April 4, 1996
Web posted at: 5:30 p.m. EST (2230 GMT)
From Special Reports Correspondent Larry LaMotte
CHERNOBYL, Ukraine (CNN) -- In 1986, an explosion ripped through Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. It was the world's worst nuclear accident.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev broke the news:
"Good evening, comrades. All of you know that there has been an incredible misfortune -- the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. It has painfully affected the Soviet people, and shocked the international community. For the first time, we confront the real force of nuclear energy, out of control."
Ten years later, the radiation remains. It's there in the soil; in the animals; in the people.
Few know that better than three American scientists -- toxicologist Cham Dallas and geneticist Ron Chesser, both from the University of Georgia, and Texas Tech geneticist Robert Baker -- who are researching the accident's genetic effects in the shadow of Chernobyl's burned-out Reactor 4.
It is research with ramifications beyond the contaminated 30-kilometer zone around Chernobyl.
"We live in a society where Chernobyl may not simply remain here," said Dallas. "We may have a Chernobyl in America some day. Either from a nuclear reactor accident, or more likely, from use of a terrorist's nuclear weapon."
It is research with relevance for people worldwide.
"We are going to need this information. What are the consequences of long-term exposure to radionucleides inside the body? We're going to need to know," Dallas explained.
The reason such information is needed is nowhere more obvious than at Chernobyl itself, where another nuclear accident could occur. Danger is increasing in what's left of Reactor 4 -- commonly called "the sarcophagus."
The concrete tomb encasing the reactor hasn't held up. And some believe it's a threat to the world. Forty tons of radioactive dust have accumulated inside. And there's a pressed slab of uranium and concrete that some believe could lead to a chain reaction, causing a more powerful explosion than the original one.
It's a terrifying possibility. The original explosion spewed radiation throughout Europe, and spread to parts of the rest of the world.
Human error, compounded by a faulty technical design, led to the accident.
Exposure to massive amounts of radiation immediately killed 32 plant workers and firefighters. Thousands more died later from effects of the accident.
The Ukrainian government now says hundreds of thousands of people suffer from Chernobyl-related illnesses.
And that may be just the beginning. Among the scientists here, there's deep concern about long-term genetic damage to future generations. In an effort to find answers, Dallas, Chesser and Baker use the fields and abandoned villages around Chernobyl to collect and study radioactive mice.
"There's certainly enough radiation here to contaminate those mice and cause genetic effects that we're seeing," observed Dallas. "There's no doubt about that. We just like to know how much it takes before it's a hazard to humans."
They run tests on the mice at a nearby makeshift lab, set up in what was once a kindergarten classroom.
There is a sense of urgency to this work as the Americans try to solve some of the mysteries of radiation.
"They're mammals and we're mammals. If it's going to cause genetic effects in their DNA, then we know that we are also going to be at hazard if we get these same levels inside our bodies," Dallas said.
At hazard for what? And how soon? Studies are yielding startling answers -- answers so unexpected that universally held beliefs about radiation's impact on people and environments may be forever changed.
Join Larry LaMotte for "CNN Presents Chernobyl: Legacy of a Meltdown," Sunday, April 7, at 9 p.m. EDT. LaMotte and a crew traveled to Ukraine for an exclusive look inside Chernobyl's burned Reactor 4 and a first-hand look at genetic ramifications the nuclear power plant's explosion in 1986.
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