The HBO miniseries Chernobyl chronicles the horrors and human cost from the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster, as well as the stultifying bureaucracy of the old Soviet Union, which tried to cover it up.
The miniseries is punctuated with the sight of human beings – firefighters, nuclear plant workers – rotting away from radiation poisoning in what amounted to terrible deaths. However, in real life, how many people died at Chernobyl?
The answer is that the final figure remains in dispute. It’s a complicated question because there were the people who died early from the plant explosion, but there were also possible after-effects which lingered for years, not only in the nearby towns but also throughout Eastern Europe.
“The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that occurred on 26 April 1986 was the most serious accident ever to occur in the nuclear power industry,” says the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.
Here’s what you need to know:
More Than 30 People Died Quickly From the Chernobyl Accident
The early death count seems relatively small, considering the scope of the disaster. Two people died immediately when the nuclear reactor blew, and another 29 people died within a couple days, according to New Scientist.
Even this number varies slightly, depending on the source. But the bottom line is that about 30 people died shortly after the accident or right after it.
According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “The Chernobyl accident’s severe radiation effects killed 28 of the site’s 600 workers in the first four months after the event. Another 106 workers received high enough doses to cause acute radiation sickness. Two workers died within hours of the reactor explosion from non-radiological causes. Another 200,000 cleanup workers in 1986 and 1987 received doses of between 1 and 100 rem (The average annual radiation dose for a U.S. citizen is about .6 rem).”
In 1986, almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat, the closest town to the Chernobyl plant. There was also a nearby town called Chornobyl, population 12,000, according to Live Science. In contrast, more than 100,000 people died immediately when nuclear bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
You can see the names of some of those who died here. Some of the characters in the HBO miniseries are not real people, but others are; for example, firefighter Vasily Ignatenko was a real person. He was 25-years-old, one of the first firefighters on the scene, and he really did leave behind a pregnant wife (whose child died). He was one of 27 firefighters who died: Ignatenko lived for two weeks, according to Express.
Thousands May Have Died From the Lingering Effects of Radiation But This Is Disputed
Of course, the health costs don’t just derive from immediate effects. How many people came down with cancer and other health ailments as a result of Chernobyl?
“Today the available evidence does not strongly connect the accident to radiation-induced increases of leukemia or solid cancer, other than thyroid cancer,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission insists.
“Many children and adolescents in the area in 1986 drank milk contaminated with radioactive iodine, which delivered substantial doses to their thyroid glands. To date, about 6,000 thyroid cancer cases have been detected among these children. Ninety-nine percent of these children were successfully treated; 15 children and adolescents in the three countries died from thyroid cancer by 2005. The available evidence does not show any effect on the number of adverse pregnancy outcomes, delivery complications, stillbirths or overall health of children among the families living in the most contaminated areas.”
As for cancer deaths, “While cancer deaths have generally been far lower than initial speculations of tens of thousands of radiation-related deaths, a recent study of a cohort of emergency workers found a statistically significant relative risk of solid cancer incidence and mortality.”
The UN Scientific Committee, though, puts the number of deaths at around 6,000, writing, “Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases can be expected during the next decades.”
However, the committee adds:
“Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to the shorter time expected between exposure and its occurrence compared with solid cancers, does not appear to be elevated.”
The World Health Organization put the figure higher in a study of the population of children and adolescents exposed to the radiation. ” According to national studies in the three affected countries, more than 11,000 thyroid cancer cases had been diagnosed in this group by 2016,” a WHO report on Chernobyl reads.
A 2006 study called Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident found that “the Chernobyl accident, which occurred April 26, 1986, resulted in a large release of radionuclides, which were deposited over a very wide area, particularly in Europe. Although an increased risk of thyroid cancer in exposed children has been clearly demonstrated in the most contaminated regions, the impact of the accident on the risk of other cancers as well as elsewhere in Europe is less clear.”
That study made projections.
“The risk projections suggest that by now Chernobyl may have caused about 1,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 4,000 cases of other cancers in Europe, representing about 0.01% of all incident cancers since the accident,” it reads. “Models predict that by 2065 about 16,000 (95% UI 3,400–72,000) cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 (95% UI 11,000–59,000) cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident.”