Lessons from Chernobyl

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.323.7314.643 (Published 22 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:643

The world needs to improve its handling of international disasters

  1. Dillwyn Williams, joint director
  1. Thyroid Carcinogenesis Group, Strangeways Research Laboratory, Cambridge CB1 4RN

    We have just passed the 15th anniversary of Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear disaster. The explosion of the reactor at this nuclear power station in Belarus in 1986 released huge amounts of radioactive isotopes, about 1019 becquerels, and heavy fallout affected large areas of Belarus and northern Ukraine and a small part of Russia, with lesser amounts detected throughout the northern hemisphere. The response of international organisations to the need to study the long term health consequences of the explosion was at first uncoordinated and is still inadequate.

    In 1990 the World Health Organization was given $20m (£14m) by Japan to investigate the health effects,1 but expenditure was effectively controlled by one official, much of the money was spent inappropriately, and little of value resulted. Also in 1990 the International Atomic Energy Agency carried out a separate investigation. Though informed of cases of childhood thyroid cancer, it was generally reassuring about possible health consequences.2 The United States and the European Union signed separate treaties with the governments involved, allowing them to investigate the health effects. Initially the European Union and WHO Europe played a major part in drawing attention to the increase in the incidence of childhood thyroid cancer3-5 but then set up separate studies, as did the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation of Japan. Unesco, …

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