For women working in the Chernihiv wool processing factory in northern Ukraine, spring is always the busiest time of the year. During the annual shearing period, more than 21,000 tons of wool from farms across the country pass through this factory. April and May 1986 were no exception.
Workers work in shifts for 12 hours to sort the piles of raw wool by hand, then wash and pack them. But then these women became sick.
Some people have nosebleeds, while others complain of dizziness and nausea. After the authorities learned of the news, they launched an investigation, and they found that the radiation level in this factory was as high as 180 mSv per hour. Anyone exposed to these levels will exceed the total annual dose considered safe in many parts of the world today in less than a minute.
80 kilometers away is the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On April 26, 1986, the nuclear power plant’s No. 4 reactor exploded catastrophically. The core was exposed and a large amount of radioactive materials were thrown into the surrounding area. The fire was out of control.
But Chernihiv is believed to be far beyond the hurried exclusion zone around the damaged nuclear power plant, where readings elsewhere in the town show relatively low levels of radiation.
Distribution map of regions affected by nuclear radiation
”On the radiation map, this area is yellow, which means that the town was not severely affected.” said Kate Brown, a science historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “However, this factory has 298 women The identity of the liquidator, and the identity of the liquidator is usually reserved for those who have had radiation exposure records in the first few days of the cleanup work after the accident.”
Brown disclosed the story of the women in the Chernihiv wool mill. As part of her research on the impact of the Chernobyl disaster. In order to find out the true cost of the disaster, she traveled to Ukraine, Russia, and many places in Russia to interview survivors, check official files, and search for old hospital reports.
According to the internationally recognized official death toll, the Chernobyl accident directly caused 31 deaths, while the United Nations estimates that only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the disaster. In 2005, the organization predicted that 4,000 people might eventually die from nuclear radiation.
However, Brown’s research shows that Chernobyl casts a much longer shadow than the organization predicted.
”When I visited the Chernihiv wool factory, I met some women who were working at the time.” She said, “Only 10 women were still there. They told me they were picking up bundles of wool. Get up and put them on the table for sorting. In May 1986, the wool produced by the factory had a radiation reading of up to 30 sieverts per hour. When the X-ray machine was turned on again and again, the bundles of wool held by these women were like Holding an X-ray machine.”
In the area around Chernobyl, thousands of animals were slaughtered during the evacuation. Brown believes that the wool from these animals seems to have found its way to the Chernihiv wool factory, as well as other contaminated wool from farms shrouded in clouds of radioactive material. A cloud of radioactive material spread across northern Ukraine.
When Brown talked with 10 “liquidators” in the wool factory, their story sketched out a terrifying picture: what seemed to be happening in the entire area, ordinary people who had nothing to do with the disaster cleanup were exposed to radioactive materials.
”They pointed out that different parts of their bodies age earlier than other parts and also have health problems.” Brown said, “They know what radioisotopes are in their organs.” They told her that another 288 women had either died. Either received a pension due to health problems.
“Liquidators” who are difficult to count
In the weeks and months following the Chernobyl disaster, thousands of firefighters, engineers, military, police, miners, cleaners and medical personnel were immediately dispatched to the area near the damaged nuclear power plant , In order to control fire and core meltdown, and prevent radioactive materials from spreading further into the environment.
These people are called “liquidators” according to the former Soviet Union’s official definition of “participants in the settlement of the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident.” They have obtained special status, which means they will receive additional medical treatment and payment, etc. welfare. Official registration shows that 600,000 people have obtained the status of “liquidators”.
However, a controversial report published by the Russian Academy of Sciences showed that the Chernobyl cleanup team may have as many as 830,000. They estimate that by 2005, 112,000 to 125,000 of them (approximately 15%) had died. However, many of the data in the report have been questioned by Western scientists, who question the scientific validity of these data.
However, the Ukrainian authorities kept a register of their citizens affected by the Chernobyl accident. In 2015, there were 318,988 Ukrainian clean-up workers in the database, although according to a recent report by the Ukrainian National Radiation Medicine Research Center, between 2003 and 2007, the center conducted radiation exposure tests on 651,453 “liquidators”. A similar register in Belarus recorded 99,693 “liquidators”, while another register included 157,086 Russian “liquidators”.
In Ukraine, the death rate of these warriors has soared, from 3.5‰ in 1988 to 17.5‰ in 2012. The number of disabled “liquidators” has also risen sharply. In 1988, 68% of people were considered healthy, and 26 years later only 5.5% were still healthy. According to reports, 63% of people have cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, and 13% have neurological diseases. As of 2008, there were a total of 40,049 “liquidators” in Belarus who were registered with cancer, and another 2,833 cancer patients were from Russia.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant No. 4 building shortly after the accident
However, the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that the health research conducted on the “liquidators” “has failed to show any direct link between their radiation exposure and cancer or other diseases.”
Another group of people who were most affected by the radiation in the hours and days after the explosion were those living in and around the town of Pripyat. The evacuation operation took a day and a half to start and 49,614 people were evacuated. Subsequently, another 80 settlements within a 30-kilometer radius of the nuclear power plant evacuated 41,986 people. Eventually, about 200,000 people were resettled due to the accident.
