Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Chernobyl (26th April 2006); 20 Years On.

In the early hours of the morning 20 years ago tomorrow (1:23:04) an ill-conceived experiment was embarked upon, the outcome of which would change the course of history. I have documented the details in my previous posting "Chernobyl (26th April 1986)" but in summary, a conspiracy of events and circumstances resulted in an unexpected surge in the power of the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station which caused a steam explosion from the water in the primary cooling circuit of sufficient force to rupture the containment pipes, throw the 1,000 tonne concrete lid from the top of the reactor (it now sits to the side of it, sinking into the ground by a few inches every year), and blow the roof off the building. I was working in Russia at the time, and remember the whole incident and its aftermath very well. I also recall that my Russian colleagues got most of their information about what precisely had happened from their colleagues in the West, such was the influence of Soviet secrecy at the time, which delayed immediate action on the scale necessary to deal with such a calamitous incident, and it is the opinion of some that this contributed spectacularly to the demise of the Soviet Union.
The reactor core was thus exposed to air, and at the high temperature it had been heated to by the power surge, the graphite moderator ignited and sent a plume of radioactive smoke over the western U.S.S.R., western Europe and as far as the western United States - right across the Atlantic Ocean. This was a severe disaster whose detritus ended up in pretty well everybody's back yard. "NIMBY" is not an applicable strategy for nuclear issues, it is everybody's problem.
It is estimated that about 60% of the radioactive fallout landed on Belarus (then an area of the U.S.S.R. called Byelorussia) and the Ukraine (where the nuclear power plant, and the heavily contaminated town of Pripiat are; the city of Chernobyl itself lying some distance away), and around 200,000 people were evacuated within a few days from these regions.
To mark the burden suffered by his country, Ukraine Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov has pledged 20 million hryvnia (about $4 million) in this, the world's most catastrophic nuclear accident. The money is intended to be spent on awards for those involved in dealing directly with the outcome of the disaster, of whom 50 died shortly afterwards. 1,000 cars are to be provided for those invalided by its aftermath. Two new health centres are to be built and pensions increased for those who responded actively in averting the disaster from becoming even worse than it was, or for their families as many of these true heroes no longer survive. In view of the sheer scale of the disaster, its widespread radioactive contamination, and images of horror and babies born with disfiguring cancers and other infirmities of radiation exposure, it is easy to imagine that a wasteland has been left of apocalyptic "Mad Max" movie proportions. However, this would be a naive and misguided image. Although a massive resettlement of people was acted out rapidly (within 5 days), many, mostly older, people came "home" again soon after, though none dare to live in the heart of the so called "Dead Zone" which is a six-mile exclusion zone too radioactive for humans to inhabit.
For plants and animals, the situation is quite different, since the absence of human activities has allowed flora and fauna to flourish. That anything even approximately good might emerge from a catastrophe of such proportions flies in the face of conventional wisdom about the risks of nuclear power. The picture becomes dephased by the defocussing estimates of the true human tragedy wreaked upon a neighbouring population of whom 5 million were exposed to elevated levels of radiation. According to U.N. estimates, around 4,000 cancer deaths are expected as a consequence of Chernobyl; however, a recent report by Greenpeace suggests that the true figure is nearer 100,000. There are estimates that 500,000 have already died in the wake of the disaster, but this remains unsubstantiated. Undoubtedly, cancer is not the sole health problem that Chernobyl caused, and there are more widespread effects of social disintegration, partly from the displacement of a large population, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the consequent disruption of communities and families; loss of livelihoods and a sense of foreboding dispondency and gloom which leads to harmful lifestyle changes (cigarettes and vodka).
There is the sense of living with both a stigma and a time-bomb: that "Chernobyl" will "get you", or your children eventually: a sentiment reinforced by elevated incidences of thyroid and other cancers, leukemia and other diseases, particularly in the young. The witnessing of a weakening of the future generation convinces that there is no integral future - and forges a psychological break in cultural tradition and our innate belief in the order of human lineage. That we should die before our children; not the other way round.
That flora and fauna are thriving appears as an anomaly which requires explanation. Sergey Franchuk, a guide and local expert who has worked in the area since 1982 believes that the radiation has purified the soil by some inexplicable means. Most likely it is the removal of 135,000 people from an area about twice than of Luxemburg that is the driver of fertility. Those who still live and work in the 18 mile exclusion zone do so in highly localised areas, where the radiation levels are sufficiently low to permit them to, and so the region has become a natural wilderness where, largely in the absence of humans, animal and plant life is left to flourish undisturbed. An essential difference between animals and humans is the relative longevity of the latter species. Hence animals may live-out healthy lives of normal and shorter duration than a human life-span without developing cancer; humans on the other hand are more likely to get cancer in later life. Animals are more likely to be killed by predators before they reach a ripe old age - even in terms of ages noted for animals protected in captivity.
There is talk of opening the region as a a nature reserve, but it would make sense for any tourists to prepare for their visit according to the standard radioactive dress code - not quite the self contained radiation suit, but boots, gloves and sealed clothing to minimize possible contamination. Other estimates suggest that the area will be dangerous for at least 100 years, and there is no doubt that farms even as far away as Wales remain contaminated and will do for decades. In Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the west of England 81,000 square kilometers of land was contaminated to a level above 4,000 Bequerels per square metre, which is blamed for increased rates of thyroid cancer in children; most notably a 12 fold increase in Cumbria which received most of the fallout from the Chernobyl plume.
One should not be mislead into a false sense of security about Chernobyl or about nuclear power plants generally.

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