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Lessons from Chernobyl

Ceri Au, Maisoneuve Magazine, April 27, 2006
Once an obscure town of little note, 80 miles north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Chernobyl was catapulted onto the front pages of newspapers and into the vernacular of global citizens with the catastrophic events of April 26, 1986. The explosion at the town’s nuclear power plant that day would come to be known as the worst nuclear accident in history. Releasing more than four hundred times the amount of radiation caused by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the Chernobyl disaster killed only thirty firemen and emergency workers in its immediate aftermath, but thousands more died in subsequent years (estimates vary between 9,000 according to the World Health Organization, and 90,000 according to Greenpeace). At 1:23 a.m. yesterday, exactly 20 years after the explosion, church bells rang out across Kiev and Moscow, as thousands flocked to the streets to reflect on the tragedy that reshaped a nation. No longer merely a geographic location, the very word Chernobyl evokes a visceral response in many, one that undermines the legitimacy of harnessing nuclear power in the face of such dire consequences. With sky-rocketing gas prices at the pump, the constant ideological tug-of-war over the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol and calls by world leaders to research alternative energy sources, attention has once again returned to the promise of nuclear power.
On last night’s edition of The National, Margo McDiarmid explored the current public flirtation with nuclear power projects. According to Tom Adams of Energy Probe, a consumer environmental research organization, the recent debate about a return to nuclear power is merely “a fad.” Yet China alone hopes to build thirty-five reactors in the coming year. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is offering financial incentives to investors in nuclear power; and the Ontario government is considering adding an a dozen more nuclear power plants to its current stable. Alberta also wants a plant to meet the energy demands of extracting oil from its tarsands. But of course the quest for a balance between energy and the environment doesn’t end with nuclear power. In the Post, Paul Vieira delves into recent musing by the Conservative government that would see Canada join the so-called AP6, a group formed last year by non- Kyoto signatories to develop and build technology aimed at curbing carbon emissions. Despite critics calling Kyoto’s targets impossible, environmental analysts warn that the AP6 should not become a substitute for Kyoto, but simply another tool in the international arsenal to protect the environment. Going beyond the typical green rhetoric, an editorial in today’s Citizen argues the West’s addiction to oil indirectly supports radical Islamic terrorism, and calls on leaders looking for legacies to champion “conservation and efficiency as a patriotic duty.” But while politicians and activists wanting to save the planet duke it out, it’s up to ordinary citizens to make environmentally responsible choices in their own lives. Whether it is by taking public transport or riding a bike to work, the everyday choices of citizens will create a culture of concern, one that will embarrass politicians into making environmental issues a priority and not an after-thought.

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Armenian Chernobyl victims still suffering

Twenty years on, a new generation of children is not getting the treatment it needs for Chernobyl-related sickness.

