A quarter of a century after Chenobyl, what have we learned, and how quickly can we bring nuclear power to its knees?

Forlatt hus i Tsjernobyl
Igor Kudrik

Publish date: April 25, 2011

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Charles Digges

MOSCOW – Today, April 26, marks the 25th anniversary since the explosion of the fourth reactor of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant – a tragedy whose sheer scope of consequences made it the worst man-made disaster in humankind’s history. Statements that the Russian atomic industry – the inheritor of the Soviet nuclear domain that included Urkaine’s Chernobyl in 1986, just five years before the Soviet empire crumbled – continues to make to this day, that Chernobyl only claimed the lives of a little over 30 people who died during the explosion, let these statements prey on the conscience of those who make them. I believe even discussing these statements on the day of the Chernobyl catastrophe would be insulting to its countless victims.

So first and foremost, I would like to honour the memory of both the liquidators of this disaster, those who came to Chernobyl 25 years ago to clean up the consequences of this horrible catastrophe and gave their lives to making sure that the impact of the accident was as little as possible on their countrymen, and ordinary people who died as a result of the fallout and contamination.

Most recent data say the total Chernobyl death toll comes to over one million people all over the world, and this staggering figure is only bound to grow further, claiming more and more from the future generations. The bulk of the contamination covered the territories of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, but still it only made up 43 percent of the total radioactivity that was released when the multi-tonne reactor cover was blown away by a powerful explosion and the highly radioactive fuel from reactor 4 was dispersed into the atmosphere. Most of the radioactive particles fell out in North America, Africa, and countries in Europe and Asia. These are the data from the book entitled “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” which is to be presented in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, today. The book was written by scientists from countries that have been most impacted by Chernobyl and includes data from a considerable number of studies undertaken in the past quarter-century in many countries of the world.

The Chernobyl situation is often commented upon nuclear specialists who are not specialists in the field of the impact of radioactivity on human health. Let’s have a look at what real scholars who are researching this influence have to say:

”Chernobyl enriched medicine with new terminology and syndromes, and imparted a new ‘Chernobyl’ ring to old phrases: ‘premature aging,’ ‘diagnosis of cancer in younger patients,’ ‘in utero irradiation,’ ‘Chernobyl AIDS,’ ‘Chernobyl heart,’ and ‘Chernobyl limbs,’ as well as the syndromes of ‘vegetative-vascular dystonia’ (a functional disorder of nerve regulation of the cardio-vascular system with various presentations), the syndrome of ‘incorporation of long-lived radionuclides,’ (structural and functional changes to the cardio-vascular, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive systems and other organs as a result of the accrual of caesium-137 and strontium 90 in the human organism); the syndrome ‘acute inhalation depression of the upper respiratory system,’ ‘chronic fatigue’syndrome, and ‘lingering radiation sickness…”’

“Specialists with ties to the nuclear industry assert that the increase in illness rates around Chernobyl are not a result of irradiation but rather sociological, economic and psychological factors like stress and ‘radiophobia.’ Socio-economic factors cannot be the fundamental reason because compared groups identical in socio-economic conditions, physical and geographical characteristics of where they live, age and gender differ only in the level of their radiation load. Radiophobia likewise cannot be a defining reasons because the rate of illness rose universally within a few years of the catastrophe, during which time radiophobia subsided. Finally, the above described health defects in humans have also been observed in animal populations on the radioactively contaminated territory,” continues Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.

In order that such a catastrophe not be repeated, we must come to reliable conclusions that will be followed by corresponding action. What actions were undertaken in Russia? Maybe the RBMK reactor, which is analogous to the reactor that exploded at Chernobyl, was taken out of service. Or perhaps a law establishing stiff punishment for bureaucrats and specialists who cover up information about incidents at nuclear power plants has arisen. And just maybe the nuclear industry has finally come under the ironclad control of the public, stimulating the accountability of the atomic industry and caused it to strive to constantly improve safety.

Nothing at all like this has happened. There are just the legends of the new reactors of the future that allegedly will never explode. It is interesting the majority of serious nuclear accidents have occurred at newer reactors – and every time before an accident occurs, the nuclear industry has literally just heaped compliments on its new brain children.

