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How many people died in Chernobyl?

Statistics relating to the number of deaths associated with the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 vary greatly depending on which reports you read. Many recent fatalities are still being linked to the events of that fateful day and while it’s unclear as to how many of those are true, certain estimates put the final death toll in excess of 200,000.

The fateful day

In the early hours of 26th April 1986, engineers carried out a routine systems test on reactor number four but an unexpected surge caused them to attempt an emergency shutdown. However, this only served to lead to a huge power spike which in turn led to a series of explosions.

As the reactor’s graphite moderator became exposed to the air, the whole of reactor number four exploded, causing many immediate deaths and leading to clouds of radioactive smoke spreading through the atmosphere.

The initial aftermath

Some reports suggest that the death toll that resulted from that initial explosion was as low as 30 and this number would have included those engineers working on reactor 4 who died instantly at the scene.

The figure also includes the death of some emergency workers who perished at the scene. From here however, a lack of information from the Soviet government has chiefly been responsible for the wide disparity over some claims.

Different views

Contamination spread throughout Chernobyl and the neighbouring town of Pripyat leading to many deaths from radiation sickness in the early period following the blast. In time, cancer set in and claimed many lives but just what are the differing claims with regard to the final death toll?

In 2005, the UN Nuclear Watchdog announced what it claimed to be the final figures for both direct and indirect deaths. As far as direct fatalities were concerned, i.e. those that were killed as a direct result of the initial blast, the number was declared at 56.

The watchdog then moved on to indirect deaths including those that had contracted fatal illnesses as a clear result of being exposed to high levels of radiation following the explosion. That figure was shown as 4,000 but it led to immediate controversy and counter claims from other groups.

The real toll?

Greenpeace were one of the main dissenting voices to react to the UN’s claims and in 2006, a year after the watchdog released its own numbers, the campaigning body produced some statistics based on annual cancer figures from Belarus.

The Greenpeace report suggested that around 270,000 cancer cases could be directly traced to the events at Chernobyl in 1986 and that from that figure, there had been 93,000 fatalities. The report concluded by claiming that the final death toll could be as high as 200,000.

Ultimately, the restriction of information from the former Soviet Union in the wake of the Chernobyl blast has been one of the reasons behind these conflicting reports. As part of the sad legacy from April 1986, the only thing we can be really certain of is that the final death toll may never be known.

Matt Harris

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