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Chernobyl disaster leaves an uncertain legacy

On April 26, 1986, the world's worst civil nuclear power disaster occurred in one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Twenty years later, the lasting health effects from the accident are still being debated. NBC News' Preston Mendenhall reports from Pripyat, Ukraine.
/ Source: NBC News

PRIPYAT, Ukraine — Working the overnight shift on April 26, 1986, Chernobyl engineer Alexander Nihaev remembers a thud — “like somebody hit my chair from underneath.”

“We kind of felt ill at ease, and then a few seconds later there was another jolt,” Nihaev recalled. “The alarm went off in the central hall, warning of excessive radioactivity.”

Nihaev and his team of engineers were among the first to join rescue operations at the Chernobyl nuclear power station’s fourth reactor, reduced to a mangled, toxic mess of burning nuclear fuel by a botched maintenance procedure that should have been routine.

The men worked for hours supplying water to put out fires. Sometime after sunrise, vomiting and hardly able to move from exhaustion and exposure to near lethal levels of radiation, Nihaev staggered home to Pripyat, a purpose-built city for 45,000 of Chernobyl’s workers. He found his wife doing the washing up with the windows of their apartment wide open.

For days, the Soviet government tried to keep the scale of the disaster under wraps. Nihaev knew better. He told his wife to seal the windows, collect the kids from school and stay with relatives, as far away as possible from the plume of smoke spewing radioactive particles into the sky over the Chernobyl power plant.

Nihaev, suffering from radiation burns over 100 percent of his body, was evacuated to Moscow for treatment.

Veil of secrecy
Twenty years after the Chernobyl disaster, memories are still fresh.

Over a period of ten days, the accident released radiation equivalent to 100 Hiroshima bombs. Weather patterns brought radioactive fallout down in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, at that time republics of the Soviet Union. Eventually, scientists detected high levels of radiation as far away as Scandinavia and Ireland, news of which which forced the Soviets to lift the veil of secrecy over the disaster.

Before the rest of the world was aware of what had happened, though, the Soviet authorities tried to mop things up undetected.

Two days after the accident, authorities ordered a mass evacuation of the region around Chernobyl. Some 116,000 people, including the entire city of Pripyat, were dispersed on thousands of buses. Simultaneously, tens of thousands of soldiers were moved to the reactor to help contain radioactive debris.

“The soldiers worked in shifts of just 30-40 seconds,” recalled Igor Kostin, who took some of the first photographs of the exploded reactor and cleanup operation. “They only had time to throw one shovel-full of radioactive material down the hole and run away. And for all that they gave them a certificate and 100 rubles. That's about $25 dollars today, for a man to receive a near lethal dose of radiation.”

All told, some 600,000 people were immediately affected by the disaster, either because they lived near Chernobyl or participated in the cleanup of what is now an 18-mile safety zone extending in all directions around the reactor.

‘Almost everybody’s sick’
Uncertainty over the long-term health consequences of Chernobyl has ignited a fierce debate.

Evacuated from her village five miles from the reactor, Ludmilla Bobrova now lives in an apartment building on the outskirts of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, with two dozen other resettled families. She blames everything from common colds to sore joints on Chernobyl.

“Almost everybody's sick,” said 65-year-old Bobrova. “My daughter is always sick. My granddaughter is always in the hospital.”

But a recent U.N. report found that of the millions of people exposed to low levels of radioactive particles spread by wind and in food following the accident, the health effects have proved generally nominal. The exception was a dramatic rise in thyroid cancer among children at the time. Thyroid disorders are widely treatable.

The report, prepared by a panel of more than 100 experts from U.N. agencies and Ukraine, Belarus and Russia — Chernobyl is near the intersection of all three countries — said the total number of deaths attributable to the Chernobyl catastrophe will be no more than 4,000, far fewer than the tens of thousands originally predicted. Cancer levels, once expected to soar, are virtually the same as in uncontaminated areas.

However, Chernobyl charities and anti-nuclear groups such as Greenpeace have widely disputed the U.N. report, suggesting that 90,000 people will die from radiation cancer.

Dr. Alexandre Perepletchikov, who conducted extensive radiation research at the Gomel Institute in Belarus’ fallout zone, said the U.N. conclusions should not be seen as definitive.

“We desperately need further evaluation, further research and study of the long term effects of low dose of radiation,” said Perepletchikov, now a pathologist at Tufts-New England Medical Center and a board member of Chernobyl Children's Project USA.

Report: Other factors take toll
In general, the U.N. report blames the generally poor health among the resettled population on poverty and unhealthy lifestyles, among them heavy smoking and drinking.

“They attribute all symptoms that they have to radiation,” said Burton Bennett, a noted American expert on radiation and an author of the U.N. report. “We know a lot about radiation, what it does and doesn’t do. The levels are simply too low to cause such effects.”

In addition, Bennett agrees with the report's claim that 20 years of misinformation about radioactivity has led people to believe they will die — and so they live as if they would, with little regard for their health. The report says this paralyzing fatalism has created a “culture of dependency.”

Contributing to this, critics say, are the benefits that seven million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia receive related to Chernobyl, from annual vacations to educational stipends. (They are careful though to exclude from this total a core population of 100,000 to 200,000 people who continue to be severely impacted by the Chernobyl catastrophe.)

To address this situation, the release of the U.N. report coincides with a drive to focus local and international aid on breaking the culture of dependency by developing local economies.

“We’ve got to mobilize the population, to empower it to take control of its future and finally to overcome this victim syndrome,” said Pavlo Zamostyan, director of a U.N. program that works among resettled communities in Ukraine.

‘Dictionary of desease’
No one, however, is questioning Alexander Nihaev’s illnesses.

“I am a dictionary of disease," he said. "My heart, liver, pancreas, diabetes and cataracts — the doctors say it’s all related to the radiation.”

Nihaev spent a year in a specialist hospital in Moscow recovering from the time he spent fighting fires at Chernobyl. In the years since, he has endured 19 operations — and those were just the ones under general anesthetic. “There were dozens more smaller procedures,” he said. “I’ve lost count of those.”

Now living in Kiev, Nihaev has spent a total of several years in hospitals. But he says he thinks little of the accident, preferring to focus on what he believes has kept him alive.

“I never really doubted that I would survive,” he said. “I had little children, and my goal was to raise them. I needed to feed them.”