Have we learned anything from Chernobyl? By Margaret Logan

From Eugene Weekly

Nuclear Fire

Have we learned anything from Chernobyl?


On April 26, 1986, in Pripyat, Ukraine, Chernobyl Reactor #4 suffered a power increase, which caused the whole plant to burn. On the night of the incident, Chernobyl’s staff ran a safety drill. An automatic shutdown was supposed to happen in case of low water levels. But operators, who lacked proper training, blocked the automatic shutdown mechanism, because they thought the shutdown would abort the test. The coolant started boiling in the reactor, and reactor power slowly increased, which caused Reactor #4 to explode.

Alerted in the middle of the night, 186 firefighters came to put out the fire; 28 of these “liquidators” died immediately from acute radiation syndrome, and 19 died soon after. Chernobyl released high levels of radioactive iodine. People who lived in the contaminated area, especially children, were exposed to radioactive iodine after the explosion, and later developed thyroid cancer.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Chernobyl’s death toll is about 4,000, but this estimate concerns only the immediate area around Chernobyl. Anti-nuclear organizations, such as Greenpeace, say that the death toll globally will reach 985,000, due to increased cancer worldwide. The radioactive cloud didn’t just affect Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and places around the accident area — it spread all the way to Sweden, Greece, and some of the United Kingdom.

Pripyat, now deserted, is no longer livable, and physicians say the area will not be habitable for another 20,000 years. But more than 1 million children continue to live in contaminated zones near Pripyat. There are no long-term solutions.

Helicopters poured 5,000 metric tons of sand, lead, clay and neutron-absorbing boron over Chernobyl, but cracks developed in this containment building. The Chernobyl Shelter Fund, set up by the U.S., European Union and Ukraine, started building a new “confinement” in 2010, to keep the radioactive debris in. They say it will be finished in 2015, and will be able to withstand a tornado. But will it last 20,000 years?

After Chernobyl, government agencies said things like “The plant was just poorly constructed. Accidents like Chernobyl rarely happen … they won’t make a nuclear plant like that again.” But the latest nuclear disaster of Fukushima happened in 2011, 25 years after Chernobyl, and it is considered just as bad as Chernobyl. If major nuclear disasters keep happening, how long will it be until the whole world becomes uninhabitable, like Pripyat?

If we just stop using nuclear plants, we can decrease the chance of a nuclear disaster, but nuclear power plants generate 14 percent of the world’s electricity. Some countries are even more dependent on nuclear energy: France, for instance, depends on nuclear power for over 72 percent of its electricity. Even if we stop using nuclear energy, the radioactive waste from previous nuclear plants will be around for centuries. And there are already dozens of commercial nuclear reactors planned for Iran, India, China, Korea, Russia, Argentina, Solvakia, Taiwan, Japan, Finland, France, Pakistan, Romania, the U.S., etc.

Maybe if people were more educated on the impact and harm nuclear plants can do, we could try to stop the construction of even more nuclear reactors.