THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
April 28th 2006
It is a truism that memories fade with time. To young people, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 26, 1986, is about to become a topic of history learned in schools. They are to be taught about an event that occurred 20 years ago, but not in the context of how such tragedies can have a huge impact on the world today. We wonder how best to pass on such essential lessons to younger generations.
In the meantime, moves are under way to do away with follow-up surveys of Chernobyl-related illnesses even though survivors of the accident continue to suffer greatly. Once again, we feel it is absolutely necessary to take a new look at the lessons of the disaster in the former Soviet Union.
The accident occurred during an experiment that was conducted on the assumption that outside power supply had been cut. The output of one of the nuclear reactors rose rapidly, causing an explosion that scattered high-temperature radioactive plumes into the atmosphere. About 50 people who battled the blaze immediately after the accident died because of exposure to radioactivity.
An area of more than 4,000 square kilometers surrounding the accident site is still off-limits. It covers parts of Ukraine and Belarus and is about as large as Kyoto Prefecture. Roughly 400,000 people, including those living in Russia, were evacuated.
The survivors are having a hard time living in resettled areas. They get by on pensions but because of economic recession, government aid is declining. Health problems are rampant. About 4,000 children developed thyroid cancer. Once the thyroid gland is removed, a patient must take hormones each day. Mothers worry about giving birth. Between 600,000 and 800,000 people who worked to seal the broken reactor complain of health problems.
The governments of Ukraine and Belarus allocate about 5 percent of their national budgets to Chernobyl-related measures. But that is not nearly enough. Stronger international cooperation is needed to study the health conditions of survivors and give financial aids for their lives. This is the absolute least that countries using nuclear power for energy can do. It is our shared responsibility.
In hindsight, we realize the accident had a major impact on countries with nuclear power plants. They learned that accidents can happen and set about implementing advanced safety measures.
The former Soviet Union was able to forcibly evacuate residents from areas surrounding the accident site only because its land was so vast. There is no way countries such as Japan and small nations in Europe could evacuate large numbers of people from an area equivalent in size. We cannot imagine the instability that would result.
After the accident, the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident and the Convention on Nuclear Safety were established. It stipulates the framework of safety regulations. Dangerous nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe were closed. The Chernobyl disaster put a damper on the trend to build more nuclear power plants.
What has Japan learned from this terrible disaster? The nuclear power industry pinned the blame entirely on the fact the accident occurred in the former Soviet Union. It said the situation in Japan is quite different. Over the past two decades, the number of nuclear reactors in Japan has risen from 32 to 55. As a result, Japan ranks No. 3 in the world in terms of nuclear reactors.
In 1999, a criticality accident occurred at a uranium processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, causing two deaths. In 2004, a pipe ruptured at a nuclear reactor of the Mihama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture run by Kansai Electric Power Co. It spewed nonradioactive steam at high pressure, killing five workers. There has been a spate of problems at older nuclear power plants. Yet, the power industry is pushing to prolong the life of the facilities to 60 years.
The key lesson of Chernobyl is to always be on the alert with the awareness that “once a major nuclear accident occurs, everything is over.” We must not let the lesson fade.