The psychological effects of Chernobyl, 25 years later

A man sets a candle to the Chernobyl victims' monument in Slavutich, some 30 miles away from the accident's site, and where many of the power station's personnel used to live, during a memorial ceremony on the night on April 25-26, 2011.

Stacey Vanek Smith: Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Thousands of lives were lost and billions of dollars were spent in what was the world's worst nuclear disaster. But some researchers now say the economic and human toll is actually less than one might think.

Dr. Burton Bennett headed the UN's Chernobyl Forum. Dr. Bennett good morning.

Burton Bennett: Good morning.

Vanek Smith: Your report back in 2005 estimated that about 4,000 people will eventually die from the effects of Chernobyl, which actually struck me as a lot fewer than I would have thought.

Bennett: Yes, there were a number of individuals who did receive very high radiation exposures, including workers who were on-site during the night of the accident. But most of the people who were either evacuated from the area or continued to live in the contaminated regions received relatively low doses of radiation, levels that would not be expected to lead to serious and widespread public health consequences.

Vanek Smith: Well it sounds like the physical problems caused by the radiation appear to be maybe less severe than we had thought. What about other kinds of trauma -- psychological trauma, things like that?

Bennett: Yes, that's certainly, definitely a factor in this situation. The countermeasures taken soon after the accident were effective; the evacuations, the restrictions of agricultural products and so forth. But the people continued to live in a contaminated area, and it's an area that's economically depressed, there's an overall level of ill health, and there's constant worry about radiation and its effects. And all of these things are no doubt contributing to ill health in the population.

Vanek Smith: Do you think we'll see some of the same misperceptions -- and realities -- 25 years after the nuclear disaster that we're seeing now in Japan?

Bennett: Surely, we will. Radiation is not well understood, although we live in a sea of radiation from natural sources all around us, and we continue to be bombarded by cosmic rays and there's natural levels of radionuclides in diet and in our bodies. It's always a little bit sensationalized in the media to bring attention to issues, but I don't think this is objective, from what we know about radiation.

Vanek Smith: Right, there seems to be a big fear factor, I think, a lot of times with radiation.

Bennett: That's certainly the case and that probably will always be so.

Vanek Smith: Dr. Burton Bennett was the chairman of the U.N.'s Chernobyl Forum. Dr. Bennett, thank you.

Bennett: Thank you.

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