“This year, April 26, the 31st anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, will mark the first year the United Nations observes the date as an International Day of Remembrance. The commemoration is bold, wedging the catastrophe’s place among some of humanity’s deepest scars.” - Thus Charles Digges opens his evaluation for Nordic environmental group, Bellona, of the Chernobyl disaster three decades on.
(“Thirty-one years on, Chernobyl takes a place among humanity’s darkest passages,” Bellona, April 25, 2017; http://bellona.org/news/nuclear-issues/2017-04-thirty-one-years-on-chernobyl-takes-a-place-among-humanitys-darkest-passages)
Other days of remembrance observed by the UN are reserved for the Holocaust, victims of the transatlantic slave trade, and the Rwandan Genocide, putting the 1986 Soviet nuclear plant disaster in dark and troubled company.
Like these other human calamities, Chernobyl still casts more shadows than light, continues to beg confounding questions, and will press the limits of understanding for decades to come. The tragedy was one of the Soviet Union’s last grisly secrets, and five years after the toxic explosion, its empire collapsed with the reactor’s rubble.
And like the other tragedies in its company, Chernobyl – which released 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than Hiroshima – has since become an abyss in which humanity could contemplate its own extinction.
“Disaster overwhelms all reactions that were normal in a society before it takes place,” Sergei Mirnyi, who was 27 at the time Chernobyl exploded, and worked as a liquidator after the disaster, told Bellona. “The actual disaster starts after the CNN moment, and the camera crews pack up and go – then the people are left alone and alienated.”
Three decades later, more than 200 tons of uranium remains inside Chernobyl’s No 4 reactor, which exploded at 1:23 am that April morning during a safety test.
In the days that followed, the nuclear fuel continued to burn, issuing clouds of poisonous radiation and contaminating as much as three quarters of the European continent, hitting northern Ukraine, Russia and Belarus especially hard.
More than 600,000 liquidators – a loose term enveloping, police, fire fighters, military, like Minrnyi, and state employees – were rushed to the site with minimal protective gear and hardly any plan to extinguish the carcinogenic blaze.
No word came from the Kremlin as to what had happened. Afraid of losing face, Soviet authorities kept silent as the radiation crawled north. They did quietly evacuate 48,000 residents of the city of Pripyat, 3 kilometers from the site of the explosion, but not until the afternoon of April 27, a whole day later. By early May, Sweden noticed mysterious spikes in their own radiation monitors and sounded the alarm.
Finally, on May 14, Communist Party Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, went on television and admitted to the disaster. Authorities responded by relocating 116,000 people from the 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the destroyed reactor.
In following years, the number of evacuees swelled to 230,000. All the same, 5 million Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russia’s still live in areas tainted by persistently high radiation levels.
The liquidators fought to build a containment structure of cement and steel to squelch radiation emissions. The ad-hoc heap trapped 200 tons of uranium, but many liquidators feared at the time that the cement barrier would eventually give. In 2005 it did just that.
In November, 30 years and six months after the explosion, the New Safe Confinement, a €1.5 billion, 36,000 ton steel structure, slid into place over the wreckage of the number 4 reactor.
Financed by donations from more than 40 countries coordinated by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, the New Safe Confinement is the largest movable land-based structure on earth, with room inside for Paris’s Notre Dame.
But even then, the molten radioactive garbage that will be dismantled by cranes and robots inside the enormous dome will have to be stored, and funding questions surrounding that persist.
What impact the radiation had, and how many early deaths it brought about remains disputed. A UN report from 2005 suggested 4,000 long-term cancer deaths would result among those who received the highest radiation doses.
In the following year, Belarus, probably hardest hit by the radioactive fallout, challenged that, and produced data saying the country alone would see 93,000 cancer deaths stemming from the disaster. Other reports forecast 60,000 deaths in Russia, and a combined death toll in Belarus and Ukraine reaching 140,000.
