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Studies Show a Silver Lining From Chernobyl 35 Years Later

They found vastly different outcomes from the radiation exposures

On this day in 1986, workers ran a safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine. But the test went awry, starting a fire in a reactor and leading to one of the largest nuclear disasters in history. Smoke from the fire and a second explosion launched radioactive elements into the atmosphere, scattering them over the surrounding fields and towns. Now, 35 years later, scientists are still uncovering the extent of the damage and starting to answer questions about the long-term legacy of radiation exposure on power plant workers, the people in the nearby community, and even their family members born years later.

In two papers published Thursday in Science, an international team of researchers took on two very different but important questions. The first paper tracked the effects of radiation on the children of people who were exposed and found that there were no transgenerational mutations that were passed down from those parents. The second focused on thyroid cancer caused by radiation exposure and examined how radiation acts on DNA to cause the growth of cancerous tumors.

"Each of these are very strong examples of what we've learned from situations that we never want to visit again," said Stephen Cranock, an author on both papers and director of the division of cancer, epidemiology, and genetics at the National Cancer Institute. His research is an important reminder of the long-term consequences of human decisions, and hopes it can help guide future conversations about nuclear technology. "This adds to our foundational understanding of radiation and society," he added.

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