This project focuses on different attempts to quantify the costs of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster by compiling estimates of fatalities from a variety of sources. The data gathered show two patterns: First, in the weeks immediately following the disaster, news reports were inconsistent among sources and entangled with Soviet-US relations; second, more recent estimates of the final death toll vary over a large range and are likely influenced by government backing and affiliation to nuclear power.

Among the many mysteries surrounding the Chernobyl disaster, one may come as a surprise. After thirty four years of investigation, the question remains: How many people have died as a result of the accident?

While this seems to be a simple question that ought to have a simple answer, this number has ranged from tens to thousands, depending on the source. In the initial accident on April 26, 1986, only two people died as a direct result of the explosion.1 Following a pattern of Soviet secrecy, however, this number was not released by Soviet officials until April 30, and some Western media sources, such as Britain’s The Guardian, speculated much higher numbers due to the lack of information.2 In response, Soviet sources reported the first two deaths and criticized the exaggerated Western numbers. Moscow Television Service, for example, referred to the inflated numbers as “fabrications of Western propaganda” and a “pack of lies” on May 8, 1986.3 Clearly, Cold War-era international relations were at play. Over the following weeks, reports were varied and inconsistent as the nuclear disaster claimed the lives of thirty more “liquidators” – Soviet citizens who worked to reduce the fallout – who had developed acute radiation syndrome (ARS).

Chart of initial casualty reporting listed chronologically by date reported from 1986

Unfortunately, the deadly effects of the radiation released by the nuclear plant were just beginning. In addition to the immediate harm caused by high doses, increased radiation exposure can cause cancer and other adverse health effects over time. Many scholars such as those cited here have conducted studies over the past three decades attempting to predict the final death toll resulting from these impacts, particularly the increase in cancer fatalities. Some concluded that the exposure levels were low enough in the general population that there would be no significant rise in mortality, maintaining a death toll comprised of only 30 ARS-afflicted liquidators; others predicted hundreds of thousands of victims. All sources acknowledge the difficulty of pinpointing this figure, given the large number of cancer deaths unrelated to the nuclear disaster and the hazard of attributing cases to a single source. The 2000 UNSCEAR report on Chernobyl, for example, stated that “as long as individual dosimetry [measurement of radiation dose] is not performed no reliable quantitative estimates can be made.”4

This difficulty opened the door for more subjective science, as seen in the large spread of numbers. Thus, pro-nuclear groups like the World Nuclear Association and the International Atomic Energy Agency could produce scientifically-sound estimates of Chernobyl deaths that are significantly lower than those from anti-nuclear organizations such as Greenpeace International and the Union of Concerned Scientists. To confuse the numbers further, one of the most commonly cited estimates from the 2005 Chernobyl Forum5 underreported Chernobyl deaths by more than 50%, estimating a figure of 4,000 instead of the 9,000 determined by the work they cited. Debate ensued after publication, and while one IAEA representative defended the number, the U.N. issued a statement correcting it.6 Just as the initial news reports following the disaster were influenced by global relations, predictions from later scientific studies have been shaped by outside political and economic factors.

Therefore, examine the following data with care. Consider why these numbers might differ so wildly – both pragmatically and politically. What perspectives and biases are hidden within them? What do the organiztions involved have to gain, or to lose through them? What do the figures lack?

Think about the human effects and stories of loss not found in raw numbers alone. As Otway, et al. wrote in their study Risk Communication in Europe After Chernobyl, “50 additional cancer deaths may not seem like much to experts used to thinking of hundreds of thousands of 'natural' cancer deaths per year, but 50 deaths, visualised by lay people as bodies to be put in coffins and buried, is a large number.”7 The numbers seen here tell a story of secrecy and confusion, of geopolitical tension, and of tremendous loss – but that story is incomplete without the words and thoughts of those affected. As Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a Chernobyl fireman, said, “They die, but no one’s really asked us…. No one wants to hear about death. About what scares them.”8

Finally, recognize that these numbers all represent a snapshot in time, and that the effects of Chernobyl are ongoing. Low-dose radiation exposure will continue to be received for “several decades,” according to the U.N., and increased cancer incidence will persist for years to come.9 Chernobyl has yet to claim its last victim.

