The science of nuclear energy
The science of nuclear energy

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

The science of nuclear energy

3.3.5 Chernobyl today – health effects

Download this video clip.Video player: ou_futurelearn_nuclear_energy_vid_1073.mp4
Skip transcript


But 20 years after the accident, a large-scale international project, the Chernobyl Forum, set out to understand the impacts of the release of this radiation. I've come to meet Professor Mykola Tronko, who's in charge of the Institute of Endocrinology here in the Ukraine. Initially, many doctors expected Chernobyl to cause different types of cancer in hundreds of thousands of people. But what actually happened was very different.
Starting from 1990, we saw the increase of thyroid cancer incidents among children. I must say that it certainly caused a big discussion in the scientific world.
Despite this wave of cases of thyroid cancer, there were no confirmed increases in any other type of cancer in the general population.
We can say that problem number one, as far as the medical effects of the Chernobyl accident are concerned, is the problem of pathologies of the thyroid gland, particularly thyroid cancer.
How many thousands of people have been diagnosed as having thyroid cancer as a result - as far as you understand - as a result of the accident itself?
For all cases of thyroid cancer, the Institute has a register of patients who were operated on for thyroid cancer. In this register, 2,000 to 2,500 refer to radio-induced thyroid cancer.
The thyroids were removed, studied, and stored here. They found that radioactive iodine from the fallout had been taken up into the thyroid gland. And there, it had caused tumours. It affected children more, because the rate of cell division is faster in the thyroid when you're young.
This might have been prevented. Iodine tablets contain the stable form of iodine, which your body takes up in preference to the radioactive form so cancers don't start. But unlike Fukushima, in Chernobyl, these tablets weren't immediately made available.
How many deaths has this resulted in so far?
There were a few cases of deaths. The number of deaths for these patients - to be more exact, aged zero to 18 at the time of the accident - was seven.
That's an incredible survival rate for this type of thyroid cancer.
Yes, high survival rate. After five years, we had a survival rate of 99.5%.
Once the findings of scientists from across other contaminated areas of Belarus and Russia were added in, they found a total of 15 deaths amongst 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer, within a population some 6 million.
People will listen to you, and they will say, yes, of course. He's in the Ukraine, he has the old, the Soviet mentality of sticking to a particular line. Why should we believe him?
It has already been recognised by the world's scientific medical community. WHO [The World Health Organisation] recognised it, the United Nations recognised it. These results have been published in the most respected scientific journals - in particular, in Nature, in Science, and many, many others.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

In the video, Jim al-Khalili talks to Professor Mykola Tronko at the Institute of Endocrinology and Metabolism in Ukraine.

Initially, there were great fears about the health risks of the radiation on the nearby community. Pripyat was not evacuated until two days after the explosions, so the residents would certainly have been exposed.

From 1990, there were higher incidences of thyroid cancer in children and this was a cause of great concern. This particular cancer was screened for as it was known that any ingested iodine-131 would collect in the thyroid. As we learned in Week 1, the emitted particles from radioactive substances can damage human tissue and lead to cancers forming.

However, there was no rise in other cancers. From the vantage point of today we can see that the effects from the fallout were substantially less than were feared at the time.

In the next section, you will think about the lessons that can be learned from these disasters.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371