Chernobyl nightmare haunts world 25 years on

The world next week remembers 25 years since the worst nuclear accident in history at Chernobyl
Military helicopter is seen spreading a chemical compound to reduce the contamination of the air full of radioactive elements above the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in 1986, a few days after its No. 4 reactor's blast, the world's worst nuclear accident of the 20th century.

The world next week remembers 25 years since the worst nuclear accident in history at Chernobyl, haunted by fears that the Japan earthquake has shown again the risk of atomic power sparking apocalypse.

Chernobyl has become a byword for environmental catastrophe, with the explosion at 1:23 am on April 26, 1986 realising the worst nightmare of what can happen when a goes wrong.

Workers were testing the Unit 4 reactor at when design flaws allowed an uncontrollable power surge, sparking explosions that completely destroyed the reactor and released five percent of its radioactive material into the atmosphere.

The radioactive matter settled in the nearby area and also blew over neighbouring regions in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and even Western Europe, leaving a legacy of contamination that remains to this day.

The disaster became notorious for the reluctance of the then Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev to admit the disaster, only releasing news of the catastrophe three days after it had happened.

In 1986 and 1987, the Soviet government sent half a million rescue workers (known as liquidators) -- still celebrated as heroes for their selfless courage -- to clear up the power station and decontaminate the surrounding area.

The resonance of Chernobyl was shown again when the Japanese earthquake damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, releasing radiation into the surrounding area and immediately raising fears of a "new Chernobyl".

The damage at Fukushima reawakened the world's nightmares of nuclear disaster, prompting Germany to announce a moratorium on plans to extend the life of its nuclear power plants.

"The situation in Japan has shown nothing has changed in 25 years, neither the understanding of the danger nor the behaviour of the authorities," Ivan Blokov, director of programmes at Greenpeace Russia, told AFP.

Map of Europe showing radioactive contamination from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster
Map of Europe showing radioactive contamination from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, with details of the consequences

But despite the notoriety of Chernobyl, controversy has raged for years even between the UN's own agencies over the number of deaths directly caused by the disaster, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to dozens.

There is no doubt over the immediate impact.

One worker at the plant was killed immediately in the explosion and another died shortly afterwards in hospital. In the subsequent weeks, 28 plant staff and rescue workers sent to the scene died of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS).

But agreement on the numbers ends there. In 2005, several UN agencies including the World Health Organisation, said in a report a total of 4,000 people could eventually die as a result of the radiation exposure.

But the UN Scientific Committee on Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) says only 19 ARS survivors had died by 2006 for various reasons not usually associated with radiation exposure.

In its latest February 2011 report it said there were 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer that were due to children drinking contaminated milk at the time of which 15 had proved fatal by 2005.

There was "no persuasive evidence" of any other effect on the general population as a result of radiation, it said.

But environmental campaign group Greenpeace in 2006 accused the UN agencies of grossly underestimating the toll, saying there would be an estimated 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl.

Chernobyl has become a byword for environmental catastrophe
On April 30, 1986, Soviet television showed this picture of the Tchernobyl plant on which a half-destroyed building could be seen, but commentary said there had been "no destruction, nor big fires nor major casualties."

A quarter-century after the disaster, concern remains over preventing the ruins of the reactor from wreaking further damage on the environment.

The Soviet authorities rapidly put up a supposedly temporary concrete shelter, dubbed the sarcophagus, to protect the destroyed reactor but there have long been worries about its durability and the highly radioactive material still embedded within.

A new sarcophagus is being built nearby and is scheduled to be erected over the reactor in the next years.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is running the project, has received almost $1 billion in donations but still needs another $600 million and is hoping for pledges at a Kiev conference this week.

The Chernobyl disaster in no way deterred the former Soviet Union from nuclear energy and the soul-searching seen after the Fukushima disaster in Europe has not been matched in Belarus, Russia or Ukraine.

Nuclear power remains vital for Ukraine, a country of 46 million with relatively few natural energy resources and a politically unwelcome dependence on Russia for its gas supplies.

Chernobyl disaster left a legacy of contamination that remains to this day
Oxana Gaibon (R),17,and Alla Kozimierka,15, both victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, are pictured receiving infrared radiation treatment at a children hospital in Havana. The girls, along with hundreds of other contaminated Russian and Ukranian adolescents, received free medical treatment in Cuba as part of a humanitarian project.

Even Chernobyl itself continued producing energy until well after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reactor number two shut after a fire in 1991, reactor number one closed in 1997 but reactor number three continued working right up until December 2000.

Ukraine has 15 reactors working at four plants in Rivne, Khmelnytsky, South Ukraine and Zaporizhia and the government is planning with Russian help to build two more reactors at Khmelnytsky by 2017.

Half a decade after the disaster the Soviet Union collapsed, with local leaders in Belarus and Ukraine using Chernobyl to argue that Moscow was incapable of looking after their peoples.

"Chernobyl was the nail in the coffin of the USSR. It clearly showed that the situation had escaped out of the control of the authorities," said Russian political commentator Dmitry Oreshkin.

