Los Angeles Times

Chernobyl's True Effects Still Cloaked in Mystery

By LYNN O'DELL, Special to The Times

When a radioactive plume from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor swept across Europe in the spring of 1986, it exposed millions of people to increased doses of radiation and introduced the chilling notion that a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere.

Images of the runaway reactor in Ukraine are still fresh: We can envision the reactor, rent by two powerful explosions, spewing radioactive poison into the air. Satellite pictures showed the molten core burning for days.

But timewise, we may be standing too close to the world's worst nuclear accident to get a really good look. After 13 years, the only clear legacy of Chernobyl is a widespread sense of nuclear unease.

"Chernobyl still hangs over the future of the nuclear industry," said David Kyd, public information director of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Austria, which monitors nuclear power worldwide.

Fallout from Chernobyl--which released massive amounts of radioactive material into the air for 10 days--was registered in every country in the Northern Hemisphere. Thousands of gallons of contaminated milk were poured out daily in Sweden. In Ireland, 1,500 miles away, the government prohibited farmers from raising sheep until the grass was no longer radioactive. The ban lasted a decade.

Chernobyl seems the perfect object lesson for antinuclear forces. But when it comes to facts, the incident turns to quicksilver.

The accident occurred during an electrical engineering test and is blamed on a combination of human error and reactor design flaws that resulted in a fateful chain reaction.

The toll of 31 dead at the site is the only easy figure to come by.

Ukraine, desperate for Western funds, has put the number of subsequent fatalities as high as 10,000. But no proof of that number has ever been offered.

Health consequences? Other than about 1,000 children with thyroid cancer, no increase in overall cancer incidents or deaths linked to Chernobyl's fallout has yet shown up.

About 6.9 million people in Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation were exposed to the fallout, but the government didn't keep good health records.

When it comes to environmental damage, nuclear power opponents would seem to have the upper hand. There's an area about the size of Switzerland that probably will never be inhabited again. "It was once the most productive farming region of the Soviet Union," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based nuclear watchdog group.

Scientists at a conference 10 years later said much of the contamination had abated. Still, they concluded that the region cannot be rehabilitated because of radiation "hot spots." Such are the contradictions of Chernobyl--an accident cloaked in Cold War mystery from the start.

The Soviets at first kept quiet. While an army of firefighters battled more than 30 fires in and around the ruined reactor, May Day festivities went on as usual in nearby Kiev.

Prevailing winds pushed the radioactive material to Poland and Scandinavia, where Swedish technicians--more than 750 miles away from Chernobyl--first detected and disclosed radiation levels 15 times higher than normal.

By the time Americans read the terse accident statement, people had already died, others were hospitalized and the first of 200,000 residents had been evacuated from an area now known as the dead zone.

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, Italy shut down its nuclear reactors and never restarted them. Sweden and the Netherlands agreed to phase out nuclear power.

This year, for the first time since 1960, no nuclear projects are on order in North America or Western Europe. Even pronuclear France has no new projects. Asia is the only growth market for nuclear power plants today.

But boosters of atomic energy are poised for a comeback over the next decade, arguing that nuclear power plants are the best way to eliminate the harmful greenhouse effect of burning fossil fuels. Chernobyl could never happen here, they say, because that type of reactor would never be licensed in the West.

In the meantime, the one reactor that just about everyone would like to see shut down still powers on. Reactor No. 3 at Chernobyl, which was not involved in the disaster, will continue to run at least until next summer, and perhaps longer, Kyd said.

Ukraine, which gets 45% of its electricity from Chernobyl and 15 other nuclear plants, can't afford to shut it down.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times