Psychological Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident on Cleanup Workers

Asrat Alemu
October 19, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Fig. 1: Chernobyl Power Plant after the explosion. (Source: Wikimedia Commons )

The Chernobyl accident, one of the worst industrial disasters of the 20th century, occurred in April 25-26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. A combination of several errors resulted in an explosion of one of the units, shown in Fig.1, resulting in radioactive contamination of the surrounding area. Although the immediate blast effects of the accident killed only two people, 28 people died due to acute radiation syndrome. [1] In addition to myriad physical health detriments it caused, the Chernobyl accident also had numerous psychological consequences.

Psychological Consequences

After the incident occurred, about 600,000 clean up workers were recruited from across the Soviet Union. The clean up workers were exposed to varying levels of radiation and thus were left vulnerable to different psychiatric effects. For instance, one study showed that 86% of the clean up workers who worked on the site immediately after the incident met criteria for accelerated aging compared with 59% of the workers who worked on the site after about 5 months. [2] Another study conducted on the clean up workers reports an increased rate of schizophrenia spectrum disorders (5/10,000 vs 1.1/10,000 in Ukraine). [3] Moreover, another study also reported elevated rates of depression (18% vs 13.1% in the control), suicidal thoughts (9.2% vs 4.1% in the control) and headaches (69.2% vs 12.4% in the control) in clean up workers. [4]

In addition to the clean up workers, everyone, especially children, living in the surrounding areas was affected as well. Studies show that the children exposed to radiation at the time experienced decrements in intellectual functioning and elevated emotional problems. [5,6] The children aged 5-10 at the time of the incident are now between the ages of 36 and 41, which means that the mental health effects of the Chernobyl incident are still very pertinent.

© Asrat Alemu. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Nagataki, "Latest Knowledge on Radiological Effects: Radiation Health Effects of Atomic Bomb Explosions and Nuclear Power Plant Accidents," Jpn. J. Health Phys. 45, 370 (20108.

[2] A. M. Polyukhov et al., "The Accelerated Occurrence of Age-Related Changes of Organism in Chernobyl Workers: A Radiation-Induced Progeroid Syndrome?" Exp. Gerontol. 35, 105 (2000).

[3] K. N. Loganovsky and T. K. Loganovskaja, "Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders in Persons Exposed to Ionizing Radiation as a Result of the Chernobyl Accident." Schizophr. Bull. 26, 751 (2000).

[4] K. Loganovsky et al., "The Mental Health of Clean-Up Workers 18 Years After the Chernobyl Accident." Psychol. Med. 38, 481 (2008).

[5] Kolominsky, S. Igumnov, and V. Drozdovitch, "The Psychological Development of Children from Belarus Exposed in the Prenatal Period to Radiation From the Chernobyl Atomic Power Plant," J. Child Psychol. Psyc. 40, 299 (1999).

[6] A. I. Nyagu, K. N. Loganovsky, and T. K. Loganovskaja, "Psychophysiologic After Effects of Prenatal Irradiation," Int. J. Psychophysiol. 30, 303 (1998).