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(c) 2011 AFP

Citation: Chernobyl nightmare haunts world 25 years on (2011, April 17) retrieved 23 August 2019 from
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Apr 17, 2011
I don't understand why people listen to Greenpeace on anything.

They have a track record of lying and cheating at every turn they can get away with, because they're not interested in saving the environment directly, but through social change. They're not interested in fixing what's wrong with the current system, but just throwing sticks in the gears where they see a potential weak spot to shut down the entire machine.

Nuclear energy is their number one enemy because it actually accomplishes something. It threatens the sort of limited energy use "sustainable" society that Greenpeace advocates, because the free availability of resources undermines the rhetorics of "a man gains only at the loss of another man or at the loss of nature, so it is our responsibility to control and limit everything.".

The fundamental idea is that because they can't justify their version of socialism in this reality, they have to change the reality into something in which they are right.

Apr 17, 2011
We have cold fusion, which has been verified recently at Swedish Skeptic Society. The radioactive fission is as obsolete source of energy, like the burning of wood at piles in medieval times. We are risking for nothing.

Apr 17, 2011
Greenpeace estimates 93,000 over many years? THAT'S IT!

Ok so where is the apocalypse you say nuclear disasters cause/

Fossil Fuels - global warming with the eventual deadly relocations of BILLIONS of people that will cause the death of millions

Add in the millions who are too poor to move as their land and life are swallowed by the waves.

Should we forget the millions upon millions who have died of various cancers that are caused by the corcinogens that are part of fossil fuels over the years.

THAT IS FAIR after all.

Since you seem to get into a near panic over the "potential" #s that could end up victims of nuclear poisoning, it makes sense to apply the same irrational thinking to the wholesale ongoing, non-stop DEVASTATION to the PLANET from using fossil fuels.

It does NOT matter if we want to stop it.

You are measuring the impact.

By that measure Nuclear in terms of deaths even Greenpeace's estimate are a BARGAIN in terms of lives lost vs. fossil fuel.

Apr 17, 2011
Besides nuclear power is economically unfeasible, it needs a taxpayer's guaranty for the bonds to build the plant and then the private owner reap the profits until there is a disaster. It doesn't take a genius to figure out who suffers the loses then.

That effect is mostly caused by the public opposition to building nuclear power. Once they get a permission to build one reactor, they have to make it a massive monstrosity that cannot be guaranteed to be safe under all conditions, and they have to put it far away from the consumers, and as a result all of its systems have to be six times redundant to beat all the odds.

It all adds up cost, and yet still nuclear energy is among the cheapest options there is.

A smaller reactor would be a safer reactor because the heat production scales with volume, and the ability to shed heat scales with surface area. That means a smaller reactor can shed heat and avoid a meltdown where a larger reactor will blow its top without active cooling

Apr 18, 2011
It doesn't haunt me, or anyone I know. In fact, most people would answer "huh?" if asked about it.

Read Jonseer... above.

Apr 18, 2011
Beelize54 says "We have cold fusion, which has been verified recently at Swedish Skeptic Society. The radioactive fission is as obsolete source of energy, like the burning of wood at piles in medieval times. We are risking for nothing."
After 20 years is it possible that someone still believes that the supposed "cold fusion" is a viable source of energy? Go back to school before making comments!

Apr 18, 2011
A badly written article by an reporter without proper scientific verification.
During Year 1, post Chernobyl accident, newly arrived medics helped confirmed thyroid cancer was x3 higher - due to lack of prior medical staff who had missed 2 out of 3 cases pre-Chernobyl. Thyroid cancer takes 5 years to develope NOT 1 year and is/was readily treatable.
Continued use of nuclear power is essential if it is all you have for your country - No gas, oil, hydro, coal of your own (and certainly NO power from fusion), winter temperatures of -10 to -20 and no fuel for cooking.
Yes, there were verifiable deaths from radiation - the Pripyat fire-fighters dowsing fires in the first hours by the esential hydrogen store beside the reactor in beta/gamma doserates of 2-3 Sv/h from core elements on the ground around them. After their shift they (some 2 dozen) reported to hospital where they died over the following month.The engineers at Fukushima are better managed - ~100mSv, NOT Sv as at Chernobyl

Apr 18, 2011
-"Cold fusion" has never been observed and replicated by scientists.

-Nuclear fission reactors can be harmful if not properly regulated and designed, but with the new reactors, about 60 years of practice, and the ability to recycle most of the "spent" Uranium rods (as France does), pollution vs. energy output is one of the best out of all the energy sources CURRENTLY available.

-Nuclear fission is relatively safe compared to other COMPETING energy sources, namely coal/oil (wind and solar are currently not feasable as a large scale energy source, and there are only so many rivers to dam up for hydroelectric).

That being said, I do hope we can find a safe, economical, and practical energy source (perhaps "regular" nuclear fusion, or solar power if we are able to increase the efficiency, and mass produce the panels with limited pollution at low costs).

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