How many were killed by Chernobyl?

John LaForge

April 26, 2012, is the 26th anniversary of the radiation disaster at Chernobyl, in Ukraine 60 miles north of Kiev.

The explosions and 40-day-long fire at Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 dispersed between one and 9 billion curies of radiation across the whole of the planet earth. The UN called it the worst environmental catastrophe in human history, and until Fukushima, Japan became the second, Chernobyl was the only level 7 radiological disaster ever recognized by its 0-to-7 scale.

Yet it is not unusual for young people to know almost nothing about the Chernobyl catastrophe. Infants and other milk drinkers in Minnesota at the time may have ingested its poisons. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported May 17, 1986 that “since radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident began floating over Minnesota last week, low levels of radiation have been discovered in … the raw milk from a Minnesota dairy.” The number of fatalities, cancers or other diseases resulting from radiation-induced immune deficiencies caused by Chernobyl fallout is of course unknowable, but the staggering incidence of cancer in the general population in perfectly obvious.

Since 2006, the most often-repeated Chernobyl fatality estimate comes from the UN’s Chernobyl Forum. This expert panel reported “9,000 excess deaths for the most affected areas,” although it is regularly misreported as having identified only “4,000 Chernobyl deaths.” It has also been widely condemned for investigating only those fatalities expected in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, deliberately ignoring cancer deaths elsewhere — even though the majority of dispersed radioactive fallout was deposited outside the three former Soviet republics.


World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl told the BBC, “The WHO felt it [the Chernobyl Forum] had recourse to the best national and international scientific evidence and studies when it came up with its estimates of 9,000 excess deaths for the most affected areas. We feel they’re very sound.” Yet the most affected areas included large areas of Europe and the North Atlantic.

Author Alexey Yablokov writes that, “There is no reasonable explanation for the fact that the [Chernobyl Forum] completely neglected the consequences of radioactive contamination in other countries, which received more than 50 percent of the Chernobyl radionuclides, and addressed concerns only in Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia.” Yablokov’s 2009 book, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, published by the New York Academy of Sciences, estimates 985,000 Chernobyl deaths.

The nuclear industry get off lightly because hundreds of millions of hospital patients around the world cannot prove their illnesses came from a particular radiation exposure, Chernobyl, Fukushima or otherwise. If radiation were traceable among the dead like bullets in a ballistics test, nuclear power would be a thing of the past.

The International Atomic Energy Agency claims that Chernobyl killed only the 32 firefighters who died of particularly horrifying symptoms in the immediate aftermath. However, the IAEA is officially chartered, “to accelerate and enlarge the contributions of nuclear power worldwide.” Because of this institutional bias, one can ignore everything the IAEA says about radiation-related casualties or its health effects generally.

Ukraine’s Minister of Health Andrei Serkyuk declared in 1995, that 125,000 people had died from the direct effects of Chernobyl radiation. He said a disproportionate share of casualties were among children, pregnant women and rescue workers or “liquidators.”

Liquidators were the 800,000 farmers, miners and factory workers conscripted to participate in the removal and burial of radioactive topsoil, machinery and debris from near the smashed reactor. According to Adi Roche in Children of Chernobyl, they wore inadequate protective gear or none at all. The Los Angeles Times reported in April 1998 that “Russian officials estimated 10,000 Russian ‘liquidators’ died.” The government of Ukraine says that in 1996 alone 773 liquidators died.

In Biblical terms, Chernobyl and Fukushima are the Seven Deadly Sins wrapped into one endlessly metastasizing, hydrological, biological, ecological, psychological, economic, aquatic, agricultural and genetic killing spree, an act of unparalleled, multi-generational murder. Nuclear power isn’t “too cheap to meter; it’s too costly to fathom.

-- John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch and edits its quarterly newsletter.
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Photo: Children of Chernobyl, April 2011

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