The science of nuclear energy
The science of nuclear energy

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The science of nuclear energy

3.3.5 Chernobyl today – health effects

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JIM AL-KHALILI
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.
PROFESSOR MYKOLA TRONKO (via INTERPRETER)
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.
JIM AL-KHALILI
Despite this wave of cases of thyroid cancer, there were no confirmed increases in any other type of cancer in the general population.
PROFESSOR MYKOLA TRONKO (via INTERPRETER)
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.
JIM AL-KHALILI
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?
PROFESSOR MYKOLA TRONKO (via INTERPRETER)
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.
[MACHINE PUMPING]
JIM AL-KHALILI
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?
PROFESSOR MYKOLA TRONKO (via INTERPRETER)
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.
JIM AL-KHALILI
That's an incredible survival rate for this type of thyroid cancer.
PROFESSOR MYKOLA TRONKO (via INTERPRETER)
Yes, high survival rate. After five years, we had a survival rate of 99.5%.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
JIM AL-KHALILI
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?
PROFESSOR MYKOLA TRONKO (via INTERPRETER)
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
 
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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.

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