9/5/2005 11:00:00 PM

Chernobyl's Health Impacts: Ukrainian Officials, NGO Differ with U.N. Report

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KIEV, Ukraine - The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant continues to cause health and environmental problems and its victims will require international support for years to come, Ukrainian officials and a Chernobyl activist group say.

"Chernobyl was, is and will be one of Ukraine's biggest problems," said Oleh Andreev, spokesman for Ukraine's Emergency Situations Ministry.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency on Monday released a report that suggests the world's worst nuclear accident wasn't as bad as once feared. The report was written on behalf of the Chernobyl Forum, a group that includes the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, seven other U.N. agencies and the governments of Ukraine - where Chernobyl is located - Belarus and Russia.

Its experts found that the death toll caused by radiation could reach a total of 4,000, far lower than first feared, and that as of mid-2005, "fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster," according to the report.

"The one who says the devil is not as black as he is painted had better live here and see the problem from the inside," said Andreev.

In the past, the Ukrainian government has said it already had registered 4,400 deaths related to the accident.

"The medical and biological consequences are very heavy," Yuriy Andreev, the head of the Chernobyl Union action group, told The Associated Press. He cited increases in cancer of the blood, marrow, lung, liver and intestine. "The situation with thyroid cancer is dramatic," said Galyna Terekhova, a doctor at the Kiev Institute of Endocrinology.

The U.N. report acknowledges that thyroid cancer has become more prominent, but said the survival rate has been almost 99 percent. However, at least nine children have died of the disease.

Vladimir Chuprov, coordinator of the anti-nuclear program with Greenpeace Russia, also said he did not agree with the report. Although Chuprov provided no estimates or figures of his own, he questioned the methodology used by U.N. experts, saying it raised doubts about their findings.

"They count only cancer deaths, but they don't take into account premature deaths," Chuprov told the AP in a telephone interview. "There were about 100,000 clean-up workers, whose immune system has been weakened and who are now more prone to diseases, which will result in premature deaths."

But Rafael Arutyunian, deputy head of the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the U.N.'s figures were exaggerated.

He said the number of eventual Chernobyl-related deaths in Russia is expected to reach 100 and added that the scale of victims in Ukraine as well as in Belarus is comparable to Russia's.

Andreev, the Ukrainian activist warned that the international community had not yet fully grappled with the environmental effects of Chernobyl. He said that most of the 800 depots in the 8-kilometer (5-mile) sanitary zone around the plant where radioactive fuel, contaminated clothes and vehicles are preserved do not meet safety requirements.

"One of the depots that preserves thousands of tons of ... used fuel is not hermetic," said Andreev, warning about constant leaks into the subsoil waters then into the Prypiat River, a Dnipro tributary. The Dnipro supplies Kiev residents with drinking water.

In neighboring Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko has long said the dangers posed by Chernobyl were exaggerated. The authoritarian leader has pushed for Belarusians to use contaminated lands.

"The Belarusian government's interests coincide with the ones of the world atomic lobby," said Irina Gryshevaya of the Chernobyl children charity fund. "Both the government and the U.N. want to make the problem invisible, like radiation rays."

Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 exploded on Apr. 26, 1986, spewing radiation over much of northern Europe. In an effort to prevent further radiation release, engineers hastily erected a shelter over the damaged reactor, but parts of it are crumbling and experts say it needs urgent repairs.


AP reporter Maria Danilova in Moscow contributed to this story.