Confusion as scientists dispute the death toll after Chernobyl

Ten years on, and five million people have been exposed to radioactivit y from Ukrainian blast
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The Independent Online
Almost 10 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster there is still confusion over precisely how many victims it claimed.

According to Ukrainian health ministry officials, 125,000 of their countrymen have already died as a result of the accident and many more are set to follow. On top of that, tens of thousands are said to have gone down with crippling radiation-induced diseases, and incidences of thyroid cancer among children have gone up a hundredfold.

Western scientists dispute the figures, with some putting the number of deaths directly attributable to the disaster at just 45. They concede, however, that the full picture will not become clear for many years.

"Ten years after Chernobyl we seem to have got nowhere with regard to the casualties," said David Kyd of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). "But those giving the higher figures tend to be people who want to draw attention to what happened and gain sympathy."

The motive is pretty clear. No matter how many people actually died as a result of it, the explosion at reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986 still ranks as the biggest man-made disaster of the century.

Although the radioactive fallout from the blast reached Scotland and Norway, the highest concentration of people affected were in Ukraine and the then Soviet republic of Belarus, immediately to the north.

In all 5 million people are believed to have been exposed to radioactivity following the blast. In Ukraine, Belarus and Russia more than 500,000 people were displaced from affected towns and villages and thousands of square miles of land were contaminated.

Ten years on the sense of shock, for those who experienced it, remains acute. Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, yesterday told a gathering of international politicians and scientists in Vienna that Chernobyl had been a "radioactive tornado [the like of which had] never seen before".

Claiming that his country had ever since been devoting 25 per cent of its annual budget to dealing with the effects of the disaster, he also used the occasion to plead for more aid from the international community. "I call upon you to help return the contaminated areas to full life," Mr Lukashenko said. "We cannot conduct this work on our own."

The Vienna conference, which has been organised by the IAEA, the World Health Organisation and the European Commission, aims to look at the costs of Chernobyl in human, environmental and even psychological terms. Its participants are also looking at how to ensure there can be no repeat of such a disaster.

In addition to the two still at Chernobyl itself, there are a further 13 Chernobyl-type reactors in operation in the former Soviet Union. Despite safety improvements over the past 10 years, all of them still represent a danger, according to Western experts.

The countries operating the plants say they cannot shut them down because they depend on them for their power supplies. The cost of serious improvements at the plants is estimated at around $100 (pounds 65m)-$150m per unit, but to date, Western pledges have amounted to only $20-$30m per unit.

The Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yevhen Marchuk, yesterday confirmed his readiness to close down the two reactors still in operation at Chernobyl by the year 2000 - as long as the right amount of Western aid would be forthcoming.

Mr Marchuk did not give a figure for the cost of shutting down Chernobyl, but in the past Ukraine has proposed a figure of around $4bn to cover the completion of two new nuclear reactors, as well as continuing medical and other expenses for tens of thousands of people affected by the accident.

Last week, the Group of Seven major industrialised nations offered Ukraine $3.1bn in exchange for closing the plant. With some in Ukraine resisting the move, G7 leaders meeting in Moscow later this month may even increase the offer.

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