The Chernobyl nuclear disaster: 28 years ago today

Today marks the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the worst nuclear disaster in world history. Located in the Ukraine, the massive radioactive releases – 100 times more than the Hiroshima atomic bomb – heavily contaminated the 2600 km2 of the exclusion zone and its 76 permanently dead cities, towns, and villages. Due to the power of the explosion, fire, and reactor core meltdown, radioactivity was projected to high enough altitudes that the plume was carried thousands kilometers away, sweeping across the whole Europe and contaminating vast tracts of land. In terms of radioactive caesium (Cs137), a total of at least 1.3 million km2 of land was contaminated to varying degrees – an area roughly twice the size of France. And this contamination will last for many generations, given the 30-year half-life of Cs137.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens and cleanup workers were exposed to significant levels of radiation – at least 300,000 of these workers received radiation doses that were 500 times the limit for the public over one year.

Twenty-eight years later, people continue to suffer from the affects of the accident, with well-founded scientific estimations in the range of many tens of thousands of cancers and deaths.

Chernobyl was one of the world’s worst nuclear tragedies – a human-made disaster whose consequences are still being felt.  Yet nearly three decades later, the global nuclear industry continues to promote the building of new nuclear reactors, while operating risky old reactors that at any time could experience a severe accident.

Their response to Chernobyl was, rather than minimizing risks to communities across the planet living in the shadow of their reactors, to instead attempt to protect themselves from the financial risks of a nuclear disaster.

In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, people around the world rallied against nuclear power. In many parts of the world, nuclear construction slowed or ground to a halt in the following years. As the nuclear industry itself warned, “The Chernobyl disaster caused such a negative opinion of nuclear energy that, should such an accident occur again, the existence and future of nuclear energy all over the world would be compromised.” World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO)1996.

In reality, nuclear power has been in decline worldwide for more than two decades. WANO may not get much right in terms of nuclear safety, but they were correct in that another accident would have devastating consequences for the future of the industry.

The General Electric designed reactors at Fukushima, which suffered triple reactor core meltdowns and exploded containment buildings in March 2011, exposed the myth that only ‘Soviet’ designs were vulnerable. The disaster has led to the shutdown of nearly all nuclear reactors in Japan. And, while the government and industry are making attempts to restart some of these, they are opposed by the majority of people in Japan.

In 2014, the thousands upon thousands of victims of the Chernobyl accident have no need of an anniversary to be reminded of the danger of nuclear power. They have now been joined by the people of Fukushima and Japan as victims of a risky technology developed from the middle of the 20th century – and which has no future in the 21st.

What Chernobyl, Fukushima, and hundreds of smaller nuclear accidents have clearly shown is the inherent risk of the nuclear technology: there will always be an unforeseen combination of human failure, technology error and natural disaster that could lead to a major reactor accident and massive release of radiation. The lessons are clear – there is by definition no such thing as “nuclear safety,” and the only way to make sure that the next Chernobyl and Fukushima does not happen, is to phase nuclear out.

Kendra Ulrich is an Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace International

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