Apocalypse Today: Visiting Chernobyl, 25 Years Later
The 18.5-mile (30 km) radius around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is known officially as the "zone of alienation." Abandoned cars, tractors, buildings and homes litter the landscape and are slowly being devoured by trees and shrubs. A classroom bulletin board not far from the central Lenin Street in the town where the plant workers used to live reads, "No return. Farewell, Prypyat, April 28, 1986."
This eerie landscape about 50 miles (80 km) from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, provides a snapshot in time — of the frenzied evacuation following the meltdown 25 years ago today of reactor core No. 4, a meltdown that produced a radioactive plume across the northern hemisphere in the worst nuclear accident in history. It also presents a stark vision of the possible future thousands of miles away in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, where emergency workers are in the seventh week of a battle to cool several partially melted reactor cores. (See pictures of the Chernobyl zone, 25 years after the nuclear disaster.)
Even now, the effort to contain the Chernobyl accident is far from over: workers in white suits and respirator masks show up for work every day, constructing a new concrete shield to replace a massive sarcophagus built in 1986. The sarcophagus, which contains the molten core, is starting to crumble and could collapse, which could release another radioactive cloud into the air.
Chernobyl offers many lessons about what Princeton University physics professor Robert Socolow calls the "afterheat" of a nuclear disaster — but it's the generational lesson that's the most important one. Because the isotopes released during a nuclear accident remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years, cleanup is the work not just of first responders, but also of their descendants — and their descendants' descendants. It's messy, it's expensive, and it's the kind of job that forever denies the workers themselves the satisfaction of standing back and admiring the results of their efforts. Asked when the reactor site would again become inhabitable, Ihor Gramotkin, director of the Chernobyl power plant, replies "at least 20,000 years." (See pictures of the worst nuclear disasters.)
That timescale makes things more than simply frustrating. Over the course of millennia, after all, how can safety measures be maintained? Already, the financing of cleanup and maintenance operations is proving difficult. On April 19, the Ukrainian government hosted an international donor conference in Kiev to raise money for the $1.1 billion concrete shelter. The government fell some $300 million short of that goal and is holding out for further pledges.
But even the gigantic concrete shield — which is 360 ft. (110 meters) high and weighs 29,000 tons — has a woefully brief life when measured in radiological time: it will need to be replaced in a century unless the extremely radioactive and molten core inside can be safely removed and stored somewhere else, itself an expensive and difficult operation.
"Neither Ukraine nor the world community has the right to turn its back [on Chernobyl]," Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said at the end of the conference. "The accident left a deep wound that we will have to cope with for many years."
Everything to do with radiation moves at an insidiously slow pace. Exposure to radioactive particles increases the risk of cancer, but the level of the danger depends on the dose and the age and health of the affected population. When radiation does kill, it can still take years. Around Chernobyl, no accurate dose estimates on the most heavily affected population were made until after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and, as a result, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine all use different techniques for measuring exposure. (Watch "Vacation in Chernobyl.")
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has estimated 16,000 cancer deaths for Europe through 2065 that never would have happened but for Chernobyl. Because radiation spread beyond Europe to other areas within the northern hemisphere — including Asia, Africa and the Americas — the nonprofit watchdog Union of Concerned Scientists puts the global death toll closer to 27,000. [Other estimates place the figure at a million – see Chernobyl death toll: 985,000, mostly from cancer @ http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/2010/11/chernobyl-death-toll-985000-mostly-from.html - New Illuminati ed.]
So far, health experts have been paradoxically more concerned about the millions of people who will not die from the dose of radiation they received but must forever live with the torment of not knowing for sure. For them, the toll is psychological. Some 300,000 residents near the power plant were evacuated and forced to leave on short notice. The dual stress of dislocation and uncertainty has, according to several international studies, led to anxiety levels twice as high in exposed populations as in controls. Such populations are also more likely to report multiple unexplained physical symptoms and subjective poor health, even though most medical experts attribute these symptoms not to radiation but to poverty, alcoholism and stress.
Millions of people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus who live in areas most affected by fallout receive some form of compensation for the Chernobyl accident, whether they show any symptoms or not.
But that may only be making matters worse. A 2005 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) says such compensation schemes have created a culture of dependency and victimhood. In Ukraine, for instance, recipients of benefits are designated "poterpily" — literally, sufferers. The report says, "The designation of the affected population as victims rather than 'survivors' has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future." (Watch "The Health Dangers of Radiation Exposure.")
Two years ago, the WHO launched a $2.5 million education program to spread the message that affected populations have little to fear from radiation. "We need to demystify the situation by passing on the message that [affected citizens] can live a normal life," says Dr. Maria Neira, the director of the WHO's Department of Public Health and Environment. "If you support this population but you don't put the mechanisms in place for their recovery, you create a population that feels assisted and you block their initiative and ability to move on."
That's an important lesson for Fukushima too, where the plant operator and government have already begun discussing compensation schemes. Preventing a culture of dependency from taking hold there, however, will be easier than reversing the one that's been in place for a quarter of a century in Ukraine. On April 17, several hundred of the some 500,000 "liquidators" who were exposed to high radiation doses during efforts to clean up the site in the weeks following the accident gathered in central Kiev to protest proposed cuts to benefits.
These half-million workers were part of some agonizing moral math for Soviet officials: their extremely high doses of radiation would be tolerated so as to lower the statistical risk of a shortened life for millions of people outside the plant.
"With our own hands, we protected Ukraine and half of Europe, and now we are suffering," says Yuriy Danilov, 66, an army officer who took part in the cleanup of Chernobyl. In the face of similar protests, past efforts to reform the benefits program have stalled. (Read "Fear Goes Nuclear.")
Whatever the final tally of dead, health officials say that the effects of Chernobyl pale in comparison to those caused by the economic and social turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But around Chernobyl, the two cataclysms remain linked, with the environmental devastation never allowing the region to benefit from the relative economic rebound in other parts of the country. Dzvinka Kachur of the U.N.'s Chernobyl Recovery and Development Program says zoning of radioactive areas around Chernobyl restricts investment from businesses, which simply increases the locals' dependency on benefits.
When U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Chernobyl on April 20, he told reporters, "Science has shown that normal life is fully possible for people living in the area affected by the Chernobyl disaster. What these areas need most is new jobs, fresh investment and the restoration of the sense of community."
In the years following Chernobyl, the nuclear industry claimed such an accident could never happen again. As of today, around 80,000 residents near Fukushima have been evacuated from their homes and may never be allowed to return. The afterlife of the Chernobyl accident offers a sobering reminder that the effects of radiation linger for generations. Radiation is, in the words of Princeton physics professor Socolow, "a fire that cannot be put out."
See pictures of an aging nuclear plant.
From Time @ http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2067562,00.html
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