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Chernobyl's Grim Legacy

Guest blog by Dr Ian Fairlie (Scottish CND co-opted committee member)

April 26, 2021 marks the 35th anniversary of the world’s largest nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Several days later, clouds containing the radioactive caesium-137 released by the reactor passed over Scotland about 1,400 miles or 2,500 kilometres away. Although we got off lightly in comparison to nearer neighbors, rain brought radioactivity to the ground contaminating parts of southern and central Scotland. Understandings of the impact of radioactivity on human health are constantly being revised but scientists generally agree that any additional radiation over natural levels in the environment can have negative effects particularly on women and children. Even here, it is likely that some cancers will have been caused by Chernobyl. 

The most consistent long-term monitoring of Chernobyl’s impact in Scotland has been on levels of radioactivity in sheep. It was known that animals grazing on radioactive grass would become contaminated. The UK Food Standards Agency required animals to be scanned for radioactivity –those above 1,000 becquerels of radioactivity per kilogram were banned from being slaughtered for food. This turned out to have a long-term impact on some sheep farmers. Their sheep continued to be too radioactive, year after year -  for 24 years in parts of Scotland and 26 years in parts of Cumbria and Wales. Radioactivity in peat, soil and grass lasted far longer than originally anticipated (Edwards, 2010).

In 1996, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, 1996) described the accident as the “foremost nuclear catastrophe in human history” and WHO (IPHECA, 1995) estimated that the total radioactivity from Chernobyl was 200 times that of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The explosions and resulting 10-day graphite fire at Reactor 4 ejected about half of its contents which reached the stratosphere. The accident’s effects were therefore widespread: over 4,000,000 km2, ie 42% of the land area of Western Europe, was seriously contaminated. The most contaminated countries were the former USSR republics of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. But Finland, Sweden, Norway, Austria and the Balkan and Slavic countries were also seriously affected by high levels of radioactive contamination. Even the United Kingdom, where more than 360 sheep farms were subjected to restrictions due to the Chernobyl contamination. Ultimately, fallout from Chernobyl was distributed over the entire northern hemisphere of the world. 

Approximately 50 people died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, however it is estimated tens of thousands of cancer fatalities and other health effects will continue arise over several decades into the future due to the Chernobyl  plumes depositing large amounts of radioactivity over Europe and the rest of the world (see bullet points below).

In 1986, most governments and official nuclear agencies strenuously denied or equivocated over the accident’s effects (Medvedev, 1990). The then UK Government, for example, was shown to have minimised Chernobyl’s effects (Edwards, 1989) and to have misled the public (Weaver, 1986). In 2019, Professor Kate Brown’s excellent exposé “Manual for Survival” illustrated the dire extent of the former USSR’s cover-up of the health effects. 

The official cover-up sadly continues to this day with agencies such as the WHO, IAEA, OECD, UNSCEAR and the ICRP remaining silent on the matter. But the multiple award-winning TV mini-series “Chernobyl” in 2019 brought home to millions of viewers the human tragedies arising from Chernobyl, the duplicity of the USSR government, and the continuing mendacious cover-ups by official agencies. 

The nuclear disaster is now more than a generation away, yet the word ‘Chernobyl’ still resonates throughout the world. Sadly, it appears that the UK government, which continues to support new nuclear reactors, has not learned anything from the Chernobyl accident in 1986 or the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 for that matter.  The Scottish government opposes new nuclear power stations in Scotland. However, they have tolerated the running of the very elderly reactors at Hunterston nuclear power station in Ayrshire, despite high levels of cracking in their graphite core (Edwards 2020). Even if the risks are small, why take any risk when the central belt of Scotland is downwind and the potential costs so catastrophically high?

Scholars have argued that connections between civil nuclear power and nuclear weapons are implicated in UK government’s promotion of new nuclear power despite renewables being safer, much cheaper and lower carbon sources of energy (Stirling and Johnstone 2018 ). Reprocessing of waste from civil nuclear power has generated a legacy-stockpile of weapon’s grade plutonium but this is not the only link across the ‘civil’ and military sectors of the nuclear industry. The training, research and knowledge infrastructure that supports nuclear power also sustains the capacity to build nuclear-powered submarines, designing and building nuclear weapons. If the significance of nuclear power for nuclear weapons causes irrational encouragement of new nuclear facilities, might it not also result in behind-the-scenes pressure to tolerate the risky extended running of Hunterston?    

Chernobyl’s grim tally

  • 5 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia still live in highly contaminated areas
  • 400 million people live in less contaminated areas
  • 42% of western Europe’s land area was contaminated
  • ~40,000 fatal cancers predicted
  • 6,000 thyroid cancer cases to date, 16,000 more expected
  • increased levels of radiogenic leukemias, cardiovascular diseases, and breast cancers 
  • new evidence of radiogenic birth defects, mental health effects and diabetes
  • new evidence that children in contaminated areas suffer radiogenic illnesses


Brown K (2019) Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. Penguin, London. 

Edwards R (1989) Chernobyl fallout 40 times worse than admitted. The Guardian. 28 January, 1989.

Edwards R (2010) https://www.robedwards.com/2010/07/25-years-on-chernobyl-stops-poisoning-scottish-sheep.html

Edwards R (2020) https://theferret.scot/hunterston-cracked-nuclear-reactors-another-year/

IAEA/WHO/EC (1996) One Decade After Chernobyl: Summing up the Consequences of the Accident.

IPHECA Health Consequences of the Chernobyl accident. Results of the IPHECA pilot projects and related national programmes. Scientific Report. WHO. Geneva. 1996

Medvedev Zhores (1990) The Legacy of Chernobyl. Norton. New York and London. 

Stirling, A., & Johnstone, P. (2018). A Global Picture of Industrial Interdependencies Between Civil and Military Nuclear Infrastructures SPRU Working Paper Series (ISSN 2057-6668). Sussex: Univerity of Sussex.

Weaver D (1986) How Ministers Misled Britain about Chernobyl. New Scientist. October 9.