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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chernobyl Revisited

Air Date: Week of

The world’s worst man-made disaster is now fifteen years old, but the people who live with Chernobyl’s aftermath are still suffering the consequences. Host Steve Curwood talks with Patrick Gray, lead author of a United Nations report that found significant social and psychological effects in the resettled areas around Chernobyl.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up, we meet the people of the neighborhood where America wants to dump its nuclear waste. But, first, it's been 15 years since a little known nuclear power station in northeast Ukraine became the site of the world's worst manmade disaster.

The 1986 nuclear explosion of Chernobyl contaminated more than thirty-six hundred towns and villages near the reactor. The former Soviet government relocated hundreds of thousands of residents to try to diminish the risk of health effects from the radioactive fallout. With me now is Patrick Gray. He's the team leader of a new United Nations study about Chernobyl. And he joins me now from his office in Oxford, England. Welcome, Mr. Gray.

GRAY: Hello.

CURWOOD: From your study, what have you found to be the largest, the most important consequences of Chernobyl?

GRAY: There have been important health consequences caused by radiation. But, also, the fact that some four hundred thousand people were evacuated from their homes has had very serious consequences. It's disrupted the lives of these people. Many of them are now unemployed. And it's had effects on their health as well as a result of breakup of families, breakup of communities.

CURWOOD: Were these consequences anticipated 15 years ago?

GRAY: No, I think they weren't. I think at the time people did what was right. People had to be moved away from the area of Chernobyl because of the level of radioactive contamination. But, I think, it wasn't understood the severe effects it would have on people's well-being, uprooting them and taking them away like that. And, of course, the problems were made infinitely worst by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the economies, and particularly in the agricultural sector, which these people depended upon.

CURWOOD: Could you tell us, Mr. Gray, the story of a family or some people that have had to deal with the aftermath of Chernobyl that illustrates the points that you're making here?

GRAY: Well, we've met many families in the course of our study. We went to villages and farms and talked to people. I'll give you the example of one woman who was evacuated from the town of Pripiat who's in the immediate vicinity of the reactor. She was pregnant at the time of the accident, and she had to leave and go and live in Kiev. And she and her husband weren't able to find work when they moved into the city. They're basically village dwellers, and they would like to go back to their homes.

CURWOOD: Chernobyl is considered the worst manmade disaster in history, and is said to have affected tens of thousands of people. Tell me what your results show of the medical effects of the radioactive spill.

GRAY: Well, I think, it's very important to remember that the full effects are not fully understood yet. I mean, some of the cancers will take decades to develop. I think it's certainly also true that people who live in the area have an exaggerated estimation of the effects. I mean, we know how many people, for example, have developed thyroid cancer. And it's possible to project on the basis of epidemiological evidence the likely pattern of developing thyroid cancer in the future.

But, the belief that almost any conditions is linked to Chernobyl is mistaken. And, for example, there is no evidence of increase in leukemia resulting from the accident. And, also, there is no internationally recognized evidence of an increase in birth deformities. This contradicts what's generally believed in the areas. And also, I think, probably in the rest of the world.

So, the accident didn't have as serious a health effect as many people believe. And it's very important that people living in the area get that message. Because many people feel that they're condemned. And most of those people, in fact, their life chances haven't really been affected by the radiation.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you this. Based on your findings, should the former Soviet government have evacuated the three hundred and sixty, almost four hundred thousand people from the region of Chernobyl from their homes?

GRAY: I think probably many of them needed to be evacuated because of the health hazard caused by the radiation. But, really the problem was that too much was done too late. And, I think that, in retrospect, a smaller number of people would have been evacuated, and more effort would have been made to, first of all, give people the choice themselves whether they continue to live in these areas. And secondly, to support people who chose to stay in their homes, for example, with access to food which was from uncontaminated areas, and with gas supplies so that they didn't have to depend on burning local wood for heating and cooking. And some of the people who were evacuated could safely have continued to live in their homes had they had that support.

CURWOOD: I must say there's a bit of controversy over your study, Patrick Gray. Some people say that your team is downplaying the actual radiation effects of the spill and the dangers of nuclear energy. And that it encourages people to move back to their homes near Chernobyl. How do you respond to those criticisms, concerns?

GRAY: Well, we're criticized from both sides. I mean, it's true that many people believe that there were much wider health effects. For example, there have been many in the past, many press reports, of huge numbers of people dying of the accident. That's simply not correct. And there was very extensive monitoring of the health of people who were affected. Some seven million people in the three countries are kept under review. So, a great deal is known about the health effects. And we think it's very important that good research is done so that the people in the area can have a balanced judgement on the like effects on their own and their children's health. And secondly, that the rest of the world community draws the lessons that need to be drawn from the accident, and doesn't encourage misunderstandings.

CURWOOD: Patrick Gray is Director of the economic development company, Oxford Research Limited, and team leader for the report on the human consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Mr. Gray, thanks for being with us.

GRAY: Thank you.



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