Friday, April 22, 2016


The worst nuclear accident ever happened thirty years ago this week: Chernobyl. Below are excerpts from a UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) website about the disaster.

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that occurred on 26 April 1986 was the most serious accident ever to occur in the nuclear power industry. The reactor was destroyed in the accident and considerable amounts of radioactive material were released to the environment. The accident caused the deaths, within a few weeks, of 30 workers and radiation injuries to over a hundred others. In response, the authorities evacuated, in 1986, about 115,000 people from areas surrounding the reactor and subsequently relocated, after 1986, about 220,000 people from Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine .…

Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases can be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding the influence of enhanced screening regimes, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to the shorter time expected between exposure and its occurrence compared with solid cancers, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.
Release of Radionuclides

The accident at the Chernobyl reactor happened during an experimental test of the electrical control system as the reactor was being shut down for routine maintenance. The operators, in violation of safety regulations, had switched off important control systems and allowed the reactor, which had design flaws, to reach unstable, low-power conditions. A sudden power surge caused a steam explosion that ruptured the reactor vessel, allowing further violent fuel-steam interactions that destroyed the reactor core and severely damaged the reactor building. Subsequently, an intense graphite fire burned for 10 days. Under those conditions, large releases of radioactive materials took place.

The radioactive gases and particles released in the accident were initially carried by the wind in westerly and northerly directions. On subsequent days, the winds came from all directions. The deposition of radionuclides was governed primarily by precipitation occurring during the passage of the radioactive cloud, leading to a complex and variable exposure pattern throughout the affected region, and to a lesser extent, the rest of Europe.
Exposure of Individuals

The radionuclides released from the reactor that caused exposure of individuals were mainly iodine-131, caesium-134 and caesium-137. Iodine-131 has a short radioactive half-life (eight days), but it can be transferred to humans relatively rapidly from the air and through consumption of contaminated milk and leafy vegetables. Iodine becomes localized in the thyroid gland.….

The isotopes of caesium have relatively longer half-lives (caesium-134 has a half-life of 2 years while that of caesium-137 is 30 years). These radionuclides cause longer-term exposures through the ingestion pathway and through external exposure from their deposition on the ground. Many other radionuclides were associated with the accident, which were also considered in the exposure assessments.

Average effective doses to those persons most affected by the accident were assessed to be about 120 mSv for 530,000 recovery operation workers, 30 mSv for 115,000 evacuated persons and 9 mSv during the first two decades after the accident to those who continued to reside in contaminated areas.… Maximum individual values of the dose may be an order of magnitude and even more …. [As discussed in Chapter 16 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, the average annual background dose is about 3 mSv.]


The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 was a tragic event for its victims, and those most affected suffered major hardship. Some of the people who dealt with the emergency lost their lives. Although those exposed as children and the emergency and recovery workers are at increased risk of radiation-induced effects, the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences due to the radiation from the Chernobyl accident. For the most part, they were exposed to radiation levels comparable to or a few times higher than annual levels of natural background, and future exposures continue to slowly diminish as the radionuclides decay. Lives have been seriously disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.”
More about the physics of the disaster can be found at this hyperphysics website

Today the remains of the reactor lie entombed in a concrete sarcophagus, a silent reminder of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

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