Marianna Grigorian and Gayane Mkrtchian in Yerevan, 27 April 2006

The skin of Sennik Alexanian has a strange yellow hue to it, his bones stick out and his eyes bulge. Alexanian is only 49 but his immune system has collapsed. Like thousands of his compatriots he divides his life into two periods – before and after Chernobyl.
Along with 3,000 Armenians – and tens of thousands of people from across the Soviet Union – Alexanian was sent to help clear up the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine twenty years ago. Half of the Armenians sent there have severe health problems caused by the radiation they suffered and 350 of them have died.
On April 25, a group of Armenian rescuers were presented with awards by the prime minister Andranik Margarian. He promised them greater support, but many say the government of independent Armenia has let them down.
“I went to work and they did not let me in,” recalled Alexanian, who worked as a driver in 1986. “They put us in a train and didn’t tell me or my family where they were sending me. If I hadn’t gone and I’d run away, they’d have put me on trial as an enemy of the people.”
The rescuers were not told about the invisible dangers of the zone they were entering.
“Radiation does not have a smell or a colour, you can’t define it,” said Alexanian. “We just started feeling unwell and had constant headaches and dizziness and everyone had constant nose bleeds.”
Gevorg Vardanian, now chairman of the Armenian Chernobyl Association, spent eleven months in Chernobyl in total and suffers from serious radiation sickness.
“In Ukraine, the public didn’t know what had happened and during the May Day parade radioactive rain fell on people,” he recalled. “The most terrible thing was that there were students amongst those who brought people out of Chernobyl. They had no idea they had been brought into a disaster zone.”
Six years after the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet Union broke up and the rescuers became the responsibility of the new independent states such as Armenia. But unlike many other countries, Armenia has not allocated substantial funds for the medical treatment of Chernobyl survivors. Although entitled to free medical check-ups twice a year, the sufferers say they generally do not get even these.
Alexanian says his health is deteriorating every day but he has not been given the money to treat his illnesses. His family has sold everything they could, including their apartment. He receives a pension of 21,000 drams, equivalent to 46 US dollars, every month, but says he needs far more than that to pay for even one of the medicines he needs.
“When we apply to the appropriate offices hoping for help, they tell us sarcastically ‘You shouldn’t have gone’, but it wasn’t up to us,” said Alexanian. “No one went knowingly to a slow death.”
Six years ago he and his wife had a son, but the effects of Chernobyl left their mark on the baby too. Little Vachagan was born with chronic health problems and suffers from epilepsy and nervous fits.
Gevorg Vardanian says that most of the Armenian rescuers are no longer fit for work. They live in poor conditions and lack the money for their basic needs.
“We thought the troubles that began for us in Chernobyl would end in Armenia, but it seems there is no end to them,” said Vardanian.
“Not just the rescuers, but more than thirty per cent of their children suffer from a whole host of defects and have serious health problems. Many don’t even have the chance to take their children to the doctor.”
Vardanian says that the Armenian government has been particularly lax in its responsibilities, “We have no special law which defends the rights of those who took part in the Chernobyl emergency and gives them the benefits that others from all over the former Soviet Union are receiving.”
According to Vardanian, the Armenian government ratified a treaty undertaking to pass a special law to protect Chernobyl survivors, but since then no such law has been adopted.
Only at the beginning of this year did the parliamentary commission on social issues, health and the environment draw up a draft law that would guarantee the welfare of the Chernobyl victims and their children.
“The draft law is being discussed,” said Gagik Mkheyan, head of the commission.
However, the bill is already being criticised by government ministries.
“In our opinion, Armenia does not need a law like this,” Jemma Baghdasarian, head of the department for the problems of invalids and the elderly at the labour ministry, told IWPR, arguing that the Chernobyl survivors are sufficiently well looked after by current welfare legislation.
Nikolai Hovhannissian, head of Armenia’s Centre for Radioactive Medicine and Burns, says he understands the concerns of the Chernobyl rescuers, but that Armenia simply cannot afford to look after them.
“The state envisages spending 100,000 drams (222 dollars) on each sick person, which includes the cost of the electricity used by the hospital, the salaries of the medical staff, medicine, food,” said Hovhannissian. “What can you say? This amount is not enough to solve even a part of the problems of the sufferers.”
The survivors themselves say they have pinned hopes on the new law and that existing social provision is woefully inadequate.
“We have the impression that everyone is against us, we are like walking corpses, whom no one needs,” said Vazgen Gyurjinian, a Chernobyl survivor.
Gyurjinian, an electrician, was 28 when he was sent to the Chernobyl disaster zone. Now 46, he talks in a hoarse voice and is short of breath. He has had three heart attacks. His third daughter Lusine, born on his return, was an invalid at birth and gets just 3,600 drams (around eight dollars) a month in state benefit.
“It’s not just us, who are unsuited for life by now, who need this law, but our children and grandchildren,” said Gyurjinian. “Maybe some of us have healthy children but that does not guarantee us from sick grandchildren. Our genes have been damaged.”
Marianna Grigorian and Gayane Mkrtchian are reporters fro Armenianow.com in Yerevan.

