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Should the city of Pripyat be saved?:

UNCA test may help Chernobyl workers

ASHEVILLE — Two UNC Asheville scientists are helping to safeguard the health of workers resealing the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl while providing clues to the long-range effects of radiation on humans.

Katherine Whatley, interim vice chancellor of academic affairs and a nuclear physicist, and John Stevens, a chemistry professor and director of the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, are involved in an effort to bring medical samples from Chernobyl workers to North Carolina.

Partners are Duke University, the Research Triangle Institute and a Ukrainian radiation medicine center. The project is funded in part by a $5 million federal grant shepherded by former U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor.

“Taylor has an interest in the Ukraine and recognized the importance of this project. But he wanted to involve a local institution,” Whatley said.

UNCA will get about $50,000 for its role in developing infrastructure to move the data, Whatley said. The first samples could be in the United States by fall, and the study could follow the health of the workers for decades to come.

An experiment on low-level radiation on humans would be unethical to set up in a laboratory, but since workers must go in to reseal the failed nuclear reactor, Stevens said, “this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to monitor these radiation levels.”

UNCA students and faculty could look at gene banks of the workers and see how genes are affected by radiation. “One of the hopeful outcomes is we could see how radiation affects individual genes, and here’s how we could respond to the damage.”

The research also has implications for homeland security, Stevens said. “This is important. If somebody drops a dirty bomb on New York City, we’re not really sure what the effect would be.”

NEMAC could also play a role in modeling atmospheric conditions in 1986 when a chain reaction blew the roof off the Chernobyl reactor, located about 80 miles north of Kiev in Ukraine. Experts estimate the accident released 30 to 40 times as much radioactivity as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined in 1945.


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