Ask ten scientists to describe the consequences of Chernobyl, and you'll likely get twelve different opinions.
That there is little agreement over Chernobyl's consequences so far isn't terribly surprising, given the paucity of pre-accident data to work with and the controversial nature of the issue itself. What is more stunning are the vast differences in estimates of health effects.
The U.N.'s World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, for example, that so far only about 50 people have died as a direct result of Chernobyl, and a few hundred cases of cancer--mostly thyroid--likely will lead to additional deaths.
But the WHO's estimates are so much lower than every other estimate that it is difficult to take them seriously. It appears that the WHO has only accepted deaths which can provably be laid to Chernobyl radiation.
But radiation doesn't carry a silver bullet: when someone dies of cancer or, as they call it in Ukraine, Chernobyl AIDS--a weakness and general suppression of the immune system--there is no banner which rises up and says "Chernobyl killed me."
On the high end, a Ukrainian victims group claims 150,000 already dead, the Ukrainian Ministry of Public Health in April 1995 said 125,000 already dead. Both estimates seem high, and indeed, include deaths of elderly persons who might reasonably have been expected to die over the past ten years in any event. [However, contrary to nuclear industry propaganda, these numbers do not include everyone who died in Ukraine from 1986-95 from any cause, including car accidents. If so, Ukraine would probably have the lowest death rate in the industrialized world. Instead, it has one of the highest. Indeed, Belarus and Ukraine may be the only two nations on the planet whose death rate exceeds the birth rate].
Other estimates range from several thousand, mostly "liquidators" who have died, to an estimate by Greenpeace Ukraine of 32,000 now dead. Greenpeace derived their figure by examining death rates from illnesses before and after the accident. Their research was solid enough that Yuri Shcherbak, the Ukraine Ambassador to the United States, accepts that estimate in the April 1996 issue of Scientific American.
The economic cost to Belarus, Ukraine and Russia has been even greater--more on that in a moment. But often overlooked as a Chernobyl consequence is the effect diversion of huge portions of these countries' budgets has had on public health and mortality. Ukraine, for example, has been spending 5-7% of its annual budget on Chernobyl-related activities; Belarus has been spending 20% and more. Had that funding been available instead for public health and welfare improvements, it is unquestionable that both countries would be much better off, and very likely that the mortality rates would be far lower.
Economically, the consequences have been staggering. Even conservative estimates, counting direct costs, interdicted land, health costs, and related losses, are at $300 Billion and more.
First, consider that Chernobyl was in a very remote area, 80 miles from Kiev to the south and 80 miles from Gomel to the north. Then consider that Indian Point is only 35 miles from Manhattan; Limerick a similar distance from Philadelphia; Zion even closer to Chicago; Wolf Creek and Callaway in the center of our nation's agricultural heartland. According to the 1982 Sandia National Laboratories CRAC-II report (Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences), we could expect as much as $300 billion from a meltdown at Indian Point, and far less at most other locations. Fat chance. A meltdown at nearly any U.S. reactor, and at most European ones as well, clearly would reach the Trillion-Dollar range
Much has been written this tenth anniversary about the "psychic damage" attributed to Chernobyl. Many articles have implied that this is the major, perhaps only real damage from the accident.
Make no mistake, the psychic damage is real. People in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are scared. They are afraid to have children, afraid of dying young, afraid of another Chernobyl. Western scientists, especially those affiliated with the nuclear industry, dismiss this as "radiophobia." In fact, it is an entirely rational response to the enormous consequences that do exist and to a government that lied unforgivably to them once and may do so again.
The people of Eastern Europe do not like living in polluted environments any more than we do. But to call them "phobic" because they react humanly to those environments is the ultimate insult. The stakes are very real and high and, as usual, the people know best.