When people think about nuclear threats and the war in Ukraine, most consider two possibilities: What would happen if there were an accident at a Ukrainian nuclear plant? And what would happen if a nuclear weapon were deployed?
For this article, we spoke to experts about the health impact of the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters on surrounding populations, and asked them to explain the extent to which those disasters might provide a framework for our current understanding of risk in Zaporizhzhia.
In the next article in this series, we will explain the health effects associated with the detonation of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as what could happen if nuclear weapons were detonated in today’s world.
Zaporizhzhia under occupation
Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant is located not far from the country’s southern border. This year it became the first active nuclear power plant in history to continue operations in the middle of a war.
Since occupation forces seized the plant in March, many across Europe have been wondering how a potential accident there would compare to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, an event that for decades marked the worst nuclear power accident in history. the history. The Chernobyl meltdown released radiation throughout Europe and contaminated humans, plants and animals throughout the region.
More than 30 plant workers died in the three months following the disaster at the Soviet power plant as a direct result of the collapse. A report published by the Chernobyl Forum, a group of UN agencies formed in 2003 to assess the health and environmental consequences of the accident, suggested in 2006 that it will cause at least 4,000 long-term cancer deaths, although that estimate is subject to of heated debates.
They question the understanding of the effects of Chernobyl on health
Some experts say the real impact of the disaster was covered up by Soviet officials in an attempt to downplay its severity. One of them is the professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Kate Brown. She has conducted extensive research on the impact radiation has had on the health of people in Ukraine and neighboring countries since the 1986 accident.
in a greenpeace report published in 2006, the researchers estimated the predicted death toll at around 90,000, almost 23 times the number suggested by the Chernobyl Forum report.
Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of Nuclear Energy Safety at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said he “does not consider the Chernobyl Forum report authoritative.”
Lyman said the Forum report based its cancer death predictions only on cases within the former Soviet Union, ignoring exposure to populations in other parts of Europe and the Northern Hemisphere. The original report on the health impact of Chernobyl by UN agencies and published in 1988 addressed global radiation exposure in response to the accident and estimated that it would ultimately correspond to 30,000 or more cancer deaths, Lyman said.
“The fundamental question is whether or not one believes that low-level exposures will cause cancer, and the global consensus of experts is that they do. The Chernobyl Forum essentially assumed the opposite,” he said, calling the study a “highly political document.” with conclusions that were carefully massaged to minimize the impacts of the accident”.
Studies following survivors of the Chernobyl disaster have shown an increase in cases of thyroid cancer. In the decades after the accident, researchers found rates of the particular condition in young people from the former Soviet Union that were about three times higher than expected. This increase is attributed in part to the consumption of contaminated milk, the studies reported.
However, according to Lyman, the large studies describing overall cancer risk were published in the early 2000s, at a time when many cancers that might have been caused by the Chernobyl disaster had not yet begun to appear. And almost 20 years later, there has been no comprehensive follow-up to these reports.
Reports on the health impact of the disaster also point to high rates of depression and anxiety in the surrounding population.
Fukushima: A Better Comparison
According to Lyman, any fallout from a possible accident at the Zaporizhzhia power plant would likely have more in common with the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.
“The consequences which led to such a large and wide dispersion of radioactive activity [at Chernobyl] They probably occur less in Zaporizhzhia reactors, which are light-water reactors more similar to reactors in Germany or elsewhere in the West,” he said.
The nuclear accident at Fukushima marks the only other disaster at a plant that has been rated a ‘seven’ on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) International Nuclear Event Scale. It was generated by a powerful tsunami and an earthquake that caused the plant to run out of power, leading to three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, and large radiation releases from the facility.
Official reports have concluded that although many people died in the tsunami and earthquake, none died in direct response to the nuclear incident. Aside from the radiation sickness experienced by people in the immediate vicinity, they say, the biggest health impact has been the psychological stress experienced by people nearby when they were evacuated.
Today, researchers say the Fukushima incident has left only a negligible mark on the surrounding environment, because much of the radiation was released into the nearby sea.
“Obviously Zaporizhzhia is landlocked, so that would not be the case. But still, you would expect less radioactive material to be released and less widely dispersed,” Lyman said.
Lyman added that the level of radiation that could be released by a potential accident in Zaporizhzhia would depend on whether the accident was technical (i.e., a response to the facility losing power for several days) or combat-related, in which case the radiation would be released more. quickly. In a situation like that, the severity of the consequences would likely fall somewhere between what happened at Chernobyl and what happened at Fukushima, he said.
“I think the probability of another Chernobyl-like event hitting Germany is lower,” he said. “There would probably be measurable impacts, but not as large as those experienced in 1986.”
Ukraine’s other reactors also pose a risk
Zaporizhzhia has drawn a lot of attention because it is currently the only Ukrainian nuclear plant under direct Russian control. But Lyman said he is also concerned about the other plants in Ukraine, which are older. That makes them even more susceptible to catastrophic failure in the event of an accident.
“There are three other nuclear plants in Ukraine that are actually closer to the western border. So they are far from the front lines, but still within range of any Russian rockets or drones,” he said.
He said that while none of those reactors are the same model as those at Chernobyl, some are older Soviet light-water reactors that would not be as resistant to attack as the Zaporizhzhia plant.
“If things fall apart and become more affordable to attack, that could be a bigger concern for Western Europe,” he said.
Edited by: Derrick Williams