Lessons learned from Chernobyl

1. The scale of the material losses and the financial cost of mitigating the consequences of the Chernobyl accident provide compelling evidence of the extremely high price of errors and shortcomings when ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants and of the need for strict compliance with international safety requirements during their design, construction and operation.

2. The accident has convincingly demonstrated, that the cost of ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities is significantly lower than that of dealing with accident consequences. Large-scale man-made accidents cause great social and economic damage to countries located in their area of influence. Hundreds of billions of US dollars’ worth of direct and indirect damages have been reported by Belarus, Russia and Ukraine as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident over the past 20 years.

3. The Chernobyl accident has led to a part of the population developing an inadequate perception of radiation risk, which has caused psychological problems and, as a consequence, a deterioration in public health and quality of life.

4. The accident has shown the importance of strict compliance with the basic and technical safety principles for nuclear power plants, of continuous safety analysis of operating nuclear power plants and of their early upgrading in order to eliminate deviations, of active study and the introduction of leading world experience, and of taking thorough account of the human factor.

5. The accident has demonstrated the need to establish and support a high-level national emergency response system in case of man-made accidents.

6. The accident has demonstrated the danger of not bringing nuclear power under public control and has shown the need for open and objective dialogue with the public on all aspects of the safe use of nuclear energy.

7. The creation of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (ChEZ) was a justified measure not only in view of the need to evacuate the population from the most contaminated area, but also having regard to the follow-up tasks of mitigating the accident’s consequences. The Exclusion Zone is the most highly contaminated area and the largest source of radiation hazard to the surrounding populated areas. Thanks, moreover, to its natural and man-made barriers it has - and in future will continue to have - the important protective function of preventing the migration of radionuclides beyond its boundaries. Continuing activities to study, support and strengthen the barrier function of the ChEZ remains the most important focus of efforts to minimize the accident’s consequences.

8. The radioecological monitoring system established in the Exclusion Zone, including the “Shelter”, has enabled monitoring of the existing situation; however, it does not produce entirely reliable predictions of the radioecological and ecological situation, either for the Zone as a whole, or parts thereof.

9. The experience obtained over the past 20 years shows that a complete halt in economic activity in the Exclusion Zone is impossible because it does not lead to spontaneous recovery of the contaminated ecosystems to their original state. At the same time, there is an additional risk of radionuclide release outside the Zone. In many cases, spontaneous evolution leads to secondary negative radioecological and ecological consequences (forest fires, floods, outbreaks of plant and animal epidemics, and so on), which require human intervention in view of the hazard to populated areas.

10. Scientific co-operation thanks to the efforts of many countries (Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, countries of the European Union, USA, Japan and others) and international organizations (UN, WHO, IAEA) has produced important scientific results in nuclear and radiation safety, radioecology and radiation medicine, which are of significant practical importance. However, insufficient funding of national scientific research programmes and their lack of co-ordination do not facilitate the creation of a sound and comprehensive scientific research strategy. At both the national (Belarus, Russia, Ukraine) and international level, there is a need to develop and improve scientific research programmes which take into account the long-term tasks.

11. Managing the radioactive waste from the Chernobyl accident is becoming a more pressing and topical problem as time goes on. Despite the established national programmes and international projects on radioactive waste management, there is still no realistically balanced and sound (taking into account the “Shelter” aspect and decommissioning of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant) unified concept for radioactive waste management which includes all stages from collection and processing to final disposal.

12. Dealing with the consequences of the accident in the agro-industrial sector has become an important part of ensuring public radiation safety. The system of countermeasures developed has resulted in a decrease in exposure to the population and precluded the production of contaminated products.

13. Implementation of the agricultural countermeasures has revealed critical areas where even a relatively small amount of contamination of the soil by long-lived radionuclides leads to considerable contamination of plant and animal products due to the high rate of soil-to-plant radionuclide transfer. Failure to take this phenomenon sufficiently into account reduces the effectiveness of the countermeasures in agriculture and leads to irrational wastage of material resources.

14. The Chernobyl accident resulted in unprecedented exposure of the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian population. In view of its uniqueness in terms of spatial, temporal, professional and age specific factors, as well as the combination of external and internal exposure, it has no analogy in the entire history of man-made accidents.

15. In the twenty-year post-accident period, most of the local population living in the contaminated areas have already received 70-90% of their anticipated life-time dose. Over the next 10-20 years, the main dose-related radionuclide in these areas will be 137Cs, accounting for up to 90% of the total additional dose. The internal dose, caused mainly by the consumption of locally-produced contaminated foodstuffs.

16. At the time of the accident the medical services were not equipped to deal with or minimize the medical consequences of a large-scale man-made accident. The stable iodine prophylaxis was not administered in time or on a sufficient scale and protective measures such as sheltering and the replacement of contaminated with “clean” milk were barely used. The countermeasures to reduce psychological stress in the population were ineffective. In the initial phase of the accident and for the first five years thereafter, there was a shortage of medical personnel (doctors, nurses, laboratory workers) in the regional hospitals. On the whole, only the leading hospitals were able to provide high-quality, timely and proper treatment.

17. The early clinical effects in the first months after the accident were attributable to radiation (ionizing radiation of all types) and non-radiation (high concentration of chemical substances, changes in living conditions, inadequate psychological perception of the radiological hazards) factors.

18. However much money and effort is expended on improving nuclear safety, the probability of a nuclear accident will never be zero and, since people may suffer as a result, we should be prepared to minimize losses through timely response. Analysis of the response experience with respect to the Chernobyl accident provides a unique opportunity for improving the emergency response system, which should include well-defined procedures for action, trained personnel, the necessary instruments and equipment, criteria and mechanisms for decision-making developed in advance, and a system for training emergency workers. This experience should be integrated into international recommendations and methods for assessing, monitoring and responding to nuclear accidents.

19. The lack of objective and timely information to state authorities and the population about the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant led to an inadequate response to its potential negative consequences on people’s living conditions and health, and also created the preconditions for socio-psychological stress.

20. The adoption of legislative acts and legal documents has allowed a significant easing of the socio–psychological situation among clean-up workers and the affected population.