A clear list of obituaries may never emerge. The massive resettlement means that many who left when Pripyat and surrounding country was evacuated may have already died.
Even with new shelter is in place, the surrounding exclusion zone of around 2,600 square kilometers will remain uninhabitable, and it will take another 20,000 years before people can live near the plant again.
For now, Pripyat remains a ghost town inhabited by a population elk, deer, wild boar, horses, foxes, and wolves – and visited by the adventurous.
The Chernobyl "canaries" 31 years later
The Chernobyl disaster dispersed large amounts of radionuclides into the surrounding environment and far beyond. The research of Dr Timothy Mousseau and his team, whose presentation may be watched at https://vimeo.com/211662517 found that animals and microbes living in these contaminated areas are failing to thrive.
Organic matter in forests around Chernobyl are taking years or even decades longer than normal to decay. There are reduced population sizes and genetic abnormalities among birds, bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, spiders, and mammals in highly radioactive parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Birds are showing an increase in sterility, albinism and cataracts, with abnormal sperm in barn swallows up to 10 times higher for Chernobyl birds as compared to sperm from males living in control areas. T
hese findings help dismiss the notion that similar abnormalities and birth defects reported in human populations exposed to Chernobyl fallout were due to "poverty and stress," factors that clearly cannot affect wildlife. The work also supports evidence found in human populations that impacts still occur in generations born long after the disaster.
(Anomalies in wildlife and the ecosystem around Chernobyl and Fukushima, by Dr Timothy Mousseau and his team;https://vimeo.com/211662517)
EU role in clean up strategies
An EU TERRITORIES Project (To Enhance unceRtainties Reduction and Stakeholders Involvement TOwards integrated and graded Risk management of humans and wildlife In long-lasting radiological Exposure Situations) could play a significant role in the long-term programme for radioactive remediation of the Chernobyl site and the exclusion zone surrounding. The TERRITORIES web site reports the “project has been selected for funding following 1st CONCERT Transational Call, topic 2 (Reducing uncertainties in human and ecosystem radiological risk assessment and management in nuclear emergencies and existing exposure situations, including NORM). Eleven partners (IRSN, BfS, CEPN, CIEMAT, NMBU, NRPA, PHE, SCK.CEN, STUK, University of Tartu, Mutadis) are involved in this 3-year-project (2017-2019).
All of them were represented at the kick off meeting in Paris Gare de l'Est on 27th of January 2017.
TERRITORIES targets an integrated and graded management of contaminated territories characterised by long-lasting environmental radioactivity, filling in the needs emerged after the recent post-Fukushima experience and the publication of International and European Basic Safety Standards. A graded approach, for assessing doses to humans and wildlife and managing long-lasting situations (where radiation protection is mainly managed as existing situations), will be achieved through reducing uncertainties to a level that can be considered fit-for-purpose. The integration will be attained by:
• Bridging dose and risk assessments and management of exposure situations involving artificial radionuclides (post-accident) and natural radionuclides (NORM),
• Bridging between environmental, humans and wildlife populations monitoring and modelling,
• Bridging between radiological protection for the members of the public and for wildlife,
Bridging between experts, decision makers, and the public, while fostering a decision-making process involving all stakeholders.
This project interlinks research in sciences supporting radiation protection (such as radioecology, human or ecological dose and risk assessments, social sciences and humanities, etc.), providing methodological guidance, supported by relevant case studies. The overall outcome is an umbrella framework, that will constitute the basis to produce novel guidance documents for dose assessment, risk management, and remediation of NORM and radioactively contaminated sites as the consequence of an accident, with due consideration of uncertainties and stakeholder involvement in the decision making process. The results will be widely disseminated to the different stakeholders and accompanied by an education and training programme.
Thus, the eleven partners of TERRITORIES will develop a common coherent guidance with a greater understanding of multiple sources of uncertainties along with variabilities in exposure scenarios, making the best use of scientific knowledge to characterize human and wildlife exposure, integrating this knowledge and know-how to reduce uncertainties and finally taking consideration of social, ethical and economic aspects to make decisions.