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Chernobyl : 20 years on

IT has now been two decades since the world’s biggest nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and effects are still being felt. Then in the former USSR, now in Ukraine, the town is still a black-spot for radiation sickness.
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On April 26th, 1986, due to the negligence of the operators and an inherently unsafe design, a reactor at the Chernobyl power plant exploded. This was one of four reactors, and during testing numerous safety procedures had been disregarded.
At 1.23am, an out of control chain reaction created explosions and a fireball, which blew off the reactor’s heavy steel and concrete lid. This caused the release of clouds of radioactive particles.
Over 30 people were killed immediately; and perilously high levels of radiation in the surrounding 20-mile radius led to the evacuation of approximately 135,000 people.
The worst contamination occurred in large parts of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. The radiation has spread as far as the UK, and even parts of the US. Four hundred times as much radiation escaped from the reactor as was caused by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima.
No-one will ever really know the exact death toll attributable to the disaster, and many of the consequent cancer deaths will not yet have occurred. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calculated that there were 56 direct deaths; and estimate 9,000 subsequent fatalities, from cancer and related diseases.
Greenpeace have claimed that this is a grossly underestimated figure. They estimate a total death toll of 93,000; but cite in their report “The most recently published figures indicate that in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine alone the accident could have resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths in the period between 1990 and 2004”.
Despite still emitting dangerous levels of radiation, the 800-year-old city just about survives to this day. Hundreds of – mostly elderly – people decided to brave the danger and returned to the zone. In 1987, the population was around 1,200. In 2003, it was more like 300. In 2004, government workers went to police the zone, and clear up radioactive material.
The disaster initially did the wildlife no favours. An area of pine forest covering four square kilometres went orange and died. However, in more recent years, animals have been reintroduced into the ‘dead zone’, which circles the reactor at a radius of 30km. This attempt to rejuvinate the ecosystem has worked surprisingly well, with numerous species of animals flourishing. It hasn’t worked well for all animals; but – despite some evidence of genetic mutation – the myth concerning animals growing two heads has been debunked.
Despite some adaptation, the disaster still causes a good deal of sickness in humans. To this day, a worldwide effort persists to ease the suffering of its victims. pembrokeshiretv.com recently covered the efforts made by the North Pembrokeshire Link of the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline, when fourteen children visited Pembrokeshire from Belarus. The holiday was to spare them the bitter Belarusian winter, and gave their immune systems a much-needed boost.
The North Pembrokeshire Link – formed in 2002, and one of over 140 in the UK – are fundraising again on the 20th anniversary of the disaster – this time for a children’s hospice movement in Belarus. Co-founder Carol Alabaster said:
“The hospice in Belarus is rather crowded, and really could use some more facilities. We felt they deserved having our attention turned to them”. The collection is being kept low-key, and not turned into an event. However, they have already received a generous donation raised at the Fishguard and Goodwick Rotary Austerity Lunch.
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THE Chernobyl explosion may have happened two decades ago, but the effects are still being felt in Welsh upland farming today. In fact 359 of the 375 farms still operating under restriction in the UK today are in Wales.
After the explosion in 1986, a contaminated plume of fallout swept across the globe. Contrary to some of the weather predictions at the time, the plume reached the UK after 5 days. Areas of Cumbria, southwest Scotland, Northern Ireland and North Wales were contaminated when the plume coincided with rain showers; resulting in deposition of radionuclides in the soil. Hence there was a scattering of radioactive ‘hotspots’.
Immediately afterwards, a countrywide programme of milk and foodstuff monitoring was initiated. This initially pinpointed the hotspot areas, allowing for a more detailed study. Results showed that lamb and mutton was a particular cause for concern, as was milk. Fish taken from upland lakes are still monitored to this day.
The main type of isotopes that are causing the protracted farming restriction are radiocaesium particles – particularly Caesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. This was deposited predominantly through rainfall, and was ingested by lifestock who ate contaminated vegetation.
In areas with a high level of clay in the soil, this posed less of a problem, as the particles tended to stick to the clay and were not absorbed by vegetation. However, upland soil tends to be less clay-rich, and these were the areas in which a higher level of contamination found its way into the food chain.
Once in the food chain, the contaminated particles remain in meat, and can still be passed back to the land through excreta from contaminated animals. If contaminated meat is eaten by humans, it can easily pass to them.
Nowadays, the animals in the restricted farming areas have to be live-monitored to test their levels of radioactivity. There has been less than a 1% failure rate in upland animals since the mid 1990s. However, animals under restriction still cannot be sold or moved freely. They may not be slaughtered for human consumption; or indeed any foodstuff preparation, including pet food.
Testing is vital, and has become part of everyday life for the affected farmers. Stock must be 100% safe before it can be allowed back into the food chain.
Farmers are paid compensation for stock found to be contaminated. However, the Farmers Union of Wales recently called for a review of the amount which they receive per animal; the figure of £1.30 per ewe has remained unchanged since 1986.
This restricted area covers around 530km2, primarily between Dolgellau in the south and Conwy in the north. In this area, approximately 180,000 sheep are affected by the restriction.
It is possible for areas to be de-restricted if levels of contamination drop significantly. Speaking on Radio Four’s Today programme yesterday, Dr Nick Beresford of Lancaster University, who was responsible for a good deal of the testing 20 years ago, said that contamination modelling in Cumbria suggested that monitoring would become non-essential in about ten years time.
However, due to a much higher failure rate, and larger area of restriction in North Wales – particularly around Snowdonia – ten years time would seem far too hopeful. There have been no de-restrictions in Wales since 1997. As much of the land around Snowdonia is high, remote, and abundant in common land, it is considerably more difficult to stop any spread.
Nevertheless, the Food Standards Agency are satisfied that there are more than adequate systems in place to ensure that contaminated livestock does not enter the food chain. Through the safeguards in place, consumers are highly unlikely to ever be exposed to unacceptable levels of radioactivity. Yet it seems that, for many farmers, live monitoring of restricted stock will remain a way of life for many years to come.

