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Chernobyl Nuclear Accident

5. What are the social and economic costs of the Chernobyl accident?

  • 5.1 What was the economic cost of the Chernobyl accident?
  • 5.2 How has the local economy been affected?
  • 5.3 How have local communities and individuals been affected?
  • 5.4 What policies have governments adopted to help affected populations?

5.1 What was the economic cost of the Chernobyl accident?

Affected communities
Affected communities
Source: Chernobyl Forum

The Chernobyl accident and the measures taken to deal with its consequences have cost the Soviet Union – and later Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine – hundreds of billions of dollars, but economic losses were also incurred by other countries, for instance in Scandinavia.

Costs include:

  • direct damage caused by the accident.
  • expenditures related for instance to sealing off the reactor, treating the Exclusion Zone and other affected areas, resettling people, providing health care and social protection for those affected, monitoring radiation, and disposing of radioactive waste.
  • indirect costs linked to restrictions in the use of agricultural land and forests, and to the closure of industrial and agricultural facilities.
  • increased energy costs resulting from the closure of the Chernobyl plant and the cancellation of Belarus’s nuclear power programme.

The level of government spending linked to Chernobyl is a huge burden on national budgets and is unsustainable, particularly in Belarus and Ukraine. At present, most of the money is being spent on social benefits for some 7 million people and the share spent on capital investments has declined sharply. With limited resources, governments thus face the task of streamlining Chernobyl programmes to provide more focused and targeted assistance, with an eye to helping those most at risk in terms of health and those living in poverty. More...

5.2 How has the local economy been affected?

Local market
Local market
Source: Chernobyl Forum

The agricultural sector is the area of the economy that was worst hit by the effects of the Chernobyl accident. Large areas of agricultural land were removed from service, and timber production was stopped in many forests. In addition, many farmers could not sell foodstuffs because they were contaminated.

“Clean food” production has remained possible in many areas thanks to remediation efforts, but this food was not only expensive to produce, but also difficult to sell. Many consumers refused to buy products from contaminated areas and this has particularly affected the food processing industry.

The region’s economy suffered not only from the aftermath of the accident but also from the great economic turmoil of the 1990s: the disruption of trade linked to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the introduction of market mechanisms, recession, and Russia’s rouble crisis of 1998. All agricultural areas have been affected by these events. The situation in the affected regions is particularly bad, with lower wages, less private investment, and higher unemployment than elsewhere. The proportion of small and medium-sized businesses is also far lower there than in other areas, partly because many skilled and educated workers have left the region.

Therefore, in order to solve the region’s economic problems, it is important to address not only the issues of radioactive contamination but also the generic problems that affect many agricultural areas, by encouraging the development of small and medium sized companies (SMEs) and the creation of jobs outside agriculture. More...

5.3 How have local communities and individuals been affected?

Informing local communities
Informing local communities
Source: Chernobyl Forum

5.3.1 Since the Chernobyl accident, more than 330 000 people have been relocated outside the most severely contaminated areas. This has reduced their exposure to radiation, but for many, it has been a deeply traumatic experience.

Today, many resettlers are unemployed and believe they have little control over their own lives and no place in society. Many resettlers would like to return to their native villages and some older people may never adjust.

People who remained in their villages have coped better psychologically with the accident's aftermath than have those who were resettled to less contaminated areas. However, as a result of resettlement and voluntary migration, the percentage of elderly people in contaminated areas is abnormally high. The population is aging, which means that the number of deaths exceeds the number of births, and this has encouraged the belief that the areas concerned were dangerous places to live. Moreover, because a large proportion of skilled, educated and entrepreneurial people have left the region, the chances for economic recovery are reduced and schools, hospitals and many other organisations are short of qualified specialists, even when pay is relatively high. More...

5.3.2 The psychological distress caused by the accident and its consequences has affected the behaviour of individuals and whole communities. To date, the impact on mental health is the largest public health problem resulting from the accident.

The affected populations are very anxious about the effect of radiation on health and, through their behaviour, they may transfer that anxiety to their children. Many people believe that those exposed to radiation are inevitably condemned to a shorter life expectancy. Paradoxically, although they are worried about their health, many residents take risks such as eating food from contaminated forests, smoking and drinking.

Rather than any radiation-related illnesses, the main causes of death in the Chernobyl-affected region are the same as in other regions: cardiovascular diseases, injuries and poisonings. The most pressing health concerns are poor diet, alcohol and tobacco use, as well as poverty and limited access to primary health care.

Added to exaggerated or misplaced health fears, a sense of victimization and dependency created by government benefit systems is widespread in the affected areas. This dependency culture is a major barrier to the region’s recovery. Therefore, affected individuals and communities need measures that give them control over their own lives. More...

5.4 What policies have governments adopted to help affected populations?

The Soviet Union undertook far-reaching measures in response to the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

The government adopted a very low threshold for the level of radioactive contamination that was considered acceptable for inhabited areas. Cautious zoning principles determined where people were permitted to live and pursue farming and other activities. However, as the level of radiation declined over time, and knowledge on the nature of the risks improved, limitations on activities in the less affected areas became more of a burden than a safeguard.

A massive investment programme was set up to build houses, schools, hospitals and infrastructure for resettled populations, as well as to develop methods to cultivate "clean food". Because such a huge level of expenditure is unsustainable, funding has fallen steadily over time, leaving many projects half completed.

Table: Chernobyl-related construction, 1986–2000

The Soviet government also created a large system of compensation payments. Today, some 7 million people are entitled to special allowances, pensions and health care privileges because they have been considered to be affected in some way by the Chernobyl accident. Some of the benefits have no relation to the impact of radiation and reach many citizens who have only been mildly affected by the accident. The system has also created perverse incentives. For example, some people have returned to the affected areas with their families in order to be able to claim a higher level of benefits.

As the economic crisis of the 1990s deepened, many people registered as a victim of Chernobyl because this was the only way of getting an income or any health provision, including medicines. Therefore, rather than declining, the number of people claiming Chernobyl-related benefits soared over time. Corruption also played a role.

At present, with inflation and increasing budget constraints, the value of many individual payments has become insignificant. Yet, because there are so many eligible people, the sums involved are so enormous that even small improvements in efficiency could significantly increase the money available for those whose health has actually suffered from the catastrophe and the truly needy.

Regarding information provision, the fact that the Soviet government initially delayed any public announcement that the accident had occurred, and only provided limited information has left a legacy of mistrust surrounding official statements on radiation. More...

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