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16 years after the world's worst nuclear accident, have we gone back to sleep? Was Chernobyl a turning point or simply the first such catastrophe in a dangerous industry just a few decades old? Kevin Buley visits the radioactive exclusion zone

Chernobyl: a wake up call?

Pripyat is a large modern town in the lush green region of Pollisia in northern Ukraine. Purpose built for the new generation of atomic workers and their families. An object of envy for those unfortunates not working in this sparkling new technology. Spacious heated apartments with bathrooms and balconies were constructed in a woodland setting with wide tree-lined streets and boulevards, hotels and houses of culture, all banged up next to this prime example of Soviet technical wizardry, the “Reactor in the Park”.

Today Pripyat is a place where no children play. An eerily tranquil ghost town where nothing stirs except a rich population of birds amongst the trees. The bare statistics are remarkable: 45,000 people evacuated in the three days after the accident. Over 1000 buses in a 12-mile nuclear traffic jam. Oh yes... and all the dogs were shot.

After 16 years the looters and vandals no longer visit. Nature is taking over with trees growing up through the crumbling Soviet hotels, apartments and children's playgrounds. I walked the deserted streets and empty apartments. The setting seemed idyllic until my thoughts were interrupted by the increasing rattle of the dosimeter as the roentgens climbed. As my interpreter from Chornobylinterinform said sadly, “No one will ever live here again.” The whole community abandoned everything in the enforced evacuation planned to last for “just three days”.

The returnees

Some, however have returned to live within the 30-kilometre radioactive exclusion zone. The Government has long since turned a blind eye to the returnees. I met Nicolai and Anastasia Chekalovitz in a village of 28 returnees south of Chernobyl. They grow potatoes and keep chickens in this contaminated land as if the nuclear age had passed them by. I asked Anastasia if she was afraid. She challenged me to show her the radiation. “Where is radiation?” she shrugged, “We drink vodka. Vodka kills radiation” The returnees are all elderly. Numbering some 500, most have lived in Polissia like their parents long before Igor Kurchatov masterminded the Soviet love affair with atomic power in the 1950s.

Nicolai and Anastasia have lived in the village of Opachichi for 57 years, and weren't about to leave now. Communism, radiation, capitalism, these hardy Ukrainians seemed afraid of nothing. Particularly a radiation they could neither see nor touch. I went away with the distinct feeling they simply didn't believe there was such a thing. The government kindly gives them £10 a month, free rent and, ironically, free electricity. The belief that radiation is neutralised by vodka is widely held by both young and old. The young fire-fighters on 26 April 1986 gulped down quantities of vodka to “flush out the radiation”.

Out of 10 reactors planned for Chernobyl, four went into service. The fifth and sixth stand today half complete. Attribute to humanity's folly. The structures crumbling, the rusting cranes still in attendance. Today no reactor operates at the site. As Yuri my interpreter said “Number three was switched off in 2000. It was a political decision. It was, of course, completely safe.” I smiled at this. It would have been churlish to point out that switching off a nuclear reactor was not like turning off a tap. It wasn't the end. Just the end of the beginning.

Enduring testimony

So what now of the radioactive pollution? It's all gone now hasn't it? And reactor No 4 is safely sealed in its sarcophagus isn't it? Well... yes and no. Mostly no. It's true that the danger of new thyroid collapse due to the radioactive isotope Iodine-131 has passed, its half-life being only eight days. But the good news ends there. Numerous other products of fission and radioactive decay are a little less obliging and are here to stay. 90Strontium, half-life 29 years, accumulates in human bone, 137Caesium has a half-life of 30 years and the radioactive isotope 239Plutonium over 24,000 years. These long-term companions saturate the dust and soil around Belarus and northern Ukraine. Enduring testimony to human conviction that we can create a controllable monster. Future generations on earth will surely consider these decades of carelessly trashing our home to be a genuine Dark Age. Reactor No 4 is entombed in the sarcophagus - but not safely. The concrete and steel structure itself is dangerous due to poor construction, hasty design and the degenerative effects of the huge concentrations of radionuclides inside. The likelihood of contamination of storm water and melted snow and subsequent distribution into the environment gives grave cause for concern. Similarly the danger of the expulsion of radioactive dust into the atmosphere, particularly during the vital structural work. After just 16 years the escaping radiation is of course still a major problem. As I viewed Reactor No 4 I was exposed to radiation over 100 times greater than that recorded as I drove towards the site. In addition it has been acknowledged that the area is a seismically active site with possibilities of earth-quakes measuring up to seven on the Richter scale.

