In the spring of 1986, technicians performing maintenance on reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accidentally caused a chemical reaction that resulted in an explosive blaze. More than 50 site workers died. Approximately 120,000 people from neighboring communities were immediately evacuated. The fire burned for 10 days. During which time, the reactor emitted radiation that traveled for hundreds of miles. The reactor was eventually encased in concrete and steel. However, a leak discovered in the casing in recent years required the construction of an updated containment structure. The Atlantic published a series of photographs that depict the original 1,600 square-mile exclusion zone.
Public Health Concerns
Along with the fatalities of the workers in 1986, an estimated 600,000 liquidators reportedly worked on the reactor to extinguish the fire, contain the radioactive emissions and clean the contaminated site. Many of the workers did not have sufficient protective clothing. Over the span of four years, these people were exposed to radioactive doses ranging from 20 to 500 millisieverts. In subsequent years, the workers suffered increased cases of cataracts and cardiovascular diseases. Anxiety and other mental health issues are also reportedly twice the norm for Chernobyl-related populations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization expect that at least 9,000 people will die as a result of illnesses caused by radiation exposure. A report submitted in 2011 by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation indicated that in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine more than 11,000 cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed in people who were children or adolescents when the eruption occurred. The cancer is believed to have been caused from drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine.
Dr. Nadiya Gudz from a Chernobyl-related clinic near Kiev reports that victims who were children at the time or born later now have the majority of health problems. These anomalies range from birth defects and genetic abnormalities to cancer, digestive disorders, respiratory ailments and other medical conditions. Millions continue receiving medical monitoring at a cost that far exceeds even that of a car accident attorney. A former adviser for the WHO who now works for the University of Eastern Finland believes that Chernobyl-related deaths could range from 30,000 to 60,000 people. However, scientists from the New York Academy of Sciences along with the physicians and scientists who reside in or work in the affected areas believe that the eventual death toll may reach one million people.
Strangely, 30 years later, the exclusion zone is now a thriving wildlife habitat. The once-affected Belarus, Ukraine and Russia area now serves as one of the largest animal sanctuaries in Europe.
Scientists surveying the Belarus region found dozens of badgers, boars, bison, deer, foxes, moose, raccoon dogs and wolves co-existing in the location. A herd of once endangered Przewalski horses have also been introduced to the preserve. In addition to the approximately 20 species of mammals living in the once hazardous destination, birds of prey, ravens, songbirds and swans now also consider the destination home.
Besides the decrepit abandoned homes, businesses, schools and other buildings that once were part of the various thriving communities, stunted trees are the only visible effects of the radiation. Studies indicate that only a handful of local animals have high levels of cesium-137 within their bodies. However, despite the development of the wildlife sanctuary, the region is far from returning to a normal state. Due to the long life of radioactive materials, the area that surrounds the now defunct Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant will not be considered safe for humans for another 20,000 years.
By: Vincent Stokes