Russian authorities and the atomic industry not only have not drawn any new lessons from the Chernobyl tragedy, but they have not even learned respect for the victims of nuclear catastrophes in general. There cannot be any respect in a situation wherein the majority of the victims are not even acknowledged. Such is the attitude to victims of the nuclear disaster at the Mayak Chemical Combine in 1957. Instead of apologies and a renewal of historic justice, the government seemingly is waiting for all of the victims to quietly die off. At the end of last year, the State Duma refused to enact a law defining those who were irradiated in utero by the 1957 accident at Mayak as victims of the incident. According to archives, some 2000 pregnant women were inducted to work on the liquidation of the accident, but their children, a small number of which are still alive, now cannot prove the harm their health sustained. From a legal point of view, they cannot be victims of the accident because they had not yet been born when it happened.

The 1957 accident was kept under wraps until 1989 – doctors were forbidden to issue diagnoses confirming a link to radiation related illnesses, which means that today’s victim statistics aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. In the first three years after Chernobyl, the data on those who suffered in the wake of the explosion at the nuclear power station were also extremely distorted and today the Soviet period data is hardly adequate. The maimed figures can be explained either by secretiveness or political expediency, but why has such a disrespectful and cynical attitude toward the victims remained? The answer to that question is almost obscenely simple: money. Atomic businessmen consider it their duty to deny any negative consequences of the nuclear accident, assuming that admitting to problems will tarnish the image of nuclear energy, which will negatively impact business.

The money that could be used on solving issues arising as a result of accidents at nuclear industry installations as a result is spent feeding an army of “public relations specialists.” The task of this army is simple – maximum saturation of the informational sphere with propaganda that a happy nuclear future is inevitable and that any opponent of the nuclear industry is an agent of foreign competition. And make no mistake, this is not done out of spite: to paraphrase the whole Hollywood mafia genre, “It’s nothing personal – its just business.”

But this impersonal “business” has a flip side, and its not just an underestimation of victims. Those who today define the policies of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom strive to lull the population and the authorities by creating an effective smokescreen behind which the growing risks of deteriorating Soviet-era equipment, the extremely low quality of equipment for nuclear power plants, the shrinking safety culture and other negative elements can be hidden. Among specialists who criticize Rosatom are only those who have long resigned or been pink slipped by the nuclear industry And this is not just a result of the ruthless suppression of critical points of view among those who still work for the industry and are dependent on it. The effect of propaganda dumped on the public and officialdom is also manifested as blithe denial within the industry itself, leading to an elective decline in safety standards. In other words, they believe their own lies.

Confirmation of this can be found in official documents. The Russian Federal Service for Ecological, Technical and Atomic Oversight, or Rostekhnadzor in its Russian acronym, said in its annual report for 2008 of checks and inspections that there was a “clear decrease in industrial discipline and in qualifications of personnel [at fuel cycle enterprises]. A significant number of discovered violations and documented events were a result of the human factor.”  Or, here, we even find a barb hurled at nuclear facility management, where they are criticized for “Insufficient attention (…) to boosting safety culture among personnel and controls for guaranteeing safety.”

And, really, why bother to imbue any kind of safety culture if nothing ever explodes? After all, everything we have is completely reliable. And is it not slightly terrifying that there are specialists who rub shoulders with directors of Russian nuclear power plants who explain away defects in equipment as acts of God? The specialists know better. If they say that safety increased after Chernobyl, they’re speaking the gospel truth. If they say they say that importing nuclear waste into the country is for the best, then who would dare to think otherwise? And, say that they said that our reactors would withstand any tempest, even one brought by unearthly forces – then such must be exactly the case. Any questions here are superfluous because they distract competent people from serious business.

By a depressing confluence of events, we greet the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl against the backdrop of a still unfolding nuclear cataclysm in Japan, the scale of which is still not conclusively known. If the results of Chernobyl have been studied for a quarter of a century, then the consequences of the Japanese disaster have not even begun to be investigated, and it is therefore difficult to compare the two. The assignment of the Japanese accident of a Level 7 on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale (with Level 7 being the worst) points only to the fact that we are dealing with something resembling catastrophe.

Both catastrophes happened as a result of developing civilian nuclear power, which promised to bring unfathomable benefits and a resolution to energy problems – and also brought the suffering of millions of people. The Chernobyl reactor that exploded was in its time new, and according to its developers, was safe enough “to build on Red Square.” Similar approbation is now aloft about Russia’s newest wunderkind reactor, the VVER-1200. And, of course, the reactor blocks in Japan were very old. But catastrophe is an equal opportunity affliction of both old reactors and new. The reasons can be various, but the result sadly the same.

