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Chernobyl: 20 Years On

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http://www.mosnews.com/feature/2006/04/ ... obyl.shtml

Created: 24.04.2006 11:24 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 11:24 MSK, 17 minutes ago


As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, environmentalists are releasing new alarming estimates of the future death toll. Scientists are examining the deadly consequences of the fallout, while survivors go on living in contaminated areas, watching their children, born long after the blast, die.

Last week world news agencies reported that the environmental watchdog Greenpeace said the eventual death toll from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster could be far higher than official estimates, released earlier by a forum of UN agencies.

Based on research by the Belarus National Academy of Sciences, the Greenpeace report said that of the 2 billion people globally affected by Chernobyl fallout, 270,000 would develop cancers as a result, of which 93,000 would prove fatal, the Reuters news agency reported.

However, the Chernobyl Forum, a group of eight UN agencies plus the governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, estimates an eventual death-toll of only several thousand as a result of the April 26, 1986 explosion at the power plant in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl.

Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner Ivan Blokov accused the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, of “whitewashing the impacts of the most serious nuclear accident in human history.” In Vienna, an IAEA official rejected the accusation, saying it was responsible in the Forum only for an environmental impact study while the casualty figures were drawn up by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Gregory Haertl, a spokesman for Geneva-based WHO, said it stood by its figures. He said the predicted eventual number of extra deaths in the hardest-hit areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia was estimated to be 4,000. Another 5,000 deaths were predicted among those who had been living in the less contaminated zones of the three countries at the time of the disaster, he added. Haertl also noted that the WHO had not done a Europe-wide study and said Greenpeace’s figures appeared to assume one.

The Greenpeace report said that a further 200,000 people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus may have died as a result of medical conditions — such as cardiovascular diseases — attributable to the disaster, but that there was no accepted method of calculating the number of deaths from such diseases. The report said the incidence of cancer in Belarus had jumped 40 percent between 1990 and 2000, with children not yet born at the time of the disaster showing an 88.5-fold increase in thyroid cancers. Leukemia is also reported to be on the increase in the Chernobyl region, as are cases of intestinal, rectal, breast, bladder, kidney and lung cancers, the Greenpeace report said.

Haertl questioned Greenpeace’s estimated 10 percent death rate for thyroid cancers among children and adolescents. “We actually know the death rate is one percent. They are overstating the figures,” he said.

The relocation of hundreds of thousands of people has put further strains on the population. “The Chernobyl accident disrupted whole communities in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia,” Greenpeace concluded. “A complex interaction between factors such as poor health, the increased costs of health services, the relocation of people, the loss of agricultural territories, contamination of foodstuffs, the economic crisis, the costs of the clean-up to the states, political problems, a weakened workforce ... creates a general crisis.”

In April, 1986 the deadliest nuclear accident the world had ever seen sent out a plume of radioactive dust which blew across northern and Western Europe and as far as the eastern United States.

The accident occurred at Chernobyl in the then-Soviet Ukraine. The nuclear power plant, located 80 miles north of Kiev, had 4 reactors and whilst testing reactor number 4 numerous safety procedures were disregarded. At 1:25am the chain reaction in the reactor went out of control creating explosions and a fireball which blew off the reactor’s heavy steel and concrete lid. The Chernobyl accident killed more than 30 people immediately, and as a result of the high radiation levels in the surrounding 20-mile radius, 135,000 people had to be evacuated forthwith.

“A huge concrete shield and small army of workers are all that stand between Chernobyl’s deadly number-four reactor and the outside world. The sarcophagus stands over the ruins of the reactor and radioactive fuel in the heart of the 30-kilometer-radius (18.6-mile) exclusion zone, where the gray concrete buildings of the power plant emerge from a pine birch forest near the Pripyat river,” AFP correspondent reported recently from the site of the tragedy.

The only sign of life is a plume of smoke from a thermal plant providing electricity needed for work on dismantling what was once meant to be the world’s largest nuclear power station, with eight reactors planned. On a wall, a barely legible slogan still proclaims: “We are building communism.”

Chernobyl’s last functioning reactor was shut down in December 2000. The 3,500 people still working here for the most part concentrate on maintaining the sarcophagus which was erected in the immediate aftermath to confine the radiation leaks. Over the years they have installed huge steel girders and propped up the sarcophagus’s foundations and outer walls.

Chernobyl’s deputy head engineer, Valery Seida, told AFP the sarcophagus is in a satisfactory condition, but needs further stabilizing before a second and better wall, nicknamed “the arch,” can be built. This 190-meter (623-feet) wide and 200-meter (656-feet) long construction will be in the shape of a half-cylinder and literally slide over the existing sarcophagus. The steel structure will weigh some 18,000 tons — more than twice as heavy as the Eiffel tower. Two buildings are also being constructed to house the facilities that will process the radioactive waste, consisting of 15,000 cubic meters (529,740 cubic feet) of liquid radioactive discharge and 3,000 cubic meters (105,948 cubic feet) of solid matter, Seida says. In fact, the exclusion zone is already a large nuclear dump, where waste is gathered in designated places, or buried in 30-meter (98-feet) by 10-meter (33-feet) trenches.

The Chernobyl plant has been idle for 20 years, and its last reactor was taken out of service some six years ago. But a dozen other reactors of the same design — albeit modernized — remain in operation and some could be in service for another 30 years. Experts attribute the tragedy to a fatal combination of design flaws and poor staff training. The design problems have been addressed, but doubt remains about the human factor, The Associated Press said in a report.

Vladimir Chuprov, head of energy issues at the Russian branch of Greenpeace, said working conditions are as important as the technology — and more worrisome. Reactors can be modernized, he told AP, but “the majority of nuclear accidents are connected not with technology, but with the human factor.” A study by Greenpeace and the Russian Academy of Sciences found many nuclear workers in Russia showing up for work drunk or on drugs, Chuprov said. At the Leningradsky plant in northern Russia, pay is so poor that some workers have to moonlight as taxi drivers, he said.

Yuri Sarayev, a nuclear expert at the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, said pay hasn’t kept up with the country’s booming economy, so “specialists with solid training and 10-15 years experience are leaving, and being replaced by less qualified people.”

But while environmentalists, scientists and politicians continue to examine and debate the deadly consequences, survivors continue to live — and die — in the contaminated areas.

As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in the northern Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, survivors still grapple with the memories — and fallout — of the radioactive disaster. “I remember looking back at the plant after the explosion,” recalls Valentina Prokopivna, then head librarian in Pripyat — the hardest hit locality — told journalists. “It was like looking into a furnace.”

Official estimates from the three former Soviet countries affected — Ukraine, Belarus and Russia — say around 25,000 people had died by 2005. But 20 years after the accident, many of the survivors’ descendants are still suffering the effects of the nuclear fallout. Irradiated parents have passed on problems to their offspring. Out of the 3 million people officially recognised as victims of Chernobyl by the Ukrainian government, 642,000 are children. Many continued to live in the Chernobyl zone, despite the fact that the soil and water for 30 km around the plant are heavily irradiated. They face the likelihood of throat cancer and serious damage to their neurological systems.

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