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Former Soviet leader Gorbachev recalls day of Chernobyl disaster

Stephen Brown
Geneva (ENI). Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has told an interfaith gathering his life has never been the same since the day in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded creating the world’s worst nuclear disaster. “The disaster was a shocking reminder of the reality of nuclear threats and it has become a symbol of modern technological risks,” Gorbachev said in his message to a 26 April gathering at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
In his written message, Gorbachev said he had been awakened by a phone call at 5 a.m. informing him of the accident at the nuclear power station in Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union.
“My life has never been the same since,” he told the meeting attended by representatives of Geneva’s Jewish, Islamic and Christian communities.
Gorbachev was Soviet communist party leader from 1985 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. He is now chairman of Green Cross International, a Geneva-based ecology group he founded in 1993 which organised the interfaith gathering with the WCC.
“For the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl revealed the cataclysmic potential of nuclear disasters, whether deliberate or accidental, and raised questions that remain pertinent and largely unresolved,” the former Soviet leader said.
Gorbachev said “government transparency” was of “utmost importance”, and he urged a stepping up of renewable energy programmes.
The world had learned the truth about the Chernobyl disaster because of the policies of “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring) he introduced as Soviet leader, he asserted.
“Had this not been the case, the facts and implications would have been hidden, disguised or devalued,” Gorbachev said.
World Council of Churches’ general secretary, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, warned about the “growing energy hunger of expanding economies” and of increasing calls for new nuclear power plants and new generations of nuclear weapons.
“The thirst for energy of the highly industrialised and fast industrialising societies drives leaders to undertake projects that could threaten both peace and the future of life,” he said.
Kobia urged leaders of different faiths to commit themselves to “inter-religious dialogue and co-operation for justice, peace and the future of life on our planet earth”.

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U.N. reflects on Chernobyl

By Lauren Mack Apr 27, 2006, 18:47 GMT
UNITED NATIONS, United States (UPI) — On the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, the United Nations remembered the tragedy and reflected on what is being done to prevent a repeat accident.
Several U.N. agencies honored the emergency workers, victims both living and deceased, and the volunteers who have worked to clean up the affected regions on Wednesday, the 20th anniversary of the world`s worst nuclear accident.
‘Many hard lessons have been learned from Chernobyl, including the importance of providing the public with transparent, timely and credible information in the event of a catastrophe,’ said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
On April 26, 1986, the Unit 4 reactor core at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, was destroyed by explosions which sent a cloud of radio nuclides, or radioactive atoms, over parts of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
An estimated 350,000 workers charged with cleaning up the site were exposed to high levels of radiation, said a World Health Organization report recently released to coincide with the anniversary. More than 330,000 people were displaced from their radiated homelands and faced the stigma of being contaminated.
Today, five million people continue to live in contaminated areas, said a WHO report entitled ‘Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programs.’
Since the disaster there has been an increase in thyroid cancer diagnoses, most of which can be linked directly to the nuclear power plant disaster, said the report. In the days following the accident, high levels of radioactive iodine were released and deposited in nearby pastures where cows grazed. The iodine was concentrated in the cows` milk which was then given to children. A general iodine deficiency in the local diet compounded the problem and caused more iodine to accumulate in the children`s thyroids, the report said.
‘Since radioactive iodine is short lived, if people had stopped giving locally supplied contaminated milk to children for a few months following the accident, it is likely that most of the increase in radiation-induced thyroid cancer would not have resulted,’ said the WHO.
Some 5,000 victims, who were children at the time of the accident, have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer so far.
Two decades later, survivors are not only dealing with health problems but many are still suffering economic hardship from resettlement, economic restrictions imposed after Chernobyl and dislocation following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, said the U.N. Development Program, which has coordinated all Chernobyl related activities for the United Nations since 2004.
The lack of accurate information from the Russian government about the affects of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl accident in the months and years that followed the accident has prompted organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency to call for improved communication after a disaster strikes. The agency marked this year`s anniversary by reminding the global community about the hazards of nuclear activity.
‘We should never forget the lessons we learned regarding nuclear safety and international cooperation. In remembering the Chernobyl accident, we should renew our determination to ensure that such a tragedy will not happen again,’ said IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei in Vienna.
The U.N. shifted its Chernobyl strategy from emergency relief to long-term recovery and development in 2002.
There is a need for improved international communication and cooperation, safe food production and health care, said the Chernobyl Forum, a group of representatives from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine and eight U.N. agencies formed in 2003. The group was formed to look at the impact of Chernobyl on health and the environment, presenting its findings culled from hundreds of scientists, economists and health experts last September.
Several U.N. agencies have established volunteer programs to help address the lingering economic, environmental and social problems. As part of the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Program, a joint initiative of the Ukrainian government and U.N. agencies, more than 200 community organizations have been set up in 139 villages including one in Kirdany, a Ukrainian village which helped rebuild the fresh water supply system. Other organizations are helping to renovate schools, build new health facilities and create youth centers.
‘By encouraging residents to take fate into their own hands, we are confident we are helping to build sturdy local foundations for a robust democracy,’ said UNDP Regional Director Kalman Mizsei.
‘The secretary-general believes that the best way for the international community to pay homage to those who suffered from Chernobyl is to provide generous support to programs designed to help traumatized communities regain self-sufficiency, and affected families resume normal, healthy lives,’ said Dujarric, Annan`s spokesman.
Copyright 2006 by United Press International

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