You are here

Chernobyl remembered; and costing the nuclear disaster

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attended a ceremony at the Chernobyl plant on April 26 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the nuclear disaster. "The issue of the consequences of the catastrophe is not resolved," he said. "They have been a heavy burden on the shoulders of the Ukrainian people and we are still a long way off from overcoming them."1

Poroshenko added: "In a certain sense, Chernobyl accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union, helping opposition and anti-imperialist movements to emerge in Ukraine and bringing our independence a step closer. At the same time, it created powerful fears of nuclear energy and anti-nuclear sentiments."1

Poroshenko later attended a memorial service in the town of Slavutych, which was built to re-house people evacuated from Pripyat, the town built close to the Chernobyl nuclear plant to house workers and their families.

Speaking at a ceremony in the Ukrainian capital Kiev before heading to Chernobyl, Poroshenko said the nuclear disaster had been Ukraine's biggest challenge between the Nazi occupation in World War Two and the recent conflict in eastern Ukraine. "At a time when we still need immense resources to tackle the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, when we need funding for social support to fire-fighters and victims, we have to spend almost one-fifth of our budget expenses on defence and security," he said.2

On the eve of the Chernobyl anniversary, some survivors returned to Pripyat. "I barely found my apartment, I mean it's a forest now ‒ trees growing through the pavement, on the roofs. All the rooms are empty, the glass is gone from the windows and everything's destroyed," said Zoya Perevozchenko.3

At a ceremony in their honor in Kiev, some of the former liquidators spoke of their ordeal and surprise that they lived through it. "My soul hurts when I think of those days," said Dmitry Mikhailov, 56. He was on a crew sent to evacuate a village where residents knew nothing of the accident. "They didn't understand what was happening," he said. "I wish I knew where and how they are now. I just can't forget them."4

In Minsk, the capital of Belarus, more than 1,000 people held a protest march through the city center. Belarus routinely cracks down on dissent, but authorities allowed the march. "Chernobyl is continuing today. Our relatives and friends are dying of cancer," said 21-year-old protester Andrei Ostrovtsov.4

The Ukrainian government has scaled back benefits for Chernobyl survivors, making many feel betrayed by their own country. "I went in there when everyone was fleeing. We were going right into the heat," said Mykola Bludchiy. "And today everything is forgotten. It's a disgrace."4

Estimating the costs of Chernobyl

In a report commissioned by Green Cross Switzerland, Prof. Jonathan Samet and Joann Seo from University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine have taken on the near-impossible task of quantifying the costs of the Chernobyl disaster.5

The authors note that some of the costs are obvious (even if accurate cost figures are not available or estimates vary widely) including the costs of managing the accident, including decommissioning the plant and decontaminating surrounding areas; destruction and loss of property, e.g., loss of agricultural products; costs associated the relocating many thousands of people; and costs of replacement power. Other costs are less obvious and/or more difficult to quantify, such as loss of economic opportunities, out-migration, and long-term neuropsychological consequences.

Social costs (e.g., crime, violence, suicide) can be difficult to identify and even more difficult to quantify. Costing premature mortality is particularly fraught, as is the costing of disability and impairment.

As an example of how arbitrary some of the costings necessarily are, Samet and Seo point to arbitrary U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) costings of the risk of fatality from radiation exposure. The NRC multiplies the value of a statistical life (currently determined to be US$9 million) by a nominal risk coefficient (5.7 x 10-4 per person-rem) giving a result of US$5100 per person-rem (or US$510 per person-millisievert). Unless the figures are inflation-adjusted, our value is decreasing all the time. And for people living outside the U.S., the value of a human life fluctuates with the exchange rate!

Samet and Seo outline the range of different sources of costs and stratify them by timeframe (short- or long-term) and mechanism (direct or indirect). Notwithstanding the many, profound uncertainties, they estimate costs of US$700 billion (€607 billion) over the 30 years since the Chernobyl disaster.

Samet and Seo write:

"Nonetheless, we can make some general comments about the costs by major category based on the data available. First, regardless of uncertainties, the information tabulated shows clearly that the indirect and long-terms costs far exceed the immediate and direct costs. Health costs represent the largest proportion of the indirect costs, particularly when consideration is given to the long-time period over which these costs are manifest ‒ amounting to the full lifespans of those exposed and possibly extending to the next generation.

"Second, although the costs of clean-up and maintenance are the most certain and substantial, they are far lower than the indirect costs. Third, simply extending some of the estimates to cover the full 30 years since the disaster leads to notably high estimates.

"Based on the estimates found in our review, we have made extrapolations to gauge approximately the costs that may have been incurred by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident to date. Clearly, the estimates gathered are limited by the degree of documentation, the range of costs covered, and their geographic and temporal coverage.

"For Belarus, there is a national estimate of $235B for 1986-2015 attributed to "aggregate damage" and for Ukraine, there is a 25-year estimate for "total economic loss" of $198B. Scaled to 30 years, the Ukraine estimate of around $240B is quite comparable to that for Belarus.

"In our 2013 report, we identified a population of 10,000,000 as "exposed" in a relatively broad sense to radiation and the disaster, approximately one-third each from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Thus, tripling either the Ukraine or Belarus 30-year estimates to cover the full exposed population leads to a total of around $700B in costs for the 30 years, assuming the same cost figures apply to Russia. This estimate involves a number of assumptions and must be considered as uncertain, but it is based on governmental figures.

"However, regardless of the inherent uncertainty the figure is high and existing estimates would support overall costs of hundreds of billions. Of course, the costs will continue to mount, reflecting the need to maintain the plant, the withdrawn land, and persistent health consequences."

Towards a post-nuclear Ukraine

Jan Haverkamp from Greenpeace and Iryna Holovko from the CEE Bankwatch Network and the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine have published a useful analysis of energy politics in Ukraine and neighboring states.6 They summarize:

"Thirty years on from the world's largest nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl, people are often astonished that Ukraine is still highly dependent on an ageing nuclear fleet for its electricity provision. Indeed, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine continue to face the trauma of Chernobyl on a daily basis ‒ both in the form of human tragedy and on-going economic losses.

"You might expect the governments of these states to have turned away from nuclear energy and, in the light of the latest climate science, from fossil fuels too. But Russia continues to promote nuclear power, and Belarus is trying to introduce nuclear reactors at home. Belarus and Ukraine share a high dependence on Russia for nuclear technology, fuel, gas, oil and coal — a problem that has only been exacerbated by the crisis in the Donbas.

"Ukraine could cover its entire energy demand in 2050 with wind, solar and water and a 32% decrease in primary energy need. A move towards clean, renewable energy sources (such as wind, water, sun, biomass and geothermal) would seem a logical route, especially given the potential savings in health costs and increase in energy independence. Here, in these countries most afflicted by Chernobyl, economic realities make this switch to a clean energy future inevitable: the old centralised energy economy is collapsing, slowly but surely, and an awareness movement is growing."






5. Jonathan Samet and Joann Seo, 2016, 'The Financial Costs of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster: A Review of the Literature',

6. Jan Haverkamp and Iryna Holovko, 25 April 2016, 'Towards a post-nuclear Ukraine',