The world has experienced an exponential growth in its energy demands over the course of the last century. This demand is expected to increase as the world’s population raises and the standards of living for people in the developing nations increase.
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The demand has put a strain on traditional sources of energy such as fossil fuel. Nuclear energy has emerged as a feasible alternative to renewable energy and most of its advocates argue that it is the only means through which sustainable development can be achieved in an energy intensive world. However, nuclear energy poses significant danger to the society especially if an accident in a power plant occurs.
Khripunov notes that accidents at nuclear power facilities pose numerous risks since they affect systems that society depends on such as healthcare, transportation, and environment (19). This dangers posed by nuclear energy plants were best exemplified following the devastating Chernobyl accident of 1986.
The accident led to the release of radioactive material to the population with various health implications. This paper will engage in a detailed discussion on the health effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident so as to demonstrate that nuclear energy poses a significant threat to human existence.
The Chernobyl Accident
The Chernobyl nuclear power station accident is the most devastating nuclear accident in history. The accident took place during a planned systems text when an unexpected power surge led to the damage of a reactor leading to an explosion. This incident resulted in severe contamination of vast territories of the former USSR and other parts of Europe as radionuclide releases were spread by winds for over one week (Chudley 221).
The nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986 demonstrated the risk that nuclear power generation poses to mankind. Reports indicate that the amount of radiation fallout from the Chernobyl accident was over 400 times that caused by the atomic bomb detonation at Hiroshima (Chudley 221).
The massive explosion that destroyed the react led to six million people from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia being exposed to radioactive contamination (Chudley 221).
Health Impacts of Nuclear Energy
Direct Health Impacts
Exposure to radiation from nuclear energy sources increases the risk of cancer. The risk of developing thyroid cancer following exposure to nuclear radiations increased with a decrease in the age of the subject. Younger individuals are therefore more likely to develop thyroid carcinogenesis after X-ray exposure than more mature people are.
After the Chernobyl accident, an increase in thyroid cancer was found in children exposed to fallout from the accident (Baverstock and Dillwyn 1312). As of the year 2000, the number of individuals who suffered from thyroid Cancer due to exposure as children had reached 2,000.
This number increased to 4,000 in the years 2005 (Baverstock and Dillwyn 1312). This observation is supported by the OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency, which notes that there has been an increase in incidents of thyroid cancers following the Chernobyl accident (81).
Exposure to high doses of radiation results in radiation sickness; a condition that can lead to the death of an individual. Acute radiation sickness results in future health consequences such as cancer and premature aging of the patient. The natural background levels of radiation in Europe average at 3mSv/year.
However, people in the highly contaminated regions experienced radiation doses that were 30-70 times greater than these average natural levels (Chudley 222). The OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency confirms that in the Chernobyl accident, all cute deterministic health effects occurred among the personnel of the plant (78).
Fire workers and clean-up workers were exposed to high doses of radiation and over 200 emergency workers suffered from acute radiation sickness with 28 dying because of this. The early symptoms of radiation sickness included vomiting, diarrhoea, and fever.
Chudley asserts that the effects of exposure to high dose or radiation can range from” death following acute radiation exposure, to cancer or genetic re-arrangements if doses are small and exposure is spread over time (222).
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Nuclear accidents also result in a suppression of the body’s immune system. The OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency states that the immunity system is suppressed due to a depression of bone-marrow function following exposure to radiation (80). Patients who suffer from this immunity suppression have to receive doses of anti-fungal agents and antibiotics in order to help the body fight off common ailments.
There is a high probability of genetic changes occurring due to exposure to nuclear radiation. As of 2001, no radiation-induced genetic diseases had been observed in the population affected by the Chernobyl disaster. However, Chudley asserts that this is not an indication that genetic disorders were caused by the accident since such changes are difficult to identify in the human population (224).
An observation of irradiated pine trees in the Chernobyl region demonstrates that these plants have undergone major genetic changes due to radiation exposure. The trees exhibit a marked change in the shape and size of needles and their seed quality had degraded over the years.
In addition to this, there are some pine trees that suffer from impaired fertility due to radiation exposure (Chudley 224). It can therefore be deduced that genetic changes occurred in human beings as well and the only reason why they are not visible is because of the differences in life and reproduction cycles.
Exposure to radioactive material also increases the risk of leukaemia. Baverstock and Dillwyn state that leukaemia is strongly associated with radiation (1313). As such, intensive efforts have been made to detect this condition in the population affected by the Chernobyl incident.
