Twenty-five years ago, the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident happened at the Chernobyl nuclear station in northern Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union.
Workers had shut off key emergency equipment while conducting a test and then did not respond to warnings that the reactor was out of control — and spewing a volcano-like plume of deadly radioactivity. This went on for nine days, with winds carrying radioactive material to surrounding farms and towns in Byelorussia, the Ukraine, and then onto the rest of Europe, including Austria, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Germany (mainly Bavaria), the United Kingdom, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Sweden and Switzerland. Lower levels of radiation reached Denmark, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Yugoslavia and several other European nations.
The Chernobyl disaster was ranked a seven by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.
These are just some of the effects on human health and on the environment, according to Oxford University Press’s blog:
- around 600,000 people have been “significantly exposed” to radiation from the Chernobyl accident
- thousands of people have developed radiation sickness from exposure to contamination produced by the explosion and subsequent fire
- 270,000 people still live in areas sufficiently contaminated to require ongoing protection measures
- a sharp increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer in children since 1989 in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia
- soil and water pollution in twenty-two provinces of the former Soviet Union, as well as in several foreign countries
- over 100,000 hectares of agricultural land — some of the world’s richest soils — in northern Ukraine have had to be abandoned
- meat and dairy products had to be destroyed, while deformed calves and pigs were born on nearby collective farms
The New York Times describes some disturbing similarities between the Chernobyl disaster and the March 11th calamity at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, where three nuclears reactors partially melted down following a massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami:
…when a heedless experiment with fuel rods caused the No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl to blow, there was no public echo. No cellphones or social networks relayed the news, as they would today.
It took the official news agency TASS three days to acknowledge, in terse sentences, that there had been an accident.
In the end, the impact of Chernobyl proved too great even for the Soviet state apparatus. Mikhail S. Gorbachev, then the leader, was trying to open up his country and eventually used the enormity of the accident to get the Soviet media to tell a bit more of the dreadful truth.
Like the Soviet Union then, the Japanese government has offered changing, and sometimes conflicting, accounts about the radiation levels at Fukushima that have led the international community to have serious doubts about “the openness of the Japanese operator and government.” That is, Japan’s response to the Fukushima disaster has brought up troubling comparisons to the delayed response of the Soviet Union to release information about Chernobyl. Even today, Soviet officials “stand by what many experts regard as an absurdly low accident toll — including the 31 people the government said died of radiation sickness in the initial weeks.”
Nonetheless, while the Fukushima disaster has also been ranked as a seven by the IAEA, the two disasters are, as Osha Gray Davidson writes at Forbes, very different:
The Soviet police-state clampdown on information about Chernobyl was many times worse. People surrounding the area (in what is now Ukraine) were told that a nuclear power plant had experienced only a minor accident. They weren’t told that plumes of intensely radioactive smoke were blowing across fields where dairy cows grazed. Unsuspecting resident gave their children milk with high levels of radioactive iodine, causing a spike in thyroid cancers starting ten years later.
Although thyroid cancer is treatable if caught early, and rarely results in death, the residents around Chernobyl were never told that they had been exposed to radiation and needed annual thyroid checkups. Many died needlessly.
One of the biggest differences between what happened at Chernobyl and the crisis at Fukushima is the amount of resources the two countries possess to minimize long-term effects. The Soviet Union was, we now know, facing financial collapse. Though it spent billions on Chernobyl, it simply abandoned vast amounts of contaminated land — making them into exclusions zones.
Japan has far more resources than the Soviet Union did in 1986 and than Ukraine has today. But whether the Fukushima disaster will make Japan’s nuclear program safer remains to be seen. As Davidson notes, Japan relied on oil imports for 66 percent of its electricity in 1974; today — in no small part because of its nuclear program — Japan relies on oil for only 10 percent of its power needs.
Both Chernobyl and Fukushima reinforce a terrible lesson: “Humans can fashion both wonder and horror with technology.”
Photo of an abandoned village near Chernobyl by slawojar 小山 (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons