Category Archives: chornobyl

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?

24th Anniversary of Chornobyl today

Last year’s article on the Soviet cover-up of Chornobyl (that’s how it’s spelled in Ukrainian as opposed to Chernobyl in Russian) is still as relevant as ever. Today one of the co-founders of the U.S. Ukraine Foundation, Robert A. McConnell made a statement to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on Chornobyl and nuclear weapons:

During the evening of April 26, 1986 – 24 years ago – there was an explosion at one of the reactors of the Chornobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine, a fact now well known throughout the world.However, even today we do not have a complete understanding or information about the consequences of this disaster then and its ongoing ramifications because the Soviet Union took on a major cover-up of this nuclear explosion.

Moscow, which then still controlled all dissemination of information throughout the Soviet Union, did not announce or warn the people of Ukraine or nearby Belarus of the Chornobyl accident. When European scientists raised an alarm, on the morning of April 28, Moscow initially denied an accident had occurred.

The accident was played down and life went on as usual in the Soviet state. Though, as was later learned, Kyiv’s Communist political elite knew, or had suspicions about the disaster and began to evacuate their families, within the first 72 hours after the explosion. However, millions of people within 100 kilometers of Chornobyl, which included Kyiv, and outlying suburbs and villages, had no information whatsoever.

On April 30, the lead story in Soviet media was about flowers in Ukraine and preparations for the May Day parade. The public was assured that “the air and water around Kyiv was fine,” though we now know the radiation plume returned over Kyiv with increasing amounts of radiation.

Not until May 5 – 10 days after the explosion – and only after public outcry from Europe and government pressure from the West did the Kremlin admit to the completely uncontained nature of the explosion and the extent of the radioactive disaster.

However, Soviet authorities held steadfast to their decision that no Western aid – none – would be sent to Ukraine. American doctors were allowed to fly into Moscow to assist there, but none were allowed into Ukraine. These aid efforts were reported and highlighted in the West but the disparaging treatment of the people of Ukraine, the people most affected, never seemed to trigger any genuine official or media outrage.

Eventually, significantly more than a year after the nuclear explosion, Western aid finally was allowed into Ukraine. No one will ever be able to define adequately the human cost of the unnecessary delay.

This information is important to place into context, not only to the reality and the implications of this reality within Ukraine, but to add a critical perspective to the history of the American’s on-again, off-again infatuation with Moscow and our frequently myopic Russo-centric attitudes and policies.

If ever there is a country that has had both a reason and a determination to be nuclear-free, it is Ukraine. Ukraine’s actions did not stop with declarations, but continued after independence. Ukraine acted upon its declaration: officials sought a way to dismantle and dispose of aging nuclear missiles. As mentioned earlier, in the early 1990s, the last people Ukraine trusted with anything that could endanger the lives of the people of Ukraine were the power elite in Russia, under the direction of the Kremlin. Ukrainian officials wanted to turn over Ukraine’s warheads to the United States and said so many times, on many occasions. Moscow, however, vehemently protested Ukraine’s position, insisting that the warheads be delivered to Russia.

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Meanwhile residents in nearby village too poor to live elsewhere are still suffering and dying from this catastrophe, and while the exploded reactor is encased, the shell is deteriorating and internationally funded work to replace the shell is far behind schedule.

The death toll from the Chernobyl disaster is not well documented. Officially there were 56 fatalities, mostly from radiation poisoning after the event. However, a cover-up by Soviet authorities has spurred much speculation over what the long-term effects of the incident are. Outbreaks of cancers and birth defects have been blamed on the Chernobyl disaster but never scientifically substantiated. [Wired]

Remembering Chornobyl

23 years ago

On April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the town of Pripyat, Ukraine exploded. The explosion took place around midnight while the neighboring town of Pripyat slept. 4 workers were killed instantly. Four days later, the residents of Pripyat were ordered to evacuate. The residents never returned and the town still remains uninhabited to this day.

While we should never forget the tragedy and who it affected, never forget who allowed it to happen and let innocent people suffer:

The first warning came in Sweden. At 9 a.m. on Monday, April 28, technicians at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, 60 miles north of Stockholm, noticed disturbing signals blipping across their computer screens.

Two days later, Sweden noticed the radiated pollution before the Soviet authorities mentioned anything!

A glance at prevailing wind patterns confirmed their fear. For several days, currents of air had been whipping up from the Black Sea, across the Ukraine, over the Baltic and into Scandinavia. But when the Swedes and their neighbors demanded an explanation from Moscow, they were met by denials and stony silence. For six hours, as officials throughout Scandinavia insisted that something was dangerously amiss, the Soviets steadfastly maintained that nothing untoward had happened.

Throughout the week, an anxious, puzzled and increasingly frustrated world struggled to understand the extent of the disaster. The task was made impossibly difficult by the Soviets’ stubborn refusal to provide anything more than a few sketchy details. Moscow’s obstinance condemned people everywhere to fragmentary and often conflicting accounts that tended to shift abruptly as new facts became known. Not until the weekend did a Soviet official come forth with the beginnings of a straightforward account.

….

While Soviet pronouncements sought to minimize the extent of the damage, information gathered from satellite photos suggested a hellish scene at the accident site. All evidence pointed to a nuclear reactor fire burning out of control in the gentle, rolling Ukrainian countryside and steadily releasing radiation into the air. That makes the catastrophe unimaginably worse than the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, where a containment building kept most radioactive material from escaping out of the plant. The Chernobyl unit, by contrast, lacked such a protective structure.

Why lose face in front of your global peers when you can let your second class citizens (the Ukrainians) suffer in silence instead?

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