As Japan approaches meltdown, reflections on Chornobyl

As the world watches Japan teeter on the edge of meltdown in its Fukushima nuclear plant, many columnists are reflecting on previous ones including Chornobyl in Ukraine as its 25th anniversary approaches on April 26th. While many articles focus on human suffering of the event, few go deeper and acknowledge the dangerous legacy of Soviet secrecy, denial of events and even favoured evacuation that led to this tragedy:

At first, authorities denied there was a problem. When they finally admitted the truth more than a day later, many thousands of inhabitants simply picked up a few of their belongings and headed off – many of them to the capital Kiev 80 km (50 miles) to the south, never to return. Iryna Lobanova, 44, a civil servant, was due to get married in Prypyat on the day of the explosion but assumed all ceremonies would be canceled. “I thought that war had started,” she told Reuters this week. “But the local authorities told us go on with all planned ceremonies.” Nobody was allowed to leave the town until the official evacuation was announced on the Sunday” – 36 hours later – “following an order from Moscow,” she said.

The disaster and the government’s handling of it highlighted the shortcomings of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy. Journalists subsequently uncovered evidence that the children of Communist apparatchiks had been evacuated well before others and some staff died at the plant because they had not been given orders to leave. — The official short-term death toll from the accident was 31 but many more people died of radiation-related sicknesses such as cancer. The total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate even 25 years after the disaster.

a 2009 book by a group of Russian and Belarussian scientists published by the New York Academy of Sciences argued that previous studies were misled by rigged Soviet statistics. “The official position of the Chernobyl Forum (a group of UN agencies) is that about 9,000 related deaths have occurred and some 200,000 people have illnesses caused by the catastrophe,” authors Alexei Yablokov, Vasily Nesterenko and Alexei Nesterenko wrote in “Chernobyl: Consequences of the catastrophe for people and the Environment.” “A more accurate number estimates nearly 400 million human beings have been exposed to Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout and, for many generations, they and their descendants will suffer the devastating consequences.” The authors argued that the global death toll by 2004 was closer to 1 million and said health effects included birth defects, pregnancy losses, accelerated aging, brain damage, heart, endocrine, kidney, gastrointestinal and lung diseases.

Officials say Ukraine is likely to spend billions of euros on confinement upkeep costs before it finds a way to bury the reactor components, perhaps under layers of underground granite rocks

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Some argue the downplay of the death toll is an effort to reduce neighbouring aid. And while Ukraine is left with the burden and exuberant cost of the aftermath, why is not the Soviet Union’s legal successor, Russia, not forced to share in the responsibility?

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