You could call it the “dirtiest bomb” of all: a massive nuclear explosion, dumping 100 Hiroshimas’ worth of radiation on 2 million people. A fantasy of Al Qaeda hiding out in Peshawar? No, just history for the people living in the path of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which instantly killed scores, gave cancer to thousands and fear of future illnesses to millions. For them, living in terror of nuclear disasters is an old story. Old enough, in fact, to provide the clearest scientific evidence available of what a dirty bomb exploded by terrorists might do.
The only other evidence of any significance as to what a nuclear weapon can do comes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But because the rapid high-intensity radiation dose from atomic bombs differs dramatically from the sustained lower-intensity dose a uranium-based dirty bomb would deliver, the Japanese data is largely inapplicable.
Unlike the $500 million Japanese-American research effort following the bombing of Japan in 1945, Chernobyl has yet to generate more than sporadic and limited science. Many scientific questions arising from the disaster “have been largely ignored,” according to Keith Baverstock, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) radiation scientist.
In many ways, the story of the scientific response to Chernobyl reads like an intellectual echo of the disaster itself. Soviet efforts to cover up the disaster prevented immediate collection of basic data, while its failed efforts to relocate people from radioactive areas in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine left 200,000 people still living in the affected areas today. In 1989, its credibility shattered, the Soviet government invited the UN-sponsored International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to review health impacts. Working with inadequate Soviet data, in 1991 the IAEA reported that no health problems could be linked to the disaster. And yet, according to Baverstock of the WHO, in 1990 the IAEA experts knew of twenty cases of rare childhood thyroid illness in Ukraine.
Next came the WHO, backed with $20 million from Japan to gather data and address thyroid disease, blood disease and brain damage in utero. But funds ran out in 1995. An international thyroid project launched by the WHO and the European Union in 1992 had similarly stalled, as did later efforts by other international bodies, including the G7 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Baverstock notes that about the only interested party that has never participated in Chernobyl research is the nuclear industry itself.
The latest piece of bad news comes from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which, while charged with monitoring Chernobyl science, appears to be disintegrating. UN funding slashes meant UNSCEAR had to cancel its annual meeting last year, and commission member Lars Eric Holm warns that cuts will “seriously affect” future research. Governments in Japan, the United States, the Netherlands and Germany all currently support worthy short-term studies, mostly focusing on thyroid cancer. But with decades of impacts ahead, and local officials concerned that breast cancer and genetic irregularities are emerging, there remains no concerted long-term research plan. Nor have governments in the directly affected countries helped much. Russia recently declared its radioactive zone “clean,” despite high radiation readings in many populated areas. In Belarus, the government’s approach is to try to lure people back into the radiation zones with tax breaks. Ukraine is investing in new Russian reactors while ignoring calls for more research.
Last year, UN Undersecretary General Kenzo Oshima expressed the hope that “the international community may be moved to action by a healthy combination of compassion and enlightened self-interest.” But nobody has committed any cash in response. At the Bryansk diagnostic center in Russia’s radioactive zone, chief geneticist Nikolai Rivkind said recently, “The Chernobyl experience–tragic as it is–should be a goldmine for world science.” Standing in a threadbare lab where Internet access is as severely rationed as every other research tool, he added, “We’ve got maybe two years at most left to get organized. I’m losing hope.”