This project aims to develop models of human nuclear disaster risk that will more scientifically inform the complex psychosocial and health behavior consequences of radiological and other toxic disasters. This will be accomplished through study of a representative sample population exposed to the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine - the largest nuclear disaster caused by an industrial plant malfunction. Previous research on nuclear catastrophes such as Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl have pointed out that the psychological and behavior consequences of these events reverberate in the long term, delving deeply into a community's life for years after they have been exposed to the nuclear accident itself. Anxiety-ridden survivors lie in wait of dreaded illnesses; inhibit employment, social and outdoor activities; restrict family births fearing congenital malformation; overuse substances; and utilize medical services in far larger proportions than non-exposed cohorts (WHO, 2006; Havenaar et al. 2003; Yamada & Izumi, 2002). For some survivors, these behavioral consequences are further exaggerated by serious mental health disturbance and radiogenic cancers. As yet, it remains unclear how much of the long lasting behavioral consequences of radiation disasters are explained by the radiation dose itself; or by a community's "perception" of the potential risk it has been exposed to. Our study team will investigate this question.
The study will conduct a probability sampling of current residents in the Kiev and Zhitomir oblasts (states) of Ukraine. The research team, consisting of a research psychologist, a radiation physicist, a hazards sociologist, and medical epidemiologists will: (1) reconstruct levels of radiation dose from exposure to Chernobyl radionuclide fallout for each study participant; (2) measure long-term psychosocial and health behavior consequences of the nuclear disaster in the population, and (3) endeavor to understand the complex relationships among radiation dose exposure, perceived radiation exposure, and risk projections for illness. Given its unique combination of scientists, it is the first time that individual external radiation dose from a nuclear incident will be so carefully reconstructed for a study focused on human psychosocial behavioral effects. The findings will also offer more refined multidisciplinary knowledge on the interaction between physical toxic exposure and the perception of risk - a bio-psycho-social conundrum in academic research (Slovic, 2000).
The current study is viewed as having a direct impact on the prevention of adverse psychosocial consequences associated with communities exposed to nuclear accidents. More broadly, the project addresses ramifications of the increasing portent for nuclear disaster events, given the proliferation of nuclear power plants and waste sites; growing capacity of nations to mount nuclear weapons programs; and the potential for political groups to perpetrate radiological terrorism. These concerns for human safety and well-being are paramount at this time. We believe that scientifically derived risk communication and education about these hazards will be powerful tools in mitigating their psychosocial consequences in the global community.