source: Wikimedia Commons

Monday marked the 24th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine, considered the worst nuclear accident in history. Despite the severity of the disaster in 1986, Chernobyl continued to operate until it was finally decommissioned in December of 2000.

Today, the event at Chernobyl still affects victims and their families; and casts a long shadow over the nuclear question. Modern nuclear power plants are no doubt safer, yet the fear of another disaster is understandable, especially when Chernobyl itself still contains a large amount of nuclear waste which needs to be dealt with.

From Reuters:

Ukraine has already received hundreds of millions of dollars in Western help to build a new shelter over the reactor and to construct facilities to process nuclear waste. But Yanukovich told the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Thomas Mirow that the former Soviet republic needed hundreds of millions more.

What’s confusing for me about Chernobyl and the safety of nuclear power in general is all the different and often conflicting information I read about it. For example, an oft-quoted IAEA report estimates eventual deaths from Chernobyl’s radiation totaling at 4,000. According to RTE article, ‘The Ukrainian National Commission for Radiation Protection calculates 500,000 deaths so far’ and the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences ‘estimates 93,000 deaths and 270,000 cancers.’ Those are some a huge gaps.

According to a photo essay in the Independent, scientists estimate it will take up to 900 years for radioactive elements to decay enough to render Pripyat (alt. Prypiat) – the abandoned downwind city that once housed many of the plant’s workers – and its surrounding area safe. Findings by the American Geophysical Union concerning soil levels of cesium-137 – a radioactive isotope produced by nuclear fission and the main source of radiation in the exclusion zone – around Chernobyl indicate that it will take ‘between 180 and 320 years’ to reach its ecological half-life. Yet thousands of stubborn, or desperate, people have illegally returned to live in the exclusion zone to eek out a living on its radioactive, yet fertile, lands.

Central Pripyat; photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro (source: Flickr Creative Commons)

The Chernobyl effects, recently documented by the New York Academy of Sciences, mean that there has been a significant rise in all types of cancer causing thousands of deaths, an increase in infant and perinatal mortality, a growing number of deformities and genetic abnormalities, delayed mental development, neuropsychological illness, blindness, and diseases of the respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, urogenital and endocrine systems.

–RTE

Contrastingly, Rob Lyons puts a bit of a shine on the disaster in a pro-nuclear power article featured in Spiked:

The picture of Chernobyl in many people’s minds is of a nuclear wasteland for miles around. Nothing could be further from the truth. The area around the plant has been largely depopulated, but Paul Seaman describes the 30 kilometre-wide exclusion zone as a green and pleasant land populated by just a few refuseniks; the area has become a huge nature reserve. As Tom Whipple described in The Times (London) in 2009, there are even holiday tours to the area. According to Whipple, Pripyat – the model city built to house Chernobyl’s workers, which was vacated after the accident – is ‘what the apocalypse will look like’.

Lyons states that besides Chernobyl, the only other incidents the public can remember are the comparatively minor events at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and Windscale nuclear plant in the UK in 1957. But safety isn’t measured by what the public remembers.

For example: The Kyshtym disaster at the Mayak nuclear plant in the Soviet Union in 1957 may not be famous, because it was kept under wraps for so many years, but it certainly was serious and horrible. Kyshtym is officially a level 6 event, while Chernobyl is rated a level 7 event. Hundreds died from radiation sickness and hundreds of thousands were irradiated. Mayak was also the site of three other major nuclear accidents, but how many of us have even heard of it?

by Graham Land

Additional resources:

Deutsche Welle – Scars linger as Ukraine marks 24 years since Chernobyl