The gigantic release of radioactivity from Chernobyl entered the atmosphere. At Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, radioactivity was released not only in the air but into the sea. According to the evaluations of the European Committee for Radiation Risk (ECRR), the next decade will see 200,000 registered cases of oncological illnesses as a result of radiation from Fukushima Daiichi, and within 50 years – some 500,000. And that is just within the 200 kilometer radius of Fukushima Daiichi. In order to establish a general figure for victims of radioactive fallout from the Japanese nuclear station, many years of research will be required.

When radioactive contamination of various areas occurs, we can at least block them off and try to steer clear of them, which, of course, is mostly an illusion of safety because the spread of radioactive particles into the environment will happen all the same. When seas and oceans are contaminated, it is impossible to demarcate an evacuation zone. The reality is such that in the coming years we will have to be very vigilant to ensure that irradiated fish and seafood does not end up on our dinner tables, and that radioactive cars don’t turn up at local dealerships. And this is a very important lesson that safe nuclear power is a myth – and that complacency and denial lead only to disaster.

Prior to March 11, the Japanese public was calm, complacent, and firmly believed in the bright future of nuclear power. Today, Japan sees weekly demonstrations demanding that the government shut the door on nuclear power forever. Italy just this week decided to refuse to return to plans to build new nuclear reactors, and where, in the wake of Chernobyl, a popular referendum decommissioned all of the country’s nuclear plants. Great Britain, China, India, Israel and Venezuela earlier announced a freeze in their own nuclear power programmes, and Germany decided to decommission all of its nuclear reactors. Even if someone somewhere wants to return to the politics of the “nuclear renaissance,” such a policy will doubtless be repugnant to potential investors. 

The tragedy in Japan changed the world and how it views nuclear power, maybe even to the same degree that Chernobyl did in its time. Investment funding will now to a much larger degree be funneled to renewable energy projects and energy efficiency. The historic moment for nuclear power is extremely ill timed: On the horizon is the decommissioning of the bulk of the world’s nuclear reactors because of age. And if the nuclear industry hoped before Japan’s disaster to replace old reactors with new ones, then that hope is now melting before our eyes. The myth of nuclear power’s reliability is shattered, as is the myth of its affordability. For more than half a century the development of nuclear power has not been able to shake loose of grand state subsidies. And even at that level, where they don’t bother to check their bank statements, nuclear power plants still show up as a glaring expense.

Russia must prepare not for increasing its reliance on nuclear energy to 25 percent, but for its gradual reduction and substitution with other energy sources. The lessons of Chernobyl have not been learned and the lessons of Fukushima Daiichi are being ignored. Yet, still, the wind-down of nuclear energy will be hard to avoid as Rosatom does not have sufficient resources to, within a limited time frame, increase the number of places it wishes to build new reactors. And we’re not just talking about heavy machine building resources, but about insufficient personnel for new nuclear power plants, about the diversion of existing resources to rapid decommissioning of old reactors and toward many other things.

There are a few prospective fields in which it would make sense to search out new energy resources to replace nuclear. One is an increasing the extremely low performance index of existing gas fired plants, energy efficiency, and the development of renewable sources of energy. And alternatives to nuclear power are to be found – 15 to 16 percent of the energy balance, which is what nuclear power accounts for in Russia, is not a figure that should make us dependent on one source of energy. Moreover, nearly all of the most well informed international experts that are not on the leash of the lobbies for one or another form of energy, are today of the opinion that by mid century the majority of energy will be coming from renewable sources. Over the course of many years it is specifically this sphere that is seeing the most investment and technological progress. That which cannot be stopped, as they love to say in the nuclear industry. And only Russia is still propagandizing the myth that renewable energy is useless.

The problems that have been created by the nuclear industry will be with us for centuries: The radioactive contamination that will remain because the nuclear industry does not wish to clean up after itself; nuclear waste, the management of which will cost colossal amounts of money over an immeasurable period of time, if not the entire existence of our civilization. It is within our power to stop the production of this waste, and to exclude the risk of new accidents at expensive and unpredictable nuclear power plants. In sum, we will not escape the development of renewable energy, especially as uranium supplies dwindle. But how quickly we shut the door on nuclear power depends on a couple of things, not the least of which is how tired we get of annually marking the anniversary of yet another nuclear catastrophe.

Vladimir Slivyak, a frequent contributor to Bellona Web, is the co-chair of Ecodefence and a member of the board of directors of the US-based Nuclear Information Resource Service.