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Thirty years have passed, but I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday. On 26 April, 1986, I heard rumours that there had been a nuclear accident. The official call followed 48 hours later. As the next few hours ticked by at the Institute of Radiation Hygiene, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where I worked as senior research scientist, I do not think anyone involved had a sense that we were witnessing an event that would continue to have consequences for decades to come. For me, the realisation was to come after the first emergency teams returned home with first-hand information and impressions. In June of the same year, these were reinforced during my first trip to the most affected Russian areas as head of the emergency teams. It took even longer to realise the Europe-vast scale of the accident. Three decades after the fact, sadly, the word Chernobyl is still synonymous with disaster for many people.

Within two days of that phone call, the first lot of 200 evacuees from Pripyat city, in Ukraine started coming to my city. Within a few months, that number reached 25,000, both from Ukraine and Belarus. The accident claimed the lives of 30 workers and caused radiation injuries to over 100 others. In 1986, the Soviet authorities evacuated about 115,000 people from a vast area surrounding the reactor. Later, another 220,000 people from present day Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, were also relocated. Vast tracts of land in the three countries were contaminated with radioactive materials, and radionuclides from the Chernobyl release were measured in all countries of the northern hemisphere. 

Mikhail Balonov is a Professor in radiobiology and has more than 40 years of experience in the field of radiation protection. He was one of the first persons being called after the Chernobyl accident happened. Later on he has been significantly involved in UNSCEAR reports on Chernobyl and Fukushima. © privat

It was a very different world from today. There was no internet, no Twitter and no instant warnings to take shelter or restrict consumption of contaminated foods. All of this could have resulted in lowering exposure to radiation, and more importantly, prevented the consumption of radioiodine-contaminated milk over the first few months, which was, in large part, the reason for a later surge in thyroid cancer cases in children who lived in the affected areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. It is worth noting that in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, such exposure was largely averted, primarily because of timely food restrictions and evacuation.

Thirty years ago, however, the main issue was emergency response. People who had been moved out of their homes at short notice, knowing they might never return, were asked about their exposure, food habits and activities. I dealt mainly with public protection. As my colleagues and I visited the contaminated areas to carry out field studies and help as best we could, night and day became blurred. We were conceptually prepared to deal with "design-based accidents", for which detailed technical descriptions and relevant emergency instructions were in place. Unfortunately, Chernobyl was a "beyond design" accident. We focused on radiation monitoring, assessing the human dose, and suggesting and applying countermeasures. Within just a few years, efforts to respond to the aftermath of the crisis were complicated by the huge economic, social, and political upheavals caused by the break-up of the UdSSR.

The fear of radiation had more severe effects

Between 1991 and 2005, more than 6,000 cancer cases were diagnosed among children from the affected areas. A substantial number of them would have been caused by radiation. These cases were quickly detected and the patients treated. Despite claims to the contrary, no other radiation health effect has been confirmed in the general public, either in the most affected areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, or in the rest of Europe. 

However, the fear of radiation, which had a major psychological impact, was perhaps greater than the effects of exposure itself. While outside UNSCEAR’s remit, both the psycho-social after-effects and the obvious socio-economic consequences have been well documented. It is known that traumatic events cause stress, which can lead to lifestyle changes, depression, and other physical symptoms. Furthermore, other negative social phenomenon, such as increases in alcoholism, may also become manifest. Such effects were reported in Chernobyl-exposed populations. 

In addition, individuals in the affected populations came to be colloquially known as "Chernobyl victims," a term that soon became widespread in usage. It is known that people’s perceptions can affect the way they feel and act. Thus, rather than seeing themselves as survivors, many of those people have come to think of themselves as being helpless and not in control of their future.