27 years later, the most severe nuclear accident that has ever happened during a period of peace still casts its shadow. During nightly raids, men from all over Estonia were taken from their homes, often right out of bed, and transported first to military intendances, then to Ukraine for reserve gatherings.
On the night of April 26, 1986, the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had exploded there, causing a massive amount of radioactive pollution in the surroundings and sending radiation clouds over the Northern Hemisphere.
These men who were seized from their homes had to fight the results of the nuclear accident – to clean up and bury the pollution. The so-called reserve gathering in the radioactive zone lasted three months on average; the radioactive dose accumulated during this time was recorded on the individual’s military ticket.
From 1986 to 1991, nearly 600,000 men from all over the Soviet Union cleaned up the results of the accident, nearly 5,000 of them from Estonia. A third of these men entered the accident area in April or May of 1986, when the broken cauldron of the exploded fourth reactor was still chugging. A giant concrete sarcophagus meant to cover the demolished internals of the reactor wasn’t finished until December of 1986.
Recently, two scientific articles were published, one of them using the health data of 17,000 Chernobyl veterans from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to analyse the risk of cancer, as well as the cancer cases. The data was acquired from the cancer records of these countries. Data regarding deaths of the Estonian veterans was acquired from Estonian mortality records. The researchers could not obtain data about deaths of the Latvian and Lithuanian veterans.
The researchers were interested to know if an increase in cancers related to nuclear radiation could be observed in these men and if they have a greater risk of death.
Knowledge about the impact of nuclear radiation on people’s health is still quite scarce, consisting of the dataset regarding the nuclear bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, accumulated over 60 years.
Kaja Rahu, a researcher at the National Institute of Health Development who is writing a doctoral thesis about Chernobyl veterans’ health, says: “The straight answer would be ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Going into details, the picture becomes complicated. There have been no clear radiation effects detected among the Estonian Chernobyl veterans. The doses of radiation were small.”
Strong radiation is supposed to increase the chances of getting leukemia after 2 to 5 years have passed. This did not happen to the Estonian veterans. In Ukraine and Belarus the rate of thyroid cancer increased dramatically among those who were still in their childhood during the accident. In Estonia, two veterans have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer during a thyroid screening conducted by US doctors in the mid 90s.
Radioactive iodine deposited into the thyroid has a half-life of just eight days. Because of such a short half-life, the men who were sent to Chernobyl right after the accident are at greater risk. One could spot an increase in brain tumors in those men who arrived to the accident site in the first year, and thus with the longer “reserve gathering”. But according to Rahu, it could be a coincidence.
This does not mean that the Chernobyl men are fit as a fiddle. Although the overall mortality rate did not differ from that of the same age group of males, the men sent to Chernobyl had a 30 per cent higher risk of suicide. Thus, first-hand exposure to the consequences of a nuclear accident is mostly bad for the spirit.
The Chernobyl men are trying to fight their heavy angst with the bottle. They have a higher number of alcohol-related cancers; for instance, alcohol abuse is one of the main risk factors of esophageal cancer.
The men sent to Chernobyl did not know the amount or radiation or how dangerous it was. They didn’t know if they should eat local food or how long they’d be there. “All this has left its mark on the spirits of the men”, Rahu admits.