WHO says Chernobyl disaster was less serious than thought

Less than 60 people have died as a direct consequence of radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl disaster almost 20 years ago - a figure far lower than previous predictions.

A further 4,000 may have their lives shortened by the incident but hypochondria, displacement and a dependence on hand-outs have had a far more serious impact than strictly medical factors.

These are the findings of what is perhaps the most detailed study ever undertaken into the environmental disaster.

A 600 page report, Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts has been compiled by over 100 scientists working for eight different UN agencies including the World Health Organisation and International Atomic Energy Agency.

It suggests previous fears of fallout have been overstated and the predicted huge rise in radiation-linked disease never materialised.

The report says there is no profound risk to those living in contaminated areas except in a very few small-scale hotspots, neither is there evidence of reduced fertility nor of an increase in congenital malformations.

A large number of those who did die as a consequence of the world’s largest ever nuclear disaster were emergency rescue and recovery workers who entered highly radioactive areas soon after the reactor explosion.

Dr Burton Bennett, chairman of the Chernobyl Forum, told reporters: “This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer.

“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.”

The report will make surprising reading for many of those who feared the worse and is likely to bolster the rhetorical arsenal of those advocating a new generation of nuclear reactors as part of the UK’s future energy mix.

Greenpeace International has reacted angrily to the report, calling it a ‘whitewash to pave the way for nuclear renaissance’.

It claims statements from the IAEA that many of the illnesses previously ascribed to Chernobyl fallout cannot be attributed to radiation exposure but are simply the consequence of ‘stress and irrational fear’ are misleading and unjustified.

“It is appalling that the IAEA is whitewashing the impacts of one of the most serious industrial accident in human history,” said Jan Vande Putte, Greenpeace International nuclear campaigner.

“It is a deliberate attempt to minimize the risks of nuclear power in order to free the way for new reactor construction.”

By Sam Bond

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