Nov 10, 2011

The Real Number of Deaths after the Chernobyl Catastrophe is More Than 300,000

The catastrophe and the information
      The Chernobyl catastrophe was the gravest industrial accident ever, and it was also the last great crime of the Soviet Communists. The explosion of the nuclear reactor on April 26, 1986 and the following fire made a part of Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable, while contaminating large areas around the globe. Many people in the Soviet Union died or were wounded due to the disinformation and mismanagement on the side of the authorities; many people were exposed to fatal irradiation incidentally or during the cleaning operations. The Communist authorities, on all levels, denied the accident and left 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat
within several kilometers of the reactor for 48 hours before evacuation, with children going to school and playing in the streets. The May Day celebrations, five days later, were not abolished in Kiev, a capital of 2.5 million inhabitants, and people were marching and shouting enthusiastic slogans in the radioactive environment. Despite the proclaimed politics of Perestroika and Glasnost – meaning reconstruction and transparency – and in accordance with the Orwell’s 1984 paradigm, the truth was never disclosed, either by the Soviet authorities by then, or by the inheritors of the collapsed Soviet Union later.
      The number of victims of this catastrophe, similarly to many other industrial or even natural catastrophes that occurred in the Communist countries, has never been made officially known, and could be only indirectly deduced from unofficial testimonies and from fragmentary information provided by the Soviet or Ukrainian officials. After 3 years of official secrecy and falsification of medical records by the authorities[3], a detailed unofficial description of the catastrophe was provided in 1989 by Grigori Medvedev[1], a chief engineer at Chernobyl in the 1970s who was sent back as a special investigator immediately after the 1986 explosion. A fragmentary information about the Chernobyl consequences was published in 2006 by the International Atomic Energy Agency[2], officially approved by Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine and comprising information provided by these authorities. A broad compilation by Yablokov et al. of the available documents was published in English in 2009, the authors including two former prominent Soviet nuclear officials[3]. Personal testimonies of hundreds of witnesses have been published in many languages, completing the picture of incompetence and dishonesty on the part of the authorities, and of immense suffering and heroism on the part of the people. A terribly powerful evidence was collected by the Ukrainian journalist Svetlana Alexievich in the early 1990s[4], showing that the extent of tragedy for the Soviet peoples could have been compared only with the WWII.

Units of radioactive doses and human death
      When reviewing the information sources, various units of irradiation may be met, often being used inconsistently and incorrectly. One Gray (1 Gy) is a unit of absorbed radiation dose in J/kg. Other units include Sievert, rad, rem, and Roentgen. Sievert (Sv) characterizes biological effect on the human tissues, and for the whole body irradiation by electrons or photons it equals Gray. 1 Gy equals 100 rads or 115 Roentgens (R), and 1 Sv equals 100 rems. For estimating the number of deaths it is important to know that an average lethal dose is between 5 and 10 Sv, the number of deaths increasing with the dose[5],[6],[7], and it can be roughly assumed that the increase is proportional between 1 and 10 Sv, low doses will cause death in lower number of people within longer time intervals[8],[9],[10]. Of 100 persons who absorbed a dose of 10 Sv, nearly all would die within days or weeks, wherein of 100 persons who absorbed 5 Sv, about 50 would die within days to months, while lower doses would cause death within years.

Admitted number of deaths
      From the first months after the accident, the official sources mentioned 31 dead, and the number of these canonized victims has been reiterated ever since with uncanny constancy. The number was announced in August 1986[11], and it was repeated as the only available value by the dissident writer Zhores Medvedev in 1990[11], by Scientific American in 1996[12], and by Nature in 2011[19]. The two digit number of victims has been always supported by the UN Scientific Committee (UNSCEAR)[13]. Traditionally, both the Soviet authorities and their successors have exhibited “dialectic” schizophrenia when dealing with the catastrophe, on one hand admitting its graveness, and on the other hand trying to soften its admitted consequences, while implying that it is difficult to assess the precise extent of the tragedy. For example, the Ukraine ambassador to the U.S. ushered the mantra of 31 dead in his official interview in the Scientific American ten years after the catastrophe, while casually admitting that an estimation of 32,000 dead “is defensible”, as if the Ukraine government did not know the accurate number of victims.

