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Experts Find Reduced Effects of Chernobyl

Published: September 6, 2005

ROME, Sept. 5 - Nearly 20 years after the huge accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, a new scientific report has found that its aftereffects on health and the environment have not proved as dire as scientists had predicted.

The report was prepared by a panel of more than 100 experts convened by United Nations agencies.

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Joseph Sywenkyj/Redux, for The New York Times

A nursery school's remains recently in Prypiat, Ukraine, in the exclusion zone of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

It says huge compensation programs for people in the Chernobyl region have become "a major barrier to the region's recovery," both by creating a culture of dependency and by soaking up a high percentage of the region's resources. It recommends that the compensation programs be cut back.

The report, "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," says 4,000 deaths will probably be attributable to the accident ultimately - compared with the tens of thousands predicted at the time of the accident.

Only 50 deaths - all among the reactor staff and emergency workers - can be directly attributed to acute radiation exposure after Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 exploded in April 1986, the panel found. The rest will be from cancer at a higher rate than would otherwise be expected in people exposed to radiation near Chernobyl in the wake of the accident.

But for millions of people who were subjected to low levels of radioactive particles spread by the wind, health effects have proved generally minimal, the report found.

The powerful explosion that rocked Chernobyl sent chunks of the reactor core into the surrounding fields and clouds of radioactive particles into the air. The fire burned for 10 days and released radioactive particles that were carried by the wind to large rural swaths of what was then the Soviet Union. The particles settled in human bodies and homes and contaminated fields, forests and livestock.

The report acknowledged that there was a core of people, probably 100,000 to 200,000, who continued to be severely affected by the disaster.

But seven million people in what are now Russia, Ukraine and Belarus still receive some kind of Chernobyl benefits, from monthly stipends to university entrance preference to therapeutic annual vacations. In Ukraine, the number of people designated as permanently disabled by the Chernobyl accident (and their children) increased from 200 in 1991 to 64,500 in 1997 and 91,219 in 2001 - even though the effects of radiation decline over time, the report noted. Both Ukraine and Belarus still spend about 5 percent of their annual budgets on Chernobyl victims.

The panel found that contrary to previous forecasts, there had been no observed rise in the incidence of leukemia, a blood cancer widely associated with radiation exposure - except for a small increase among workers who were in the contaminated plant. Nor has there been the expected detectable decrease in fertility or increase in birth defects.

Indeed, the report concludes that "the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident" is "the mental health impact." Residents of the region, who view themselves as victims of a tragedy they poorly understand, are still haunted by anxiety that has prevented many from restarting their lives.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Soviet Union declared an 18-mile "exclusion zone" around the reactor, which still exists, and resettled hundreds of thousands of people. Agriculture was forbidden in contaminated areas, as was the collection of forest products like berries and mushrooms. A host of compensation schemes were established.

"People have developed a paralyzing fatalism because they think they are at much higher risk than they are, so that leads to things like drug and alcohol use, and unprotected sex and unemployment," said Dr. Fred A. Mettler, leader of the team analyzing health effects for the Chernobyl Forum, a research group comprising United Nations agencies and representatives of affected countries.

The only concrete health impact in the region has been thyroid cancer in people who were young at the time of the accident and drank contaminated milk from cows that ate grass contaminated with radioactive iodine dispersed during by the accident. Radioactive iodine, which is short-lived, concentrates in the thyroid gland. Because the disease is generally treatable, only 9 of the 2,000 who have come down with the disease have died.