Chernobyl 30 years on: Environmental and health effects

Briefing 22-04-2016

In the early hours of 26 April 1986, an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the explosions it triggered caused a major release of nuclear radioactive material into the atmosphere. Radionuclides were scattered in the vicinity of the plant and over much of Europe. The Chernobyl fallout had a major impact on both agricultural and natural ecosystems in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, as well as in many other European countries. Radionuclides were taken up by plants and later by animals. In some areas, they were subsequently found in milk, meat, forest food products, freshwater fish and wood. Environmental impacts vary according to location and ecosystem. Forests and fresh water bodies have been among the most affected ecosystems. The impacts on wildlife in the vicinity of the Chernobyl plant are disputed. The impacts on human health have been extensively studied, although experts are not unanimous in their views. Official assessments by United Nations agencies have been challenged. The major population groups exposed were clean-up workers, evacuees and residents of contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. There has been no clear evidence of any measurable increase in radiation-induced adverse health effects in other European countries. The immediate and short-term effects resulting from heavy fallout exposure include radiation sickness and cataracts. Late effects are thyroid cancer, especially in children and adolescents, and leukaemia among exposed workers. The accident has also had important psychosocial effects.