Deduced number of deaths
      The authorities lied from the beginning[1] and never have stopped to cover up[12]. The doctors were instructed to diagnose the victims as anything but irradiation disease.[3],[14],[15] Grigori Medvedev’s report[1], which describes the death circumstances of the most of said 31 canonized dead, also mentions names of at least 50 other people who absorbed similar doses and many of whom surely died. This fact alone corroborates that the Soviet establishment and its daughter regimes never intended to give the real number of victims. Medvedev also reported that the radiation of about 30,000 roentgens per hour (lethal dose absorbed within 2 minutes) was coming from the crater of the reactor volcano over which the helicopter were flying, that 20,000 roentgens per hour (lethal dose in 3.5 minutes) was coming from the fuel and graphite scattered around the unit, that there was 1000-1500 R/hr (lethal dose within an hour) in the proximity of the plant while decreasing to between 0.5 and 1 R/hr in the streets of Pripyat during the entire day of 26 April and for several days that followed (2% to 4% of the lethal dose for the whole population within two days before evacuation). According to Medvedev’s account [1], about 500 helicopter crewmen flew over the reactor; hundreds of firemen assisted by soldiers worked in the reactor vicinity during the initial extinguishing and cleaning operations, some gathering the nuclear fuel and graphite pieces by bare hands. Hundreds of people worked in the proximity of the plant in the time of the accident, including employees of four nuclear units and an adjacent cement producing unit, and crowds from Pripyat came to watch the fire. Thousands people appeared in the vicinity of the plant the next day, including more than a thousand employees and 1000 MVD personnel (state security units), and 50,000 citizens continued their normal life in Pripyat next 48 hours. Medvedev mentions 3000 construction workers and drivers working at 5 R/hr (a lethal dose in 8 days), and not being replaced in time. When summing up the above data, more than 500 helicopter crewmen and firemen had to die within days; of said thousands appearing in the vicinity of the plant during the first days at least 500 had to die within weeks, as well as at least 300 of said construction workers; of said 50 000 citizens 1500 had to die within several years. Thus, at least 1500 dead should have been added to said 31 canonized people within several months and 1500 more within several years, but they were not. All this does not include victims of the irradiation which occurred farther from the reactor, and in the later times. Even the official post-Soviet fragmentary information[2], retroactively released to the U.N. in 2006, mentions a collective effective dose, excluding thyroid, received by five million residents within the first ten years to be 40,000 men-Sieverts, which would correspond to 4000 deaths – much more than the magic value of 31. In Kiev, the radioactivity went as high as 100 milliroentgens per hour in the first days after the explosion[1], which is a lethal dose per twenty months, providing 125,000 dead per 2.5 million people even if assuming that said high level lasted only for one month. The dust on the roads between Kiev and Chernobyl had radioactivity of about 30 roentgens per hour eleven days after the explosion[1], representing a lethal dose within 30 hours for innumerable thousands of people wandering on hundreds of kilometers of the roads in that area during that spring and later. Millions of people absorbed high doses in the area around the reactor following its explosion. Said fragmentary data provided by the local authorities[2] mention 5 million of irradiated local people, and in one example give a collective irradiation dose including thyroid of between 1.6 to 2 million men-Grays; although over-optimistic tone prevails in the report about curability of thyroid cancer, those diseased should unfortunately be counted among deceased, when taking into consideration the known low level of the Soviet and post-Soviet health system. All available reports illustrate the tragic haplessness and obsoleteness of the medical care provided to the victims: the people screaming with pain did not get even suitable analgesics, were intravenously injected with mammalian cells extracts, and often did not get enough water to drink[1, 4]. Therefore, said 1.6 to 2 million men-Grays would imply from 160,000 to 200,000 deduced deaths within twenty years after the catastrophe, as 10 men-Grays corresponds to one death. That would not seem an overestimation in view of the above partial assessments, including 125,000 Kiev inhabitants. In addition to these local people, many young people, referred to as liquidators, were brought to the contaminated area from all over the Soviet Union to clean up immediately after the catastrophe and also in later years, their number being 830,000[3]. From the memoires published in many countries around the world, the proportion of liquidators or other risk workers who have not survived till 2011 ranges from more than 20%[16] to 70%[17] to 92%[18]. If taking the fraction of dead liquidators as only 20%, 160,000 deaths is obtained, which is in accordance with Yablokov et al.’s estimation of 120,000 or more liquidators who died before 2005[3]. If adding 120,000-160,000 liquidators to 160,000-200,000 local people, roughly between 280,000 and 360,000 deaths are obtained.
      The broad analysis of dissenting former Soviet experts published in 2009[3], covering all available documents, assesses the total number of victims around the world attributable to the catastrophe at one million excessive deaths till 2004 and another half million in the future, plus many millions disabled or seriously ill. As for the direct casualties by 2011, the present analysis shows – statistical predictions or excessive deaths notwithstanding – that the Chernobyl explosion, whether called accident or disaster, has directly killed about 300,000 local citizens and cleaning workers.
      The Three Miles Island event of March 1979 was an industrial accident resulting in zero deaths; the Fukushima event of May 2011 was a natural-industrial disaster resulting in zero deaths; however, the Chernobyl event of April 1986 with its aftermath was a human-caused tragedy comparable, at least for Ukraine and Belarus, with the years of 1933 under Stalin and 1941 under Hitler[4].

      Careful review of the literature cited in the present text suggests that the number of deaths among people being in contact with the most contaminated regions of the former Soviet Union is about 300,000 by 2011, which is 10,000 times more than about 30 admitted and canonized victims. The number of casualties worldwide is, of course, higher.

[1] G. Medvedev, Chernobylskaya Tetrad, Moscow NOVY MIR (in Russian) No. 6, June 1989, pp 3-108; English version in JPRS Report of 23 October 1989 by U.S. Department of Commerce, National Technical Information Service, Springfield, VA;
[2] International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience, Vienna, 2006;
[3] Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, by Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Nesterenko, and Janette D. Sherman-Nevinger, Wiley, John & Sons, Inc., 2010; ANNALS of the New York Academy of Sciences, November 2009, Volume 1181;
[4] Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl, (English translation) Picador, New York 2005[5]
[11] The Legacy of Chernobyl, Zhores Medvedev, W.W. Norton & Company, 1990, New York and London[12] Ten Years of the Chernobyl Era, Yuri M. Shcherbak, Scientific American, April 1996, pp 32-37[13]Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation, UNSCEAR 2008, Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes,
[14] Valeri K., a physician working in the Kiev area in 1986, later living in Israel, Personal communication[15] Vladimir J., a physician working in the Kiev area in 1986, later living in Israel, Personal communication[16]
[19] Chernobyl's legacy, Nature 471, 562-565 (2011);>