Care and containment

The existing sarcophagus has become a temporary band-aid. The final solution for safe confinement for Reactor No 4 is planned to have “a validity of 100 and more years”. The future, decided by an International Advisory Group is for the site to be covered by an arch or dome structure to contain the critical area and allow processing of the structure and materials. This arch is to be completed by 2006.

The history of the development of nuclear power is characterised by an obdurate unwillingness to deal with or even acknowledge the vast problems of waste generation and its subsequent disposal. More radioactive waste is constantly being generated, adding to the storage problems for future generations.

The Ukraine is a strong country with a prosperous future now it has shuffled off the restraints of communism. Its people proud and hospitable. It's a sadness that it has inherited the results of the Soviet obsession with world nuclear domination. Not least the post-Chernobyl care and containment costs, consuming some 15% of the country's annual budget. Even without the 10 reactors planned for Chernobyl, Ukraine still operates 13 reactors with a further two planned.

Catalogue of disasters?

So was Chernobyl an isolated accident? Perhaps a hard lesson learnt. Was it a mere blip on the road to a bright nuclear future? Is the future an earth dotted with generators gently and safely humming, providing boundless cheap energy at no environmental cost? Well... no actually. The promise of “Energy too cheap to meter” certainly will never be true in an industry littered with costly errors and an open-ended shut-down budget.

The catalogue of incidents too vast to detail includes: Windscale in the north of England suffered a meltdown in 1957 which spewed 131Iodine into the atmosphere requiring milk to be withdrawn. The Enrico Fermi fast breeder built next to Detroit, USA, suffered a meltdown in 1966 which eventually precipitated its decommissioning. In the St Petersburg region almost 1500 “radioactive anomalies” were recorded in two years in the late 1980s. How many incidents are hushed up in conditions of paranoid secrecy and obfuscation? The environmental concerns are grotesque. Not only radioactive waste, but associated toxic trash littering our home for generations to come. The huge decommissioning and storage costs after “switching off” will impact for the foreseeable future.

“Dream targets”?

Of major concern is the fact that nuclear sites offer attractive targets to terrorists, nihilists and the just plain lunatic. Economic logic says that generators should be sited close to urban concentrations. Soviet ideology insisted they should be as benign and commonplace as your local railway station. A reactor complex right next to a major city, or the cluster of French reactors midway between London and Paris. A terrorist's dream target.

More bad news accompanies the seemingly good. Ongoing arms reduction deals between the USA and Russia will, overtime, free up tons of nuclear material suitable for reprocessing for nuclear reactors. Or, even worse, to be hawked around the world by unscrupulous or disaffected workers and arms merchants, to nuclear wannabees and terrorists.

Until the next time

Sadly we can't uninvent nuclear technology, and the incestuous relationship between nuclear weapons and power generators is, for the military/industrial complex, a logical, if terrifying rationale for the continuation of the arrangement. With over 450 reactors operating worldwide in 2002, the nuclear power industry still boasts plenty of lovers.

France is by far the industry's most passionate lover, with 59 reactors to 59 million population, next comes Japan with 54 reactors (126 million) and 12 more planned, and Canada with 14 (31 million). Lower down comes the Republic of Armenia with one Soviet reactor built on a seismic fault at Metsamor. After a series of accidents and a serious earth-quake the reactor was shut down in 1989. Post independence energy crises precipitated its restarting under Russian control in the 1990s.

Chernobyl, like Three Mile Island reminds us that even so-called super powers are unable to consistently control the power of the atom. Almost 60 years have elapsed since nuclear weapons were used in anger. It would be foolish to assume that this happy situation will continue. Likewise, unless nuclear power is replaced, or even when it is, how long before we have another Chernobyl, either accidental or deliberate?

Notes: Numerous support groups exist worldwide to help the victims of Chernobyl, including Children of Chernobyl Relief Fund (email: info@childrenofChernobyl.org) which collects donations and provides essential medical supplies and health screening.
Peace News readers should support Abolition 2000 (email admin@abolition2000.org) the global network to eliminate nuclear weapons and replace nuclear power with sustainable energy.

Kevin Buley is a freelance journalist with a special interest in the countries of the former Soviet Union (email: kevin@buley.freeserve.co.uk).

Topics: Nuclear Power