Chernobyl: 25 years on

The nuclear disaster that occurred in Chernobyl is infamous.  A quarter of a century later, the effects are far from over.   

The accident

 It is twenty-five years since the explosion that tore through Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in the middle of a quiet, mild night in the then Soviet Union.  Twenty-five years since the 2000-degree-Celsius fire that burned in the reactor, streaming several hundred times more radiation into the air than the atomic bombs of 1945; since the scream of sirens that brought firemen to the flames, and later, the firemen to the hospital; since the invisible radiation spread over families and animals and homes.

The accident at Chernobyl was supposed to be a safety test.  The plant’s operators wanted to find out if, in the event of a loss of power, the reactor turbines could deliver enough energy to keep the coolant pumps running until the emergency diesel generator was activated.  The experiment involved a significant lowering of electrical output from the power plant, however, and so the crew decided to postpone the test from the evening – the time of peak demand – to later in the night.  By the time the test commenced, at 1.23am on 26th April, 1986, the specially-trained team had already left.  The safety systems had also been switched off.

It was only shortly after the test began that the reactor went out of control.  Fuel elements ruptured and a violent explosion blew off the thousand tonne steel-and-concrete-lid of the unit.  A stream of radionuclides poured out into the night air.  Fuel rods melted and the reactor graphite ignited: the resulting fire burned for nine days.  Most of the contamination was released in those initial days, too, and panic spread across the globe as the radionuclides spread on the wind.  The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation write that radionuclides from the Chernobyl release were measurable in every country in the northern hemisphere.

The human costs 

Mykola Isaiev was one of the thousands of ‘liquidators’ charged with cleaning up the accident in the following years.  He had worked in Chernobyl since 1977, and dutifully went to work on the morning after the accident.  “I saw the damaged reactor from my house but I still went,” he says.  “Everyone thought that we’d be told if something bad had happened.”  

While Mykola (pictured, left) was at work his family were evacuated from their house in Pripyat, the ghost city near the nuclear power plant now famous for its eerie abandoned streets and empty playgrounds, for it is still too radioactive to be safely inhabited.  It was only weeks after the evacuation that Mykola was able to trace his wife and children to Kiev.  “I was shocked,” he remembers.  “They hadn’t had any health checks.  My grandmother had stored their clothes on the balcony.  I was angry, as I had been forced to sign a document to stay at the plant and help clean everything up.  At the same time, it was guaranteed that my family would receive help - but the government provided them with nothing.  The hospital gave them some food and vitamins.”

Mykola returned to his work as a liquidator, though by the end of July had received a radiation dose so high that he was sent away for a while, to allow the burns in his eyes and nose and lungs to recover.  It was 1991 before he finally left Chernobyl.  He’s received many medals for his work after the disaster, but they do not help the heavy allergies, asthma, ischemia, pancreatic diabetes and hepatitis he suffers as a result.  Aside from these afflictions, he has only two other things with him from his previous life in Pripyat: the family fridge, and a copy of The Last of the Mohicans, his favourite book.

Not everyone affected was evacuated.  The area contaminated by the accident was roughly the size of Bangladesh, and seven million people lived there in 1985.  Three million of those were children.  Yet only 350,000 left or were resettled elsewhere; the rest continue to live on contaminated land. Radiation exposure is a slow poison, and it is difficult to estimate the number of deaths that explosion still has yet to cause, and even to calculate how many it has already.  A recent study published by Greenpeace, involving contributions from fifty-one scientists, suggests that the accident might lead to as many as 100,000 fatalities globally.

Continuing contamination 

A Greenpeace team visited the Ukraine in March 2011 to test food products in a region known to have been contaminated by the reactor explosion.  They found levels of caesium-137 in some milk, milk products, mushrooms, wild berries and root vegetable samples that exceeded the set acceptable limits.  Caesium-137 is a relatively long-lived isotope that will take several centuries to decay, and is also able to pass through the food chain and hence contaminate milk, fish and other food products.  One particular milk sample, submitted by Nadiya Fedorivna Ogievych from Drozdyn village in the northwest of Ukraine, was found to contain caesium-137 six and a half times above the radiological limits permitted by her country.

Sadly, Nadiya (pictured right) was not surprised to learn of the contamination endemic in her small farm a quarter of a century after the nuclear accident.  “There are places in the markets where we can check the radioactivity of our food…ours always exceed the permitted levels,” she says.  “We just cope here as much as we can.  This is the situation we live with.”

Trapped in a cycle of poverty and ill-health, Nadiya’s family has little option but to continue living on and from their contaminated land.  Nadiya has a bladder problem that is officially certified as a consequence of the nuclear accident and has only one kidney, which is infected with cystitis.  She holds the certificate of a Chernobyl Invalid.

“The Chernobyl catastrophe changed my life significantly,” she says.  “First of all, it affected the health of my three children - all of them are ill and they all suffer from really bad headaches.  They also have blood vessel dystonia, which causes blood circulation problems.  I’m suffering from the same problems.  Every time my family goes to the clinic in Rokytne to have our internal radiation levels measured, we always exceed the doses allowable for the human body.”

What can be done?

Evidently, the contamination of the land and its associated health effects continue for the next generation.  But the problem of what to do with the high level nuclear waste inside the ruined reactor persists too.  Eight months after the accident, the ruined Reactor 4 was encased in a giant ‘sarcophagus’ to try and contain its radioactive materials. It’s not secure.  The cracked and unstable sarcophagus poses a constant threat of collapse onto its deadly contents, and governments around the world are now being asked to find €1 billion to create an even bigger structure to fit over the top.  It’s a challenge in times of cuts and economic downturn, but the expense is just one in the long and deadly legacy of nuclear power.  

Of course, the new sarcophagus won’t deal with the root of the problem: the deadly rubble inside. It’s estimated that 180 tonnes of nuclear fuel remain, though most melted to combine with structural debris in a solidified radioactive ‘lava’ many hundreds of thousands of cubic metres in volume.  At some point this must be removed, packed and put into interim storage.  The process will be expensive, complicated and highly dangerous.  Like all ‘solutions’ for dealing with nuclear waste, the giant stone coffin merely transfers the problem to future generations.

The only true solution is to stop investing in nuclear power.  All power plants are vulnerable to natural disaster, design failure, human error or a combination thereof.  For power plants running on nuclear energy, the consequences of this vulnerability are unacceptable.  Chernobyl cannot be written off as merely a consequence of old technology, or an outdated safety culture: nearly 800 significant leaks or accidents have been officially reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the twenty-five years since the accident.  The 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima is the first to be rated the same level as Chernobyl on the IAEA’s scale of nuclear events, proving that the dangers do not disappear with time or technology.

In contrast, renewable energy does not carry with it the risk of a giant explosion, nor the risk of radioactive leaks that will affect generations of families.  Renewable energy sources already account for nearly 17% of the world’s energy needs, compared to the mere 2% share from nuclear energy.  With the right backing, these technologies could supply 50% of global energy by 2050, as Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution hows in more detail.  Yet, as investment funds are finite, every dollar, rupee or euro that is spent on nuclear energy is a dollar, rupee or euro less spent on renewable energy.  

It’s impossible to reverse the suffering of those killed and harmed by the civilian nuclear sector.  But the grief and pain of the victims of these accidents must not be glossed over.  India must move away from investments in nuclear power, and towards a future built on renewable energy.  

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