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The Paradoxical Atom | Rise of the Nuclear Age | From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Cold War | The Industrial Atom | Chernobyl and Beyond | Concluding Comments

IV. Chernobyl and Beyond | Timeline

Invisible: Impact on People, Regions and the Atom Itself

The invisible side of Chernobyl has become, paradoxically, more and more visible. Specialists have documented long term environmental and public health costs, especially to children and young adults (leukemia, thyroid problems). There is some debate about the extent of those costs. Recent IAEA studies suggest that initial projections that between 5,000 and 50,000 people would die from such cancers as leukemia as a direct result of the disaster were exaggerated. But there is no way of knowing how many people were exposed to what levels of radiation, nor how many will die. Soviet officials never established a directory of individuals who were effected by Chernobyl, neither residents of Pripyat, where 50,000 people lived, nor the 100,000s of soldiers who came to eradicate the disaster. After the explosion and evacuation of Pripyat, Chernobyl reactors 1 and 2 (of four) continued to operate on and off until 1998. The operators for the station and their families lived in Slavutych, some 35 km away. Because of the promise of new apartments, many young people came to Slavutych where they married and had families. The rates of birth defects in Slavutych are higher than expected. It may also be pointed out that the IAEA study comes from an organization that promotes nuclear energy, so selecting the lower bounds of the potential human costs of the Chernobyl disaster must be seen in that light.

The political costs of Chernobyl were equally astounding and not immediately recognized. Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the USSR in 1985 promising perestroika and glasnost. The requirement of openness suggested that reporting from Chernobyl would, for the start, have to be direct, clear and unambiguous. Yet for the first week, the reports coming out of Chernobyl and communicated to the nation on television and in the press were at best incomplete. It may be that the people on the ground in Chernobyl did not fully comprehend the dangers, or that Ukrainian party officials wished to avoid responsibility. Whatever the case, the initial failure to be open about Chernobyl to the Soviet people and the world put great pressure on the legitimacy of the Gorbachev regime.

Chernobyl triggered reevaluation of the place of atomic energy in future energy projections. T he atomic industry suffered as a consequence. Since the explosion no new reactor orders have been placed in the United States. In the USSR (now Russia), the Ministry of Atomic Energy had to abandon plans to build any more Chernobyl-type reactors, and the effort to embark on a new era of atomic energy in Russia has been slowed considerably. O fficials ordered all existing Chernobyl-type reactors to be operated under a new safety regime which meant lower power and lower efficiency. Utimately, the USSR abandoned this reactor type, and, under pressure from the European Union, Lithuania has agreed to close its two Ignalina 1,500 MW RBMK reactors by 2010. This will have significant social and economic costs because Lithuania will have to get its electrical energy from other sources, it currently sells electrical energy to Russia and elsewhere, and reactor personnel will become redundant.

The Chernobyl disaster also emboldened anti-Soviet thinking about the way in which the USSR had exploited its own people and the nations of Eastern Europe. Many activists contended that the USSR’s resource management and energy production policies served Moscow and the center, not the republics. They argued that the republics had become epicenters of environmental degradation, the site for facilities that Russia itself refused to build. Chernobyl triggered national liberation movements. At first, these movements were tied closely to an anti-nuclear sentiments, especially in Ukraine and Lithuania.

Visible: The Explosion of Block No. 4, Evacuation and Fighting the Danger

On April 25, 1986, as the result of a poorly conducted and foolishly conceived experiment, the no.4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, just 90 km north of the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, exploded. The explosion killed dozens of people immediately (mostly the firemen who had rushed in to douse the fire, all without proper safety equipment, and also those in the control room), and spread dangerous radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere and around the surrounding land in Ukraine, Belarus’, parts of Russia, indeed throughout the northern hemisphere. Three days later, officials belatedly ordered all of the inhabitants of Pripyat, the town were operators and their families lived to be evacuated, indeed evacuated a 30 km diameter region (’the exclusion zone’) that still exists. Over the next half year, officials formulated a complex program to eradicate the radioactive fallout, using hundreds of thousands of young soldiers and other ’volunteers,’and built a sarcophagus over unit no. 4.

The sarcophagus was built in the most dangerous possible circumstances: with high levels of radiation, with the need to put concrete footings on and around a structure that had been destroyed in an explosion. The sarcophagus was built with large, open ’windows’ to allow heat to escape. Inside radioactive dust and particulate fill the air to this day. Ukraine has requested several billion dollars from the G8 to build another sarcophagus or structure over the existing one. Officials fear it may collapse, causing a radioactive sandstorm.

The explosion itself was caused by an inappropriate, unsafe and poorly carried out experiment, and reflected a kind of hubris among nuclear engineers in the Soviet and East European establishment that accidents were highly unlikely. They wished to see how long turbines would spin and produce electricity after the reactor had been shut down. The inertial electricity might power safety equipment until emergency generators came on line. But because of a series of  missteps, engineers had disabled all of the safety equipment on the reactor. When a power surge caused by poor design occurred, there was no possibility of preventing an explosion.

Tens of thousands of soldiers and ’volunteers,’ also poorly equipped, were deployed to fight the proximate impact of the explosion that had sent fuel rods and highly radioactive graphite into the surrounding area. The soldiers, mostly young men equipped only with lead impregnated aprons and shovels, had to take highly radioactive fuel rods, graphite blocks and debris, and dump it back into the reactor building. Other soldiers were used to clean up the countryside, to plow radioactive flora, fauna and soil under, to shoot farm animals, dogs and cats lest they carry radioactivity beyond the evacuation zone, and to bury the earthmoving and other equipment involved in the clean-up.

The Paradoxical Atom | Rise of the Nuclear Age | From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Cold War | The Industrial Atom | Chernobyl and Beyond | Concluding Comments

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