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A disaster we must not repeat

By Christine Milne - posted Wednesday, 3 May 2006

He is an old man now but his eyes are full of the passion that has driven him all his adult life. Professor Alexey Yablokov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, my friend and colleague on the council of the World Conservation Union, is talking about the sarcophagus at Chernobyl, the huge steel structure designed to contain the radioactive parts of the nuclear power plant. He says that it is crumbling and leaking. He is convinced that it will soon collapse and once again send a plume of radioactive dust across Europe and yet the world will not act. He asks: "With the dangers so obvious and construction plans ready, why is the world waiting to build a new sarcophagus?"

Chernobyl has become the nuclear family embarrassment to be swept under the carpet. With the nuclear industry in overdrive sensing a new opportunity to spin itself as a solution to climate change, it does not want the spotlight shone on the proof that nuclear power is dangerous. With Prime Minister John Howard, Resources and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Labor resources spokesman Martin Ferguson all confidently declaring that nuclear power is safe, it is timely to remember the human and ecological tragedy of Chernobyl.

On April 26, 1986, after an explosion in reactor four, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine went into nuclear meltdown. Caused by a steam explosion and human error in switching off some of the safety systems, it resulted in a radioactive plume that spread across north-eastern Europe including Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. The radiation released was 250 times that released by the Hiroshima bomb.


"Fail-safe" systems fail frequently because of human error. It is foolish to think that accidents such as Chernobyl cannot happen again, regardless of the technologies employed. Given China's record of deaths in coal mining accidents, shocking industrial health and safety standards and cover-ups of major pollution spills, why would Australians believe that such an accident could not happen there?

Instead of feting China's President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao and turning a blind eye to the reality of life under the Chinese military dictatorship, perhaps Howard, Macfarlane, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Ferguson should visit Chernobyl and meet former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who said recently: "Chernobyl opened my eyes like nothing else: it showed the horrible consequences of nuclear power, even when it is used for non-military purposes." But they will not do so.

It is inconvenient for those who cannot wait for more Australian uranium to be mined to be reminded of the consequences of the worst nuclear power accident in global history. It is an unwelcome reminder for Downer, who has assured Australians there are safe ways to dispose of nuclear waste, that the legacy of nuclear contamination lives on in the leaking sarcophagus at Chernobyl and in the daily lives of the hundreds of thousands of people slowly dying. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in 2000, more than seven million people suffer every day as a result of the accident whose legacy will be with us for generations.

Perhaps the collective intelligence of the Howard ministry and Ferguson can identify who will be the liquidators, those called on to sacrifice their lives to help clean up a Chinese nuclear power plant fuelled by Australian uranium? They should listen to Mijorov Antonovich, a former Soviet weightlifting champion, a Chernobyl liquidator, now dying in a radiation hospital in Ukraine, who told The Guardian Weekly:

Chernobyl radiation is killing very many thousands. Of the 25 men in my (radiation clean-up) team, only four are still alive. I have been to so many funerals. See for yourself what is happening in our hospitals. We have so many deformed people, newborn babies with disease. All our children have problems …

When will enthusiasts for nuclear power identify the postcode they have in mind for a nuclear power plant and waste dump in Australia, since, according to them, only the uneconomic status of nuclear power is holding it back? While debate rages about how many people have died or are dying as a result of Chernobyl - the latest reports from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences cite 212,000 - the fact is that it is a disaster that should never be repeated.


Nuclear power is a choice, not a necessity, in a world confronted by irreversible climate change. Carbon dioxide reduction targets can be met without nuclear power through demand reduction, energy efficiency, co-generation and investment in and rapid deployment of renewable energy. These are cheaper, faster, safer and more sustainable.

Gorbachev believes that "the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe reminds us we should not forget the horrible lesson taught to the world in 1986 … the fact that world leaders talk about this imperative (alternative sources of energy) suggests the lesson of Chernobyl is finally being understood". Perhaps in Europe, but not in Australia.

Will it take the break-up of the Chernobyl sarcophagus and another nuclear disaster before Liberal and Labor enthusiasts for the nuclear industry finally put authentically addressing climate change and the wellbeing of humanity before uranium profits?

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Article edited by Natalie Rose.
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This article was first published in The Age on 26 April 2006.

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About the Author

Christine Milne is the Australian Greens' spokeswoman on energy and climate change.

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Related Links
Facts About Chernobyl Radioactive Disaster
World Conservation Union

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