Chart of predicted deaths from major studies from 1987-2019

Sources

“Initial Reporting” Chart

  • “500 Dead Reported.” Paris AFP, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-084-S, Daily Report. Soviet Union. Supplement. National Affairs, 30 Apr. 1986, pp. R3.
  • “Behavior of People Affected.” Moscow PRAVDA, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-103, Daily Report. Soviet Union, 29 May 1986, pp. R9.
  • Bohlen, Celestine. “Chernobyl Death Toll Put at 19.” Washington Post, 27 May 1986. www.washingtonpost.com.
  • Bohlen, Celestine. “Gorbachev Says 9 Died From Nuclear Accident.” Washington Post, 15 May 1986. www.washingtonpost.com.
  • “Chernobyl Called ‘Warning.’” Moscow TASS, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-107, Daily Report. Soviet Union, 3 June 1986, pp. AA14.
  • “Council of Ministers: 6 Dead From Burns, Radiation.” Moscow Domestic Service, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-092-S, Daily Report. Soviet Union. Supplement. Chernobyl Incident, 12 May 1986, pp. L1.
  • “DER SPIEGEL Interviews NOVOSTI’s Falin on Accident.” Hamburg DER SPIEGEL, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-092-S, Daily Report. Soviet Union. Supplement. Chernobyl Incident, 12 May 1986, pp. L3, L4, L5, L6, L7.
  • Lee, Gary. “Chernobyl Plant to Restart in a ‘Few Days.’” Washington Post, 27 Sept. 1986. www.washingtonpost.com.
  • Maugh, Thomas H, II. "Scientists Project Cancer Fatalities: Chernobyl's Death Toll may Run into Thousands." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), May 22, 1986, pp. 3. ProQuest.
  • “Medical Official on Health in Chernobyl Zone.” Minsk SOVETSKAYA BELORUSSIYA, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-116, Daily Report. Soviet Union, 6 June 1986, pp. R6, R7, R8.
  • “Mitterrand Receives USSR Ambassador Vorontsov.” Paris Domestic Service, vol. FBIS-WEU-86-084, Daily Report. Western Europe, 30 Apr. 1986, pp. K1.
  • Voznesenskaya, Julia. The Star Chernobyl. Quartet Books, 1987. Print.
  • White, Michael, Martin Walker, and Alex Brummer. "US Estimates Up to 3,000 Victims from Satellite Information." The Guardian (1959-2003), May 01, 1986, pp. 1. ProQuest.
  • “Official Confirms Chernobyl Restart in October.” Paris AFP, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-115, Daily Report. Soviet Union, 13 June 1986, pp. R6.
  • “‘Pack of Lies.’” Moscow Television Service, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-093-S, Daily Report. Chernobyl Incident, 8 May 1986, pp. L15, L16.
  • “Report of 50 Killed.” Paris Domestic Service, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-085-S, Daily Report. Soviet Union. Supplement. National Affairs, 1 May 1986, pp. R2.
  • “TASS Denounces ‘Apocalyptic Pictures.’” Moscow TASS International Service, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-086, Daily Report. Soviet Union, 3 May 1986, pp. CC4, CC5.
  • “Text of 14 May Gorbachev Television Address.” Moscow PRAVDA, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-094-S, Daily Report. Soviet Union. Supplement. Chernobyl Incident, 15 May 1986, pp. L1, L2, L3, L4.
  • “Up to 300 Dead Reported.” Paris AFP, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-083-S, Daily Report. Soviet Union. Supplement. National Affairs, 30 Apr. 1986, pp. R4.
  • “U.S. Doctor Says Chernobyl Death Toll at 23.” Beijing XINHUA, vol. FBIS-CHI-86-104, Daily Report. China, 29 May 1986, pp. C1.
  • “USSR Government Reports on Chernobyl Accident.” Havana International Service, vol. FBIS-LAM-86-085, Daily Report. Latin America, 1 May 1986, pp. Q6.
  • “USSR Spokesman Zagladin Says ‘Still Worrying.’” Paris AFP, vol. FBIS-SOV-86-089-S, Daily Report. Soviet Union. Supplement. Chernobyl Incident, 7 May 1986, pp. N5, N5.

“Predicted Total Deaths” Chart

Additional Sources

Works Cited

  1. Valery Khodemchuk and Vladimir Shashenok, the first two victims of Chernobyl, were killed in the explosion while on duty at the power plant. Khodemchuk’s body was never recovered from the reactor. (Williams, “Chernobyl Victims Buried at Memorial Site”) 

  2. “Mitterrand Receives USSR Ambassador Vorontsov,” Paris Domestic Service; White, Walker, and Brummer, “US Estimates Up to 3,000 Victims from Satellite Information,” The Guardian. 

  3. “‘Pack of Lies,’” Moscow Television Service

  4. UNSCEAR 2000 Report - Vol II: Effects, Annex J. United Nations, 2000. 

  5. The Chernobyl Forum represents eight U.N. organizations including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), and U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). 

  6. Miller, “Contentious Calculation.” 

  7. Otway, et al. “Risk Communication in Europe after Chernobyl: A Media Analysis of Seven Countries.” 

  8. Aleksievich, Voices from Chernobyl. 

  9. UNSCEAR 2000 Report - Vol II: Effects, Annex J. United Nations, 2000. 

Gwendolyn Rak ‘22 is from northern Virginia. As a History and Astrophysics double major, she was particularly interested in exploring Chernobyl as the juncture between the science that caused the disaster and the historical effects it had on the world.