September 5, 2005

Chernobyl radiation death toll 56 so far – U.N

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) - The number of people killed by radiation
as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, the world's worst
nuclear accident, is so far 56, far lower than previously
thought, the U.N. said on Monday.

A report compiled by the Chernobyl Forum, which includes
eight U.N. agencies, said the final death toll was expected to
reach about 4,000 -- much lower than some previous estimates --
and that the greatest damage to human health caused by the
incident was psychological.

The disaster occurred at 1:24 a.m. on April 26, 1986, when
an explosion at Reactor 4 of the Ukrainian power plant spewed a
cloud of radioactivity over Europe and the Soviet Union,
particularly contaminating Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

Over the years, wildly varying reports have put the death
toll as high as 15,000.

"The mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest
public health problem unleashed by the accident to date," said
the Chernobyl Forum report.

The forum includes the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank and U.N.
Development Programme (UNDP), and the governments of Belarus,
Russia and Ukraine.

U.N. officials said to date the death toll was 47 emergency
workers, and nine children who had died of thyroid cancer.

About 4,000 people developed thyroid cancer as a result of
the accident, most of them children and adolescents in 1986.
The survival rate, however, had been almost 99 percent, the
report said.

Another group that suffered greatly was the thousands of
emergency workers who helped extinguish the blaze and entomb
the reactor in concrete. They and staff at the plant received
very high radiation doses immediately after the accident.

"By and large, however, we have not found profound negative
health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding
areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would
continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with a
few exceptional, restricted areas," said the forum's Chairman,
Burton Bennett.


The forum's report "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health,
Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts" examines the effects
of the disaster as its 20th anniversary approaches. The report
is itself a digest of another, 3-volume, 600-page report by
hundreds of scientists, economists and health experts.

Most emergency workers and residents of contaminated areas
received relatively low radiation doses, comparable to
background levels, the U.N. said in a statement.

Apart from thyroid cancer, there was no evidence of any
increase in cancer or leukemia rates among local residents, it
said, nor was there evidence of decreased fertility or of a
higher rate of congenital malformations.

For the 350,000 people moved out of contaminated areas,
however, relocation was a "deeply traumatic experience" which
often left them unemployed, the U.N. statement said.

People from areas near Chernobyl were labeled as 'victims'
rather than 'survivors', which led them to view themselves as
"helpless, weak and lacking control over their future," it

"This, in turn, has led either to over-cautious behavior
and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct, such
as ... overuse of alcohol and tobacco, and unprotected sexual
activity," the statement added.

Many evacuated areas were now safe, and the area of zones
classified as contaminated was too large, the report said.

Apart from the still closed, highly contaminated 30 km (19
mile) area surrounding the reactor and some closed lakes and
restricted forests, radiation levels had mostly returned to
acceptable levels, the statement said.

Benefits offered to 'victims' were expanded to 7 million
people now eligible for pensions, special allowances and health
benefits. These needed to be scaled down or target only
high-risk groups, though it would be unpopular, it said.

But the statement added that the concrete sarcophagus built
to contain the damaged reactor was also in danger of collapse.

The forum meets for two days in Vienna starting on Tuesday.