The shadow cast by nuclear radiation
After some residents living near nuclear power plants breathed radioactive materials and consumed contaminated food, the radiation dose in the thyroid gland was as high as 3.9 Gy, which is about 37,000 times the chest X-ray dose. The doctors who studied the evacuees reported that the mortality rate of the evacuees rose gradually, reaching a peak between 2008 and 2012, with 18 deaths per 1,000 people.
But this is still only a small part of the population affected by Chernobyl.
Brown found hidden evidence in hospital cases before and after the accident, which showed the generality of the problem.
”In hospitals throughout the region and even as far away as Moscow, people flooded into hospitals with acute symptoms,” she said. “The cases I have show that in the summer after the accident, at least 40,000 people were hospitalized, many of whom were women. And children.”
It is generally believed that political pressure caused the truth of the problem to be concealed by the Soviet authorities, who are unwilling to lose face on the international stage. However, after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, as people living in the radiation-affected areas began to experience various health problems, the number of casualties caused by the disaster is gradually becoming apparent.
Victor Sushko, deputy director of the National Center for Radiation Medicine Research (NRCRM) in Kiev, Ukraine, described the Chernobyl disaster as “the largest man-made disaster in human history.” NRCRM estimates that about 5 million citizens of the former Soviet Union, including 3 million citizens of Ukraine, suffered as a result of the Chernobyl accident, while in Belarus, approximately 800,000 people affected by radiation were registered after the disaster. .
Even now, the Ukrainian government is still providing benefits to 36,525 women who are believed to be widows of men who were victims of the Chernobyl accident.
Fragments of the No. 4 reactor where the nuclear leak occurred
According to Susko and his colleagues, as of January 2018, 1.8 million people in Ukraine have the status of victims of the disaster, including 377,589 children. The number of persons with disabilities has grown rapidly, from 40,106 in 1995 to 107,115 in 2018.
Susko and his team also reported that since 2007, the number of victims of the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine has dropped by 6,579,988, a drop of 26%. Although they did not explain the reason, this is probably due in part to the failure to count the immigrants who left the country among the victims, the reclassification of victims’ status, and the inevitable deaths.
The death rate in radiation-contaminated areas has been gradually higher than in other areas of Ukraine. The death rate peaked in 2007, when there were more than 26 deaths per 1,000 people, compared to the national average of 16 deaths per 1,000 people.
A total of approximately 150,000 square kilometers in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are considered to be polluted, while the 4,000 square kilometers exclusion zone is still almost uninhabited. but. Radioactive dust carried by the wind is scattered over most of the northern hemisphere. Less than two days after the explosion, Sweden detected a high level of radiation, while the UK has been contaminated with plants and grassland, resulting in strict restrictions on the sale of lamb and other sheep products for many years.
In Western Europe affected by the Chernobyl accident, there are also signs that the incidence of tumors (abnormal tissue growth including cancer) is higher than in uncontaminated areas.
But Brown believes that some of the actions of those trying to deal with the consequences of the disaster have also led to the spread of pollution, which far exceeds the consequences of not doing so. In a Moscow file, she found records showing that meat, milk and other agricultural products from contaminated plants and animals were shipped across the country.
Deformed calf. After the Chernobyl accident, many deformed animals were born, most of them can only survive for a few hours.
”They developed manuals for the meat, wool and milk industries, and classified agricultural products into high, medium, and low according to radiation levels,” she said. “For example, put high-radiation meat in the refrigerator so they can wait until the radiation drops. Medium and low-radiation meat should be mixed with non-radiation meat to make sausages. Although they were told not to send it to Moscow, the label It was normal and was sent to all parts of the country.”
Brown wrote his findings into a book called “The Survival Manual: A Guide to the Future of Chernobyl.” Brown also found a similar blueberry story, mixing blueberries that exceed the accepted radiation limit with non-radiation blueberries, so that the entire batch of products will be under the regulatory limit.
This means that people outside of Ukraine even ate them without their knowledge.
However, determining the link between radiation exposure and long-term health effects is a difficult task. It may take years or even decades for cancer to appear before it can be attributed to a specific cause.
However, a study found that there are problems with the genomes of children who were irradiated in the disaster, or children born to parents who were irradiated. Studies have found that the degree of damage and instability of its genome has increased.
”Genome instability represents a major risk of cancer.” said Alexandra Vosic, a genotoxicologist at the Institute of Medical Research and Occupational Health in Zagreb, Croatia. As the daughter of a Ukrainian woman, she has been working with Russian scientists to study the effects of Chernobyl radiation on children in the region. “The disease caused by the Chernobyl accident cannot be cured by time. Time is the incubation period for cancer development.”
She said there are other effects. People involved in the Chernobyl cleanup have a higher suicide rate than ordinary people. The study also found that people living in Chernobyl affected areas have higher rates of alcohol abuse and worse mental health.
Therefore, it is almost impossible to accurately calculate how many people died in the Chernobyl disaster in the world. However, although many studies paint a terrifying picture, there are also some promising stories.
In the days after the explosion, three engineers voluntarily pumped millions of gallons of water from the tank under the burning reactor, through the highly radioactive water and debris, to the release valve. Surprisingly, even though they received almost no radiation protection during the mission, two of the three survived. One of them, Boris Baranov, survived until 2005.