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Japan Needs to Learn from Chernobyl Lessons

Posted Mar 20 2011 6:56pm

As Japan slowly copes with  the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, as well as the nuclear catastrophe that followed, psychologists warn that the mental health toll may be worsened if authorities fail to learn from the lessons of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.   According to Valery Krasnov, director of Moscow's Research Institute of Psychiatry, "Insufficient information (on the risks after a nuclear accident) can generate tensions that destroy the health of people submitted to extreme conditions".  In his book, Psychological Problems for Liquidators after the Chernobyl Catastrophe, Krasnov revealed that the "liquidators" who were sent in to clean up after the Chernobyl nuclear power station were deliberately misled concerning the true extent of the danger that they faced. 

In the aftermath of the disaster, the Soviet Union kept the explosion and resulting contamination under wraps for days until international monitoring of radiation levels forced authorities to be more open.    When the Soviet Union sent thousands of liquidators into Chernobyl in the months following the meltdown,  neither the liquidators or their families were given sufficient information concerning the health risks involved.  In addition to the  thirty liquidators who died due to radiation sickness, many of those who survived often experienced long-term mental health problems resulting from their exposure.  Psychologists dealing with liquidators have reported that a "victim syndrome" is often found with the prevalent belief that they sacrificed their health and received nothing in return.  The stigma resulting from radiation exposure has left liquidators increasingly isolated from friends and family.  Suicide and substance abuse are common.

Although the nuclear disaster in Japan is not as severe as what happened in Chernoboy, Krasnov and other trauma specialists are warning that failure to warn emergency workers about the dangers that they face can have long-term consequences.   Observers have criticized Japanese authorities for presenting incomplete and, at times, contradictory information concerning nuclear contamination and the likelihodd of a reactor meltdown.  According to Krasnov, "Japan is keeping information back just like we did at Chernobyl. It's 1986 all over again". 



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