Chernobyl: 30 years on

Roz Paterson looks at the disaster and what has happened since  • Thirty years ago this week, a reactor exploded at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and for a few days, this previously unregarded sector of Ukraine was the epicentre of our international news coverage.

For a week or two in April, 1986, everyone talked about the radiation, about the horror of ordinary men—farm-workers, factory hands, miners and soldiers—being forced into the explosion zone, ill-clad, to clear up the debris and bury it. No wonder they all died.

Details seeped through, with all the hallmarks of a grisly Russian folktale—the red trees in Kiev, the two-headed calves, the hideous birth defects, the great plume of radioactive particles swept across Western Europe by the weather fronts, depositing poison wherever it touched down, the illegally logged wood that releases its radioactive particles as it burned in the hearth.

Recent photo-assignments capturing the deserted cities and villages of the region add to this sense of remote malignity; the decaying, abandoned classrooms, the heart-stopped funfair, the silent high-rises, an urban Marie Celeste.

But there is nothing remote about nuclear catastrophe; it acts locally, but thinks globally. No one in the Northern Hemisphere was unaffected by Chernobyl, as every last one of us has imbibed some traces of its radioactive legacy, and will continue to do so for years.

Which makes it odd, don’t you think, that we never mention it? That it probably has no resonance for anyone born post-1990, and that we’re not all running around screaming about the THREE nuclear reactors that went into meltdown at Fukushima, in Japan, only five short years ago?

For the record, Chernobyl was graded a Level 7 nuclear accident—the scale only goes up to 7. Fukushima was a Level 7 too, the only other one there’s ever been.

Ukraine, seen through the Cold War prism, was characterised as a clumsy, crude bureaucracy, laughably backward, yet the reactor was quickly buried and 350,000 people were evacuated from a 30 km exclusion zone, where units of radioactive cesium-137 were measuring in a concentration of 1.48 per square metre.

Japan, viewed through the lens of late capitalism, is a clean, efficient democracy, running smoothly along free market principles. Yet only 200,000 people have so far been evacuated, and an exclusion zone of only 20 km established, despite a cesium-137 concentration of 3.7, and so far, the reactors remain exposed to the elements.

Already, tales are emerging of accelerating cancer rates amongst newborns on the West Coast of America, where the Japanese plume was swept, but hard and fast research is scarce. Chernobyl, or rather, Three Mile Island, set the precedent on this.

In March 1979, there occurred a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at a facility in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. It was a Level 5, by the way.

The research that followed this disaster was patchy, to say the least. Partly because it is difficult to quantify something as un-pindownable as nuclear fall-out—it’s hard to measure how much was here and there, and when, and how it links in with the sudden spikes in cancer rates, the sudden drop in fertility of farm animals, the weird things that happen in its wake. But mostly the research isn’t there, because the will wasn’t.

Similarly, the Chernobyl fall-out remains undocumented. There were 3000 immediate deaths, said the authorities at the time. Hang on, maybe it was 10,000. Ok, ok, it was 25,000, or thereabouts. Those are the ones who dropped dead at the time, you understand.

But the bidding for the actual death toll, the one including infant deaths, long-term cancers, general, all-pervading failure to thrive, is yet to begin. Alexey Yablokov, in his book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, puts it as 985,000, though the counter is still clicking.

Similarly, in Japan, the record is barely begun. In fact, more research is being conducted into the stress levels and psychological impact of the disaster, than the physical one. Stress gives you cancer, right? You see what they did there?

Thus, on the 30th anniversary of an accident that, briefly, seemed to herald the end of the world, we don’t really know how damaging a chronic diet of radiation is to human and wildlife populations.

We don’t even know how much radioactive particles there are, floating round our hot little planet. And yet we’re still commissioning nuclear power plants, by private companies who are allowed to keep their business secret.

Meanwhile, in Chernobyl, as if to underscore this split thinking, on the one hand, they are building the single, largest moveable structure ever made, in order to wheel it over the destroyed reactor and hopefully—fingers crossed, eh?—seal it for a century.

On the other, the Ministry of Ecology is contemplating turning this zone into a Nature Reserve, which will function both as a haven to wildlife, and a facility for storing nuclear waste, including from other countries.

Writing in Counterpunch, John Laforge, co-director of Nukewatch, based in Wisconsin, describes meltdowns as “acts of unlimited, multi-generational ecological warfare.”

I met a man once, in 2006, from Ukraine, who had brought his daughter to Scotland in the hope she’d get better. She was 13, he said, but was the height of a six year old. I asked what was wrong, and he shrugged helplessly, “She doesn’t grow, I don’t know, it’s not right.”


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