The ‘CONCERT-European Joint Programme for the Integration of Radiation Protection Research’ under Horizon 2020 is operating as an umbrella structure for the research initiatives jointly launched by the radiation protection research platforms MELODI, ALLIANCE, NERIS and EURADOS. Based on the platform SRAs and joint programming, CONCERT will develop research priorities, align them with priorities from participating Member States and will seek further input from society and stakeholders. It will reach out to engage the wider scientific community in its projects, aiming to answer the needs in radiation protection for the public, occupationally exposed people, patients in medicine, and the environment. To reach its goals, CONCERT has seven Work Packages each of which will focus on each of the key directions. The WP’s are already established.
Within CONCERT two major open RTD calls will be launched; the first one in spring 2016 and the other one in spring 2017. Research groups from all over Europe have the opportunity to join in research consortia and submit proposals.
Projects running to 2020 may be bid for at: http://www.concert-h2020.eu/en/Calls/Transnational_Call_2017
CONCERT - The European Joint Programme for the Integration of Radiation Protection Research - aims to contribute to the sustainable integration of European and national research programmes in the field of radiation protection. CONCERT launched its first Call for proposals to support transnational research projects. Submitted projects must combine innovative approaches in the field of radiation protection in line with the research priorities of CONCERT, and integrate Education and Training activities with universities. These multidisciplinary research projects must as well make optimal use of research infrastructures. The available funding for this first call was 10.5 M€.
The call was launched in June 2016 and opened for two months, with a closure in August 2016. Researchers based at universities, research institutions and SMEs were invited to team up with their European peers to submit proposals. Altogether 12 proposals were submitted by 147 partners from 85 different institutions in 26 countries; 8 proposals in Topic 1: in the area of Improvement of health risk assessment associated with low dose/dose rate radiation, 4 proposals in Topic 2: Reducing uncertainties in human and ecosystem radiological risk assessment and management in nuclear emergencies and existing exposure situations, including NORM.
The proposals were evaluated by an independent international peer review panel (PRP) composed of 12 experts. After remote evaluation of all proposals, they met for 2 days to elaborate the final ranking lists. A total of 5 transnational projects were ranked, 2 projects in Topic 1 and 3 projects in Topic 2, respectively.
Actual costs of the 3 highest ranked proposals [CONFIDENCE (Topic 2), LDLensRad (Topic 1), TERRITORIES (Topic 2)], summed up to 10.5 M€, the amount of funds available, and were therefore subsequently selected for funding. Overall the Panel emphasized the high quality of the consortia put together within the 12 proposals.
In conclusion, this first call was a good experience bringing together a large number of research partners from all over Europe and beyond. Out of 12 proposals 3 research projects will be funded.
Campaigner pleads for forgotten victims
Let’s show the people of Chernobyl that they are not forgotten, writes Adi Roche.
By Adi Roche Wednesday 26 Apr 2017, 6:30 AM
Adi Roche Founder and voluntary CEO, Chernobyl Children International
Nuclear accidents can never be undone
“There may be an impression that 31 years on Chernobyl is something which happened a very long time ago and no longer poses a threat to the world. But the reality of the situation is very, very different.
“The impact of that single shocking nuclear accident can never be undone. Its radioactive footprint is embedded in our world until the end of time and countless millions of people are still being affected by its deadly legacy on a daily basis.
“We may never know the full extent of that contamination, we may never be able to prove it, but the tragedy that is Chernobyl is very, very real.
“I cannot speak with the authority of a scientist or doctor. I cannot prove my statements with laboratory or field test experiments. I have no medical or scientific academic qualifications to endorse my remarks. I can only offer my witness, my evidence of the heart for what I have seen and heard for the last 31 years.
I’m haunted by people’s stories
“I have visited and worked in the Chernobyl affected regions for three decades and I am haunted by the stories of people I have met. Thousands of people have tragically and forever lost their earth, their soul, their community and their history.