While at the moment there have been no significant increases in the levels of leukaemia among the population, scientists predict that the level will increase in the coming years. Baverstock and Dillwyn demonstrate that leukaemia is a disease of older age and as the victims of the Chernobyl grow older, there will be increases in chronic lymphatic leukaemia (1313).
In addition to the already mentioned health impacts, nuclear accidents result in a rise in all types of disease. Report by the Russian National Medical Dosimetric Registry indicate that malignant diseases have been on the increase between 1989 and 1992 and this can be attributed to the radiation exposure (The OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency 89).
The mortality rate within the Russian Federation exhibited a 2% increase following the accident. The death rate from respiratory cancer was especially elevated and while this could be blamed on smoking, the findings suggested that the nuclear disaster contributed to it (OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency 89).
Indirect Health Impacts
The people who live in the contaminated zone face additional health risks. Abbott, Wallace and Matthias note that the diet of the people living in the Chernobyl area was negatively affected with most people not being able to have a good diet in the zone (116).
This is consistent with research by Baverstock and Dillwyn, which indicates that dietary changes to avoid perceived contamination may be an indirect consequence of a nuclear accident (1313). These forced dietary changes negatively affect the health of the individual.
Nuclear accidents have psychological consequences on the community surrounding the nuclear site. Such accidents are followed by forced evacuation from home and land and people are left unsure of what the future holds.
Baverstock and Dillwyn state that following the Chernobyl accident, there was an increase in the number of psychological illnesses (1313). There was an increase in the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes as people tried to deal with the stress they experienced because of this incident. The accident therefore had an indirect consequence of causing some deaths from suicide, cirrhosis, or lung cancer.
In addition to the health effects caused by radiation, nuclear accidents have the ability to degrade the social fabric in the affected territories. The Chernobyl accident best exemplifies this considering the various physical and psychological effects that have persisted since the accident.
The Chernobyl accident increased public mistrust of the administration and the government. The OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency notes that public scepticism towards authority was heightened due to the poor governmental response in the early days following the accident and the lack of public education on the polluting hazards of the disaster (92).
The paper has observed that the effects of a nuclear disaster affect the population in an indiscriminate manner. In addition to the immediate negative health effects caused by exposure to radiation, long-term health effects continue to be felt by the community decades after the nuclear accident happened.
Abbott et al. document that the radioactivity levels that resulted from the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Complex are likely to remain at high levels for around 300 years (105).
The Chernobyl incident forced the world to reconsider the use of nuclear power to provide for the energy needs of the society. The disaster continues to cost the affected regions millions of dollars in health care costs almost three decades after the accident occurred.
For this reason, the Russian society and the rest of the international community remains deeply divided about the nuclear power infrastructure because of the accident in Chernobyl, which resulted in immense damages to the citizens of Ukraine.
This paper set out to discuss the health impacts of nuclear energy with particular focus on the Chernobyl accident of 1986. The paper began by providing an overview of the accident to underscore the fact that the accident could not have been foreseen.
It then proceeded to discuss the many negative health implications that people exposed to the radiation suffered from and they include; radiation poisoning, cancer, and genetic disorders. The paper has also observed that immune suppression is one of the inevitable consequences of exposure to high doses of radiation.
In addition to the direct health implications or radiation, there are indirect implications, which include stress, suicidal ideation, dietary problems, and degradation of the social fabric. From the discussions presented in this paper, it can be authoritatively stated that nuclear facilities are a threat to man’s survival since accidents at nuclear facilities have a large-scale social impact.
Abbott, Pamela, Wallace Claire and Matthias Beck. “Chernobyl: Living with risk and uncertainty”. Health, Risk & Society 8.2 (2006): 105 – 121. Web.
Baverstock, Keith and Dillwyn Williams. “The Chernobyl Accident 20 Years On: An Assessment of the Health Consequences and the International Response”. Environmental Health Perspectives 114.9 (2006): 1312-1317. Web.
Chudley, Albert. “Genetic implications and health consequences following the Chernobyl nuclear accident”. Clin Genet 77.1 (2010): 221–226. Web.
Khripunov, Igor. “How Safe Is Russia? Public Risk Perception and Nuclear Security”. Problems of Post-Communism 54.5 (2007): 19–29. Web.
OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency. Chernobyl: Assessment of Radiological and Health Effects. Paris: OECD, 2002. Print.