No more Chernobyls

Feature Story - 9 May, 2011
25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, residents of the area are still exposed to the radiation. They depend on contaminated food and milk.

Japan has upgraded the disaster rating of the Fukushima situation to the highest level possible. The rating has not been used since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986. We need to use our understanding of Chernobyl's experience to direct our actions in Japan and avoid the same mistakes.

The fallout from a nuclear accident lasts for generations. In March 2011, 25 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Greenpeace sent a team of scientists to Chernobyl, Ukraine. They found unsafe levels of caesium-137 radiation in foods such as milk and mushrooms hundreds of kilometres away, more than two decades after the accident.

This is especially concerning for the children of poor families in small regional towns who have little choice but to drink and eat the food they have produced themselves or bought at local markets. If the children could access safe food, they wouldn't have to contend with the illnesses caused by internal radiation poisoning.

Levels of radioactive caesium high enough to require state intervention can still be found as far away from Chernobyl as Scotland, Lapland and Greece.

Another concern is that the massive concrete sarcophagus built to contain the leaking radiation is on the verge of collapse and the planned replacement is underfunded by EUR 600 million and five years over deadline. There is no estimated time of completion. If it collapses, even more radiation will leak into the already weakened region.

These are the sorts of issues the residents of Fukushima will face long after the clean-up crews have left and international attention has turned elsewhere. The Japanese Government has now authorised a dump of 11,000 tonnes of radioactive seawater into the Pacific Ocean and established a new radiation limit for fish. Greenpeace has begun testing fish, milk and vegetables in the area.

There's no such thing as a safe nuclear reactor and there's no such thing as a safe dose of radiation. Working reactor cores contain a higher inventory of radioactive substances, therefore there are always large radioactive releases in the event of major accidents.

Despite the very recent example of how dangerous the combination of earthquakes and nuclear power can be, the Indonesian Government plans to build four reactors at Bangka Island near a fault line. Radioactive waste from a major accident at one of these reactors would directly affect Australia within days.

Make mine renewable

These risks wouldn't be acceptable even if nuclear power could reduce global carbon emissions to meet climate change targets but the truth is that even if the entire global fleet of nuclear power plants were quadrupled in number, it would at best lead to a 6% cut in carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) by 2050. That’s far too little, far too late.

Countries that have decided to phase out nuclear energy, such as Sweden and Germany, have reached their carbon emission reduction targets for 2010 much better than countries such as Finland who are continuing to invest in nuclear options. With the right decisions, global renewable sources could cover 40% of global energy demand by 2030, and 80% by 2050.

What's so good about renewable energy systems?

  • They don’t carry the risk of potentially disastrous accidents.
  • They don’t produce dangerous waste.
  • There are minimal climate-harming carbon emissions.
  • They’re becoming ever more economically viable for countries to implement.

What you can do?