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CIS: Effects Of Chornobyl Continue To Divide Experts

Safe to enter? A sign marking a restricted zone in Belarus near Chornobyl ( April 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-one  years after the terrible accident at the Chornobyl nuclear plant in present-day Ukraine on April 26, 1986, there continues to be disagreement over how seriously humans and the environment have been affected. RFE/RL's Heather Maher spoke to Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with environmental watchdog Greenpeace, to get his views on the issue.

(In a separate interview, Maher spoke to Thomas Tenfordee, a radiation scientist who has participated in studies with UN agencies and served on panels with scientists from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.)

RFE/RL: Greenpeace's report says that the "difficult truth about the Chornobyl catastrophe is that the worst effects are still to come." But a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that came out last year said the opposite, that the effects haven't been as bad as early predictions.

Jim Riccio: No of course not. Because cancer takes between 10 and 30 years to evince itself and we've only been down the road from the Chornobyl disaster for roughly 20 years, now 21 years, you still have a lot of the cancers yet to come. You have a lot of thyroid cancers as well as a lot of thyroid conditions that may later evince themselves in cancer. So that's what the report is talking about when it says we've only seen virtually the tip of the iceberg and we still have several years to see this play out.

RFE/RL: The IAEA says between 4,000 and 9,000 people either have, or will, die of radiogenic cancers as a result of the accident. They also say that the consequences of the accident have not been as bad as earlier projections predicted. Do you agree with those numbers, and that conclusion?
"Since IAEA's role is to promote nuclear [energy] we tend to believe that they would tend to downplay the significance. That has been the case over the last 20 years since the accident." -- Riccio

Riccio: No, we tend to believe that this has been downplayed and our concern is with the relationship between the IAEA and the World Health Organization. Basically because they're both UN organizations, there is a memorandum of understanding between the two. Since IAEA's role is to promote nuclear [energy] we tend to believe that they would tend to downplay the significance. That has been the case over the last 20 years since the accident.

And we believe that you shouldn't be downplaying the significance of this. If you are going to continue to use reactors you should be honest about the consequences. What Chornobyl proved to us is that you can turn a multimillion dollar asset into a multibillion dollar liability over night and what 'The Wall Street Journal' later revealed was that the cost of this accident was so great that the former Soviet Union would have been better off had they never split the first atom. So this one accident wiped out all the value ever generated by the Soviet system when they were producing electricity by splitting atoms. So again, you have the health consequences, you have the cost consequences, and since you have the nuclear industry trying to sell itself as an answer to climate change, which it is not, I think we have to be honest about the consequences about the potential use of nuclear power, and Chornobyl is one of them.

RFE/RL: How does Greenpeace assess the ecological impact of the accident, 21 years on?

Riccio: Well it's interesting. I had a discussion with a gentleman [recently] who said, 'It's a biologically diverse zone,' which to my mind is actually sophistry. Yes, we had to evacuate a large area of land around Chornobyl and I'm sure that that had some impact because you didn't have human development as prominent as it once was, but to claim that a nuclear accident is a way to increase biological diversity seems to me to be basically ignoring the human consequence of what is basically a tragedy.

RFE/RL: People in the affected region are now being told that it's safe to go back into the areas that were evacuated, and the IAEA has said that one of the biggest things that needs addressing now is the public fear and stress about resettlement. Do you agree?

Riccio: To my mind this industry, and this agency, the IAEA have been busy whitewashing this tragedy since the day it occurred. And if they're going to foist upon the public another generation of nuclear power plants they have to make this accident go away. And it won't because we're going to be experiencing the cancers, and we're going to be experiencing the heartache for at least another 10 years and then we have to look at the genetic effects as well.

RFE/RL: Last year was the 20th anniversary of the accident, and that milestone saw major reports released and conferences of experts convened. Have any joint conclusions been reached in the past year?

Riccio: No, I think what you have going on is a battle of experts between the experts that were cited in our report versus the people that the IAEA will line up to tell you that everything is fine and safe and you can go back to farming land that's contaminated. So I believe at this point you're not really going to find much room for agreement, although I think that as more studies come out and as this becomes documented even further, it's going to be harder and harder for the IAEA and the nuclear industry to downplay the significance of this accident.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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