LEIDEN, the Netherlands - The accident could have served as a wake-up call to the whole of humanity. Twenty-five years ago, on Apr. 26 1986, disaster struck at the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear complex in the Ukrainian state of the former Soviet Union.
The accident actually started taking shape in the preceding night, when workers undertook a turbine test that had incompletely been carried out before the nuclear plant became operational. When the test was being carried out, the automatic emergency system was shut down, undermining reactor safety.
During the test also, fuel elements burst, setting off a chain of events which in no time resulted in two powerful explosions. Soon the reactor’s meltdown was a fact, and a huge radioactive cloud spread its contaminating effects over a vast area of the Soviet Union and beyond.
A quarter century has lapsed since this accident occurred. Until last month’s accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Chernobyl was considered to be the very worst disaster ever to have occurred at a nuclear production facility since the founding of the sector during World War II. Moreover, as recent reports confirm, even today the Chernobyl disaster is far from over.
Hence a retrospective is surely appropriate. The more so since the Japanese authorities have meanwhile rated their Fukushima accident at the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.
First, the radioactive fall-out from the Soviet granite-moderated reactor was unprecedentedly large. Officially, the fall-out is stated to have been 50 million of curies of radioactivity. But it probably was at least several times this figure.
Amongst the numerous known and unknown nuclear accidents that historically have occurred, Chernobyl is not the only one to have resulted in a dangerously large fall-out of radioactivity. When storage tanks for high- radioactive waste in 1957 exploded in a nuclear military reprocessing factory in Cheliabinsk, in a remote corner of the Ural mountains, tens of millions of curies of radioactivity also leaked, damaging the health of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens.
Both the fall-out from Chernobyl and that from Cherniabinsk by far exceeded the radioactive fall-out from the U.S.’s dropping of atom bombs on Japan’s cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. Besides, since the Chernobyl complex was located close to densely populated parts of the Ukraine and Europe, the radioactive fall-out from the damaged civilian reactor was bound to be very consequential.
Fifty thousand people living in Chernobyl’s immediate surroundings had to be evacuated. A vast rural region became uninhabitable. And 15 countries of Europe saw half of their territories contaminated by the radioactive cloud.
As happened in the wake of the recent Fukushima-Daiichi disaster, public authorities everywhere were forced to put restrictions on the sale and import of food, so as to reduce the risk of radiation-induced cancer deaths among their populations.
Initially, the effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe and the widespread anger it aroused put a brake on plans to expand production of nuclear energy, in particular in Europe and the U.S. Yet as 'Chernobyl' started receding from public memory, proponents of nuclear energy once again went on the offensive, claiming the disaster had cost very few lives.
Even a section of well-known European intellectuals worried about climate change have been swayed. The renowned British thinker James Lovelock a few years back surprisingly stated that claims regarding a huge death toll from Chernobyl are 'a powerful lie'.
The only admission institutions representing nuclear interests, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are willing to make is that the disaster caused an increase in thyroid cancers in children. This, they say, may result in just a few thousand mortalities.
Not even the fact that tens of thousands of young and healthy men who heroically participated in clean- up activities in Chernobyl faced an early death is admitted from this side.
In a more critical report brought out in 2006, the international organisation Greenpeace revealed that the figure for victims of cancer cases due to Chernobyl could top a quarter million, and that nearly a hundred thousand fatal cancers were to be deplored.
Again, in an ambitious study brought out by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009, Russian scientists compared data from severely contaminated, and from less contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union. They concluded that the death toll until end 2004 may be nine to ten times Greenpeace’s estimate.
Undoubtedly, vast numbers of fatalities from the 1986 fall-out remain unrecorded or hidden. Yet Chernobyl's tragic effects can easily be seen by those who care. In some areas of the former Soviet Union, less than 20 percent of children are healthy. Numerous babies have been born with deformities or with disturbances of their nervous systems. Genetic disorders were found in every animal species studied by the Russian scientists.
However, it would be wrong to think the after-effects of Chernobyl were limited to the direct consequences of the 1986 fall-out. Towards understanding the implications of a nuclear disaster, it is also necessary to look at the outcome of the clean-up operation undertaken subsequently by the then Soviet authorities.
First, 5,000 tons of materials were dropped from helicopters to re-cover the damaged reactor, at the price of the life the pilots. Then, some 600,000 workers, baptised the 'liquidators', were recruited or forced to rapidly build a sarcophagus of concrete and metal.
This operation carried out over a period of six months was extremely hazardous, and probably resulted in the largest category of radiation-induced illnesses and deaths from the catastrophe. Besides, contrary to what one would expect or hope for - the new outer shell for Chernobyl's melted reactor never functioned as an effective barrier to radiation leakages. It reportedly has been in danger of collapse for years.
Thus, since the nineties discussions have been under way over the building of a new arch. Such an arch would have to be erected in proximity of the former reactor, and will need to be glided towards its destination via rails, in order to reduce risks for humans. Also, the existing sarcophagus and the destroyed reactor will have to be dismantled, with the aid of robots.
As of 2011, a major chunk of the funds required to finance this new operation still has not been collected. Clearly, the mess from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is long, if not ever-lasting. And although Japan's technological capacity today obviously exceeds that of the Soviet Union 25 years back, the clean-up work in Japan is sure to extend over very many decades to come.
What fundamental lessons can we draw from Chernobyl - for Japan and for the world at large? The experience gathered since the meltdown 25 years back appears to validate the views nuclear critics expressed at the time. The disaster fuelled immediate and worldwide resistance - not just against expansion, but against any reliance on nuclear energy. Many hundreds of thousands of people have since participated in protests in Western Europe alone.
One of the central arguments critics cite is that nuclear technology is a form of technology which is so hazardous, so destructive, that humanity would do well to renounce it entirely. Yet since the late nineties, strenuous efforts have been made by proponents of nuclear energy to stage a 'renaissance' and resume the trend of nuclear expansion worldwide.
It is very unfortunate that a section of writers and intellectuals who are vocal against climate change have sought fit to voice the same arguments being used by representatives of the nuclear lobby to defend a nuclear comeback. As a retrospective on the Chernobyl catastrophe easily brings out: one cannot trade one catastrophe against another; one can't exchange a climate catastrophe for a nuclear catastrophe.
On this anniversary we need a sacred pledge in favour of reliance on technologies that are productive, that squarely sustain all forms of life on planet earth.