Chernobyl Health Aftermath

Sidharth Bommakanti
March 24, 2021

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2021


Fig. 1: Names of all cities and towns evaculated in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On April 26, 1986, the reactor system in Chernobyl, Ukraine, had a sudden surge of power that destroyed unit four of the reactor system. This devastating accident was the direct result of a flawed reactor design and inadequately trained personnel. [1] Due to the circumstances of the Cold War isolation, safety was a relatively low priority and was overlooked when building this plant. This reactor meltdown was distinct from others in that it was the only commercial plant in history at which there were direct radiation related deaths. This plant was also designed in a way that was unique and different from any other nuclear power plants controlled by the USSR. [1]

Emergency protocols in this situation called for helicopters to drop sand and boron to stop the fires and limit radiation exposure. They eventually covered the damaged unit in a protective covering known as a sarcophagus. Numerous nearby towns and cities as shown in Fig. 1 were required to evacuate and relocate. The radiation exposure was directly responsible for the deaths of 28 people and radiation sickness in another 106 people. [1] The soviet government was forced to evacuate 115,000 people immediately, and over 220,000 in subsequent years. [1] While this number accounts for only physical harm done to individuals, many more people also suffered long term mental health issues that still persist today.

Mental Health Consequences

While the number of people that were killed by the Chernobyl disaster already seems large, the damage spread far beyond that. The consequences have been in areas of mental health such as depression disorder, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, stress-related symptoms, and neurological deficits in those exposed and living in the area as well as the cleanup workers that were on the site. Investigations carried out by the Ukrainian Research Centre for Radiation Medicine in persons who worked at the Chernobyl APS after the accident demonstrated that half of them suffered from more than one disease, and that in 92% of them there was an exacerbation of pre-existing somatic diseases or an onset of new illnesses. [2]

A cohort study consisting of 295 male clean-up workers sent to Chernobyl between 1986 and 1990 and interviewed 18 years after the accident with 397 geographically matched controls showed that relatively more clean up workers experienced depression (18% vs 13%) and suicidal ideation (9.2% vs 4.1%) after the accident. [3] Another study was conducted by Ukraine investigators that randomly selected 50 prenatally irradiated children whose mothers were evacuated from the Chernobyl exclusion zone and 50 age- and gender-matched non-exposed children. A combination of clinical exams, psychometric tests, EEG, thyroid function assessment, and dosimetric reconstruction were used to show that children exposed to radiation in utero were statistically significantly more likely to have borderline and low range IQ as well as emotional and behavior disorders compared to children not exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl disaster. [4]


The nuclear disaster that occurred in Chernobyl, was one that was completely unprecedented and completely unacceptable. The poor safety practices as well as negligence in emergency protocol led to the worst possible result from a nuclear power plant. While physical deaths tallied higher, the mental consequences of such a disaster are easily overlooked. Unfortunately, the mental repercussions were potentially higher than the physical ones. They have continued to impact the workers and those who lived in the area for more than 30 years. Fortunately, measures have been put in place to guarantee that such an event of this scale can never happen again.

© Sidharth Bommakanti. 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] "Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation," United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects Ionizing Radiation, Vol. I and Vol. II, United Nations, 2000, Annex J.

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

[4] N. I. Nyagu, K. N. Loganovsky, and T. K. Loganovskaja, "Psychological Aftereffects of Prenatal Irradiation," Int. J. Psychophysiol. 30, 303 (1998).