It is now thirty years since radiation monitoring stations in Sweden detected a massive surge in airborne contaminants and Western intelligence satellite images showed something unusual happing at a Ukrainian nuclear complex.
Not long after an ashen faced Michal Gorbachev, the President of an increasingly disunited Soviet Union, introduced the world to a new name with confirmation of an uncontrolled fire, nuclear meltdown and massive radiation release at Chernobyl.
Without a hint of irony the Australian government is marking this anniversary with a plan to open up uranium sales to the country that hosted this continuing warning about the dangers of the nuclear industry.
Globally nuclear accidents are ranked on a sliding scale of severity from one to seven. Chernobyl was the first time that scale reached the highest warning signal of seven, Fukushima was the next.
The disaster, the result of a reactor safety training exercise that went wrong in every possible way, spewed a radioactive cloud that affected much of Europe and has a toxic legacy that continues today. The human impacts of the disaster were - and are - massive.
At the time millions of lives were dislocated with civilian populations being removed, sometimes forcibly, from an exclusion zone around the reactor and other affected areas. And as the civilians were driven away from their old lives, Red Army conscripts were trucked in to face a new and invisible enemy.
Over half a million ‘liquidators’ were mobilised in an attempt to control the situation. Often without training or protective equipment these young men and women bore the brunt of much of the early impacts of the disaster. Their first hand reports highlight confusion and courage while the subsequent health and social assessments are deeply sobering accounts of disease, dysfunction and despair.
Quantifying the health impacts of Chernobyl is complex and contested. Differences in modelling assumptions and quality of data coupled with multiple causation factors and delays in illness presentation all add to the uncertainty of hard numbers.
There are three basic approaches to the numbers at Chernobyl. One school of thought uses International Atomic Energy Agency estimates and weights these with a risk estimate to arrive at estimates of between 9,000 and 93,000 deaths. Another approach has been to acknowledge that the long term death toll is unknown and unknowable because of uncertainties with the science.
The third approach - to baldly state that Chernobyl’s death toll is around fifty and mostly made up of emergency responders - is profoundly misleading but strongly pushed by pro-nuclear advocates seeking to downplay the severity of the disaster.
A detailed new report prepared to mark the thirtieth anniversary highlights increased thyroid cancers, leukaemia and solid cancers among clean-up workers and others and elevated levels of nervous system birth defects. Five million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia still live in highly contaminated areas with a further 400 million living in regions with a continuing radioactive fingerprint.
Extensive construction and confinement work continues at Chernobyl today. The centre-piece of these efforts is around a massive new concrete shield to replace the current embrittled ‘sarcophagus’ erected over the failed reactor to stop further radioactive release.
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