (Kuchinskaya 418).  Furthermore, there was an iodine deficiency and lack of vitamins and minerals that created additional health concerns (Jackson et al 453).  For example, lack of selenium causes thyroid disorders, cretinism, and cardiomypathy; lack of fluoride resulted in poor dental hygiene; the lack of iron caused anemia, exhaustion, and lack of concentration (Jackson et al 456).   These effects may not be seen immediately, but are, however, detrimental consequences from Chernobyl.

The iodine deficiency caused by the Chernobyl disaster not only lowers the IQ of a child, but it also affects the working capacity of a child (Jackson et al 456).

Here is a graph to see the decreased IQ level of children who lived in contaminated areas surrounding Chernobyl:

Decrease in IQ level of Chernobyl children (The Chernobyl Catastrophe 99).

Other main health concerns and connection to WWII

There are additional health concerns such as increased stillbirths, birth defects, more cases of Down’s syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cataract induction, and psychological effects caused by Chernobyl (Sumner 40).  While thyroid cancer was a major effect from Chernobyl, urine and bladder cancer in the Ukraine and Belarus increased as well between 1986 and 2001 (Sumner 39).   Some researchers surmise that leukemia, particularly childhood leukemia, increased due to the radiation released from Chernobyl.  However, this is controversial because other European countries unaffected by Chernobyl also saw increased cases of childhood leukemia, so it is difficult to draw a conclusion (Sumner 38).

Regardless, it is clear that many health effects were caused by extreme radiation released into the air from the Chernobyl accident.  Prior to Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were highly talked about with radiation; however, Chernobyl trumps the statistics from the nuclear bomb.  For example, the risk of cardiovascular disease due to radiation is three times greater from Chernobyl than from Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Sumner 41).   Additionally, Lynn Barnett explains, “The resulting radioactive fallout has been estimated as equivalent to that of 200 of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki”  (Barnett 46).  Chernobyl, however, to date, has caused the greatest environmental impact due to a nuclear disaster.

Psychological effects as a result of Chernobyl accident

Due to the heightened fear of nuclear power and distrust in the government, psychological issues arose as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.  Due to detrimental environmental effects, citizens were forced to relocate, and the economy plummeted.  Additionally, the timing of the Chernobyl disaster also coincided with the start of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so there were underlying social, political and economical issues occurring simultaneously with the Chernobyl effects (Sumner 42).  Psychological effects from Chernobyl include anxiety, depression, pessimism, apathy, dietary changes, alcoholism, addiction to tobacco, and the feeling of social exclusion (Sumner 42).   Some citizens suffered from a more general psychological disease, post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) due to the consequences of Chernobyl, particularly relocation and economic decline (Barnett 48).

International efforts to provide aid for Chernobyl

While the effects of Chernobyl stirred up the Soviet community, there was a need for international efforts to overcome such consequences from high levels of released radiation and iodine deficiency.  Approximately 3.5 million people lived in affected areas.  Though not all 3.5 million people were directly affected, their fear caused mental health issues (Barnett 47).  Therefore, due to such drastic numbers and reflecting on the past, particularly examining Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a strong need for international efforts (Barnett 47).   For example, due to the iodine deficiency spreading across contaminated areas from the Chernobyl accident, iodine was added to foodstuff (Jackson et al 457).   Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton Administration worked closely with Russian officials to have joint efforts to improve contaminated areas (Jackson et al 459).   Although iodine deficiency (ID) had been an issue for years, in 1990, at the World Summit for Children in New York, ID was declared an official global issue (Jackson et al 457).

In addition to iodine, other minerals and vitamins were low in soil of contaminated areas.  Therefore, there was micronutrient malnutrition spreading across Russia, and it was essential to have international support to suppress the spread of malnutrition (Jackson et al 461).  Throughout the decade, Russians worked with other countries, primarily the United States, and in 1999 the Russian government ultimately created Resolution No. 1119, which helped to prevent ID (Jackson et al 463).

25th anniversary of Chernobyl

April 26, 2011 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy, and for this reason, it is hard to determine all of the long-term effects because it was relatively recent.  Efforts and commemorations, however, still exist today.

Watch this brief news clip to see how the United States has continued to work with the Russian government on the issue of Chernobyl: US-Russian governments stance on Chernobyl

Watch this video to see the joint efforts of Moscow and Kiev to commemorate the Chernobyl disaster on the twenty-fifth anniversary: Moscow and Kiev joint efforts in anniversary of Chernobyl

In these two videos, note how countries, cultures and religions are able to come together to overcome such a tragedy together.


While Chernobyl was significant and initially progressed nuclear technology, its effects from the disaster caused international anxiety and fear for nuclear power.  Chernobyl is the worst nuclear disaster in the world’s history and its environmental legacy continues today.  Though twenty-five years later, efforts are still essential to improve the land surrounding the Pripyat River.  The Chernobyl disaster struck citizens internationally with fear and hesitation towards the government and towards nuclear power, and the world leaders are still struggling with this today.  Although life has improved in Chernobyl over twenty-five years, it is hard to determine the long-term effects of the disaster.  Thus, it is necessary to still keep Chernobyl on the radar and learn from the mistakes in order to prevent another nuclear disaster.

For further reading on nuclear waste disposal in modern day Russia, read the blog entry “Nuclear waste disposal” by Shawn Gessay.

Works Cited

Akkerman, Galina.  “A walk in Chernobyl.”  New Times (2006): 12-15.

Barnett, Lynn.  “Psychological effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.”  Medicine, conflict and survival 23.1 (2007): 46-57.

Hawkes, Nigel.  Geoffrey Lean, David Leigh, Robin McKie, Peter Pringle, Andrew Wilson.  Chernobyl: The End of the Nuclear Dream.  New York: Vintage Books, 1987

Jackson, Richard J., David M. DeLozier, Gregory Gerasimov, Olga Borisova, Paul L. Garbe, Lioudmila Goultchenko, George Shakarishvili, Joseph G. Hollowell, and Dayton T. Miller. “Chernobyl and Iodine Deficiency in the Russian Federation: An Environmental Disaster Leading to a Public Health Opportunity.” Journal of Public Health Policy 23.4 (2002): 453-470.

Kuchinskaya, Olga.  “Articulating the signs of danger: Lay experiences of post-Chernobyl radiation risks and effects.”  Public Understanding of Science 20.3 (2011): 405-421.

“Remembering Chernobyl, 25 years on.”  Youtube, 25 April 2011.  Web.  26 November 2011.

Sumner, David.  “Health effects resulting from the Chernobyl accident.”  Medicine, conflict and survival 23.1 (2007): 31-45.

“The Chernobyl Catastrophe: Consequences on Huamn Health.”  Greenpeace. 1-137.  2006.

“02.07.2010 President Yanucovich.  Hillary Clinton.  Chernobil conference..wmv.”  Youtube, 2 July 2011.  Web.  26 November 2011.

[1] The explosion of Chernobyl occurred the last weekend in April, which leads up to two major Russian holidays: May 1, May Day and May 9, which celebrates the anniversary of the defeat of Hitler (Hawkes et al 9).  Although the Soviets had been preparing for these holidays, the explosion halted such celebration. 


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