Dr. Robert J. Baker

Paul H. Horn Professor of Biology

 

Department of Biological Sciences

& Natural Science Research Laboratory, Texas Tech University

Since 1994 Dr. Baker has worked extensively examining the effects of radiation on the animals surrounding Chornobyl. Dr. Baker has gone to Chornobyl 15 times and plans to continue his research in the area.

CHORNOBYL: 15 YEARS LATER

The spelling of Chornobyl derives from the Ukrainian spelling of the word. The word "Chernobyl" is the correct translation of the Russian-language spelling. Since the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the preferred spelling in the region is Chornobyl. 

Chornobyl! Since April 26, 1986, the Chornobyl name has been associated with images of nuclear deserts, mutations and Godzilla-like monsters. News coverage, movies and other sources of information have painted a devastating picture of the disaster and the associated environmental consequences. In May 1986, TIME magazine predicted that the Reactor 4 meltdown at Chornobyl would result in the worst environmental disaster in human history. It has now been 15 years since the meltdown: has TIME magazine's predictions come true?

In reality, the radioactively contaminated environments resemble parks dedicated to conservation of biodiversity rather than nuclear deserts. There is more wildlife, including moose, wolves, deer, foxes and rabbits as well as small mammals like rats, mice and shrews, than are typically found in contaminated areas in northern Ukraine.

However, it cannot be said that radiation is good for wildlife. Instead, the elimination of human activities such as farming, ranching, hunting and logging are the greatest benefit, and it can be said that the world's worst nuclear power plant disaster is not as destructive to wildlife populations as are normal human activities.

Even where the levels of radiation are highest, wildlife abounds. In the summertime, beautiful fields of colorful flowers mask the underlying radiation that can be detected with sophisticated Geiger counters. Scientific findings on the effects of living in the environment have been mixed, but most studies suggest that even the extraordinary amounts released by the Chornobyl accident do not negatively affect the abundance and health of native wildlife. There are no monsters at Chornobyl!

These conclusions are in agreement with extensive studies on the survivors of Hiroshima/Nagasaki that did not document an elevated mutation rate in their children. Forty years post exposure, Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors may have a slight elevation in some types of cancer. However, this increase is hundreds times lower than the typical effects of cigarette smoking.

Certainly, the world's worst nuclear power plant disaster has brought tremendous grief to the 135,000 people that were permanently evacuated from their homes and to the many more that were exposed to high levels of radiation spread across Ukraine, Belarus and many other parts of the world.

Make no mistake about it; too much radiation over a short time kill people, animals and plants. But too much heat or water also can kill. People die in house fires and drown in lakes, but lesser amount of heat can be a warm welcome and smaller amounts of water can be a refreshing drink, swim or bath. Worldwide may people die from accident involving fire and water than are killed by accidental exposure to radiation. Small doses of radiation can cure cancer, and we all receive dose of radiation daily that has a limited effect. Studies show that mice exposed to a small chronic dose of radiation live longer than mice that were not exposed. This effect is referred to as hormesis.

News accounts, movie and the media in general all paint exposure to radiation to be overwhelmingly and totally destructive. This simply is no truer than a claim that fire and water are totally destructive. Exposure to fire, water or radiation has risks that must be viewed in light of potential benefits.

There can be a little doubt that the public perceives exposure to radiation as exceedingly dangerous. It might seem obvious that to err on the side of caution is the safest position with the least negative consequences. In the case of Chornobyl, however, this is not true. When the meltdown occurred, the news that millions of people were exposed streamed across Europe, and this perceived danger of exposure resulted in many couples electing abortion over facing the perceived risk of a defective child. The World Health Organization estimated that 250,000 couples elected to have an abortion as a result of Chornobyl. Subsequent studies by the organization failed to document an elevated birth defect rate for children born to exposed parents.

Although statistic quoted relative to the Chornobyl meltdown are often suspect - and we cannot verify the number of elective abortions or number of deaths ascribed to the meltdown - even if the number of elective abortions were hundreds of times lower than the World Health Organization's estimate, thousands more abortions from fear of radiation exposure occurred than did deaths resulting from the meltdown. What an expensive price to pay for public fear created without scientific justification.

Wise decision-making concerning sources of out future energy needs - including nuclear power plants - is critical, especially in the light of rapidly growing population. These decisions should be based on solid science and valid risk assessment, not fear, innuendo and propaganda.

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