“This time last year, I returned to the highly contaminated “zone of alienation” that surrounds the Chernobyl plant on a fact finding mission and whilst there, I was asked by some of the men, who heroically fought for months to contain the spreading radioactive fire, to bring their stories and their voices to the global stage.
The highly radioactive fire at Chernobyl was their “Ground Zero”
“I wear on this day a Chernobyl Service medal with great honour, deep respect and a deep sense of responsibility. It was given to me by a Liquidator Officer called Valerii Zaitsev, one of the 700,000 “Liquidators” – the soldiers and civilians, the helicopter pilots, the firemen, the miners and the engineers who were sent into the Chernobyl nuclear conflagration.
“For Valerii and his gallant comrades fighting the highly radioactive fire at Chernobyl was their “Ground Zero”.
“Like the brave rescue service heroes of New York’s 9/11 the Chernobyl Liquidators, these noble and self-sacrificing men, ought to be rightly honoured and recognised today as the heroes who saved Europe and indeed the world from even greater catastrophe.
The new sarcophagus
“A new sarcophagus was moved into place over the exploded reactor in November, however we still do not have the science or technology to progress with the next phase.
“I respectfully ask that world leaders urgently use their power and influence to propel forward the vital work that needs to be carried out at the exploded No 4 Reactor and move swiftly to the next phase of dismantling and safely removing and storing hundreds of tons of radioactive material.
“This is a project never done before and requiring new thinking and new expertise. This project requires international guidance and we, as citizens of the world, must be vigilant that the safe disposal of this waste is the highest priority.
“Let’s show the people of Chernobyl that they are not forgotten, that they are not alone, that they are among friends and neighbours who care and who want to share in their plight and despair. Not just with fine words but with positive and life changing initiatives of action.”
(The Journal (Ireland) 26th April 2017
Adi Roche is the founder and voluntary CEO of Chernobyl Children International (CCI). For nearly 40 years she has been passionately campaigning for, and is publicly active in, issues relating to the environment, peace and social justice.
Photo by Marisa04 (Pixabay)
Thirty years after a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, radiation is still turning up in some unexpected places: for instance, in the wild boars tramping through the mountains of the Czech Republic — almost a thousand miles away.
These radioactive boars aren’t turning into teenage mutant ninja pigs, but they aren’t safe for eating, either. That’s a problem in a country where boar meat is mixed into stews and goulash. In fact, the wild boars are being irradiated by their own food: the wild mushrooms they depend on during the cold winter months, Reuters reports.
30 years after chernobyl, radiation is still turning in unexpected places
The 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine spewed the radioactive metal cesium-137 into the atmosphere. A small amount blew nearly 1,000 miles west to the Czech Republic, where it settled into the soil. There, mushrooms absorb it. And when a boar eats the mushrooms, the radiation travels up the food chain. A few years ago, a government report revealed that nearby in Germany, about one in three boars killed by hunters were radioactive.
For people, cesium-137 is not safe for consumption. Eating it spreads the radioactive atoms throughout the body, which can up your risk for cancers. Still, if you were to eat some of the radioactive boar meat, the dose is likely low enough you’d probably be OK, Jiri Drapal at the State Veterinary Administration told Reuters. But if you were to eat the cesium-137-flavored meat multiple times a week for months on end, then you might be in trouble.
And, the best bet is not to eat any, which is why food inspectors in the Czech Republic screen wild meat before it goes to market. They discovered that nearly half of the 614 pigs inspected between 2014 and 2016 were too radioactive to eat. The hazardous meat is banned from use, so if you visit the Czech Republic and eat wild boar goulash, you should be safe.
(Radioactive pigs are wandering Central Europe, 30 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; by Rachel Becker 24 February 2017, http://www.theverge.com/2017/2/24/14733094/radioactive-pigs-boars-czech-republic-central-europe-germany-chernobyl