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Chornobyl 20 Years After: What Lessons Have Been Learned?

  • Robert Parsons --> The Chornobyl nuclear plant today (epa) Twenty years ago in the early morning of April 26, while most of Europe lay oblivious and asleep, a chain of events had begun in Soviet Ukraine that was to unleash a catastrophe of unprecedented scale. At 1:23 a.m., a massive surge of power in the fourth reactor at the huge Chornobyl (Chernobyl) power station triggered an explosion that lifted the 1,000-ton lid off the reactor's core. Within hours a column of radioactive material some 1 kilometer high was drifting northwest across Europe. As panic gripped the continent, hundreds of thousands of people, many of them volunteers, fought with astonishing courage to control the accident. Twenty years on, what are the lessons of Chornobyl and what are its consequences? RFE/RL traveled to the nearby town of Slavutych to find the answer.

SLAVUTYCH, Ukraine; April 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- There is an unnatural stillness to Slavutych, a town constructed 50 kilometers from Chornobyl with the specific purpose of housing staff evacuated from nuclear plant.

Even at midday, the town is nearly silent, with the occasional shopper or group of schoolchildren only emphasizing the lonely atmosphere.

This town was built as a showcase and a demonstration of the indomitable human spirit, but in its own way, it too has become a testimony to tragedy.

Chornobyl No Longer Source Of Support

Its energetic mayor, Volodymyr Udovychenko, who is himself a former employee of the nuclear power station, is a tireless advocate of the Slavutych cause. He argues that the Ukrainian government undertook to guarantee jobs for the workers laid off by the closure of Chornobyl.

"The main problem today is the budget problem of Slavutych -- and that's not even addressing the issues of medical care," Udovychenko says. "It's not right to apply the same standards for the workforce of the Chornobyl atomic station as we have in the rest of Ukraine. Here in Slavutych there are 8,000 people who took part, one way or another, in the containment of the explosion and the cleanup. We can say that the government of Ukraine is not fulfilling its commitments made when closing the Chornobyl nuclear power station."

"When you have a catastrophe like this, in the beginning you have a lot of resources and a lot of focus coming from national government and from all over the world. But when it comes back to ordinary days, it's the local authorities who have to meet the needs of the local population."

Udovychenko is talking about unemployment. Built as a model town, the continued dependence of Slavutych on the station threatens it with ruin.

"In 1999 we still had 10,000 jobs here at the power station," he says. "Today, we're down to 3,620. In other words, we've been through a huge transformation. But if we lose those jobs as well, it will be a catastrophe for Slavutych."

UN Report Says Threat Exaggerated

In September 2005, the UN-sponsored Chernobyl Forum presented the conclusions of its digest report on Chornobyl's legacy, a massive 600-page analysis incorporating the work of hundreds of scientists and experts. It is the most thorough examination yet made of the health, sociological, environmental, and economic consequences of the accident.

A 12-year-old leukemia patient at a Donetsk, Ukraine, hospital this month (epa)

It argues that so far fewer than 50 people have died of causes directly attributable to radiation from the disaster but that, ultimately, several thousand could die from fatal cancers, in addition to the 100,000 cancer deaths expected in the region from other causes.

This is a far cry from the early predictions of a worldwide radiation-induced health disaster in which thousands would die from radiation sickness.

But, it says, less is understood about the dramatic increase in psychological problems caused by insufficient communication about radiation affects, the social disruption of evacuation, and economic depression.

Chornobyl's Unexpected Impact

Volodymyr Berkovsky of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Research Center for Radiation Medicine shares the report's view that the mental-health impact of Chornobyl is the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date.

"Unfortunately, we cannot discuss mental problems in terms of numbers like we discuss morbidity or mortality," he says. "It's rather subjective. It could be the consequence of accident. It could be something like simultaneous action of total problem in country plus Chornobyl. It is mostly superposition of different factors -- of economic problem, of economic stagnation, contamination, and so on."

Perhaps it is the subjective nature of the problem that has caused it to be somewhat neglected. The report notes that the psychological distress arising from the accident has been particularly acute among the 330,000 people evacuated and then relocated from the region most affected by the accident.

As the example of Slavutych shows, unemployment is one of the biggest consequences of the disaster. The station has shut down and the local economy all but collapsed. But, relatively speaking, the people of Slavutych have been privileged.

Most of the evacuees, the report says, have had huge difficulties adjusting to the disruption in their lives. They feel rootless and unwanted and share a fatalistic belief that their life expectancy has been reduced by exposure to radiation.

At the heart of the problem, the report argues, lies the failure of first the Soviet authorities and then subsequently the Ukrainian authorities to provide full information. Chornobyl has left a legacy of mistrust.

Giving Back Hope

Yes Anders Knape, a vice president of the Bureau of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, thinks lessons should and can be learned. Knape was attending a conference organized in March by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe in Slavutych to share his experiences as deputy mayor of the Swedish city of Karlstadt, another town heavily dependent on nuclear energy.

The key, he says, is information. The local people need to be properly informed of the risks of living in the vicinity of a nuclear power station and trained to know what to do when things go wrong. Like many, he believes the scale of the evacuation was greater than it should have been:

"The reaction [at the time] was that the catastrophe was bigger than we can see [it was] today," he says. "Today we know we haven't had the extreme dimensions of people killed or of areas you can't live in and things like that. So that's very important to give back to people their hopes for the future, give back their land, give back their opportunities for work and living also in areas close to Chornobyl."

The UN suggests that many of the contaminated areas are ready for rehabitation (UkrInform)

But it's not just more information that's needed. Knape argues that you need greater popular involvement in government as well. "When you have a catastrophe like this, in the beginning you have a lot of resources and a lot of focus coming from national government and from all over the world," he says.

"But when it comes back to ordinary days, it's the local authorities who have to meet the needs of the local population," he continues. "Of course, if you have an open and democratic local society, you also have a better chance to handle these types of situation."

Controversially, perhaps, the UN-sponsored Chernobyl Forum report argues that most of the contaminated territories are now safe for settlement and economic activity. Radiation levels, it maintains, have fallen several hundred times because of natural processes and countermeasures. Only in this way, it suggests, will it be possible for the evacuees of Chornobyl to begin the long process of reclaiming their lives.
The New Sarcophagus
Repair work being carried out at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in October 1986 (epa)

AT GROUND ZERO: The explosion and fire at Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor in April 1986 generated extensive spread of radioactive material and a large amount of radioactive waste at the plant site and in the surrounding area. Between May and November 1986, a temporary sarcophagus was built at the site with the goal of quickly reducing on-site radiation levels and the further release of radioactive materials into the environment.
The sarcophagus was erected quickly and under extremely difficult conditions, including the severe radiation exposure of construction workers. Because of efforts to complete the work quickly, imperfections were introduced in the structure. In addition, moisture-induced corrosion over the last 20 years has further degraded the construction. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, "the main potential hazard of the shelter is a possible collapse of its top structures and release of radioactive dust into the environment."
Plans have been developed to create a new structure, called the New Safe Confinement (NSC), over the No. 4 reactor. The NSC is designed to have a 100-year service life, and to allow for the dismantlement of the current sarcophagus and the removal of highly radioactive fuel from the reactor. NSC construction was originally scheduled to be completed in 2005, but has been repeatedly postponed. According to the latest schedule, the work is expected to be finished in February 2008. Actual construction work is expected to begin in the summer of 2006. (RFE/RL)

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