Feature Stories

15 Years After Chernobyl, nuclear power plant safety improved , but strains on health, economy and environment remain

Staff Report

25 April 2001

When the news of an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant came out, it shocked the world. The accident was by far the most devastating in the history of nuclear power and the people of the region continue to live with its consequences.

"Chernobyl was a tragic but important turning point for the IAEA." - Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

"The accident had a disastrous impact on life, health and the environment in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and prompted fear and concerns in other nations of the world about the effects of radiation," said IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei looking back at 1986.

Fifteen years later, exhaustive studies by the IAEA and others provide a solid understanding of the causes and consequences of the accident, which stemmed from design deficiencies in the reactor compounded by violation of operating procedures. These deficiencies and the clear lack of a "safety culture" led to speedy international adoption of Early Notification and Assistance Conventions as well as the later establishment of the landmark Convention on Nuclear Safety.

Lessons learned from the accident were also a significant driving force behind a decade of IAEA assistance to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Much of this work focused on identifying the weaknesses in and improving the design safety of VVER and RBMK reactors.

Hundreds of international initiatives are easing the effects on the environment and health in the affected regions. In one example, the Agency is working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on the "Prussian Blue Project" aimed at reducing caesium contamination in milk and meat.

The Agency is also providing assistance in treating thyroid cancer. According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) in its 2000 Report to the UN General Assembly, the number of cases has risen to about 1800 and further cases can be expected for years to come. Significantly, UNSCEAR has, however, found no scientific evidence of increases to date in the incidence of any other health effects that could be related to radiation exposure.

Nevertheless, the socio-economic impacts remain serious. Farming communities in Belarus and Ukraine suffered heavily from radioactive contamination as a result of the Chernobyl accident. The IAEA, together with the FAO, is therefore helping to restore agricultural land by producing the rapeseed plant on 50,000 hectares of contaminated land in Belarus. The seed takes up and stores radionuclides from the soil in its stalks and seed coat, but not in the seed. This seed can then be used for economically viable products such as biolubricants, cooking oils or high protein cattle feed.

One of the most difficult legacies of Chernobyl are the psychological effects in the population related to lack of information immediately after the accident, the stress and trauma of relocation, the breaking of social ties and the fear of radiation. Resulting economic hardship is also a major factor for distress, and the recent closure of the Chernobyl plant which provided many hundreds of jobs is a further strain. International assistance will be needed in these areas for years to come.

"Chernobyl was a tragic but important turning point for the IAEA," said Mr. ElBaradei. "It prompted us to focus unprecedented energies and resources to help the affected people and ensure that such a serious accident would never happen again."