The Future of Nuclear Energy: Chernobyl and Fukushima

Washington, DC (April 1, 2011) - On April 1, 2011 Global Green USA’s Security and Sustainability Program hosted a delegation of three Russian experts with firsthand experience of the Chernobyl reactor tragedy.  Their presentations focused on the ongoing impact of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and the implications for the nuclear disaster in Japan.  The speakers included Natalia Mironova, Natalia Manzurova, and Tatiana Muchamedyarova. To view videos from this event visit: http://www.youtube.com/user/GlobalGreen2008.

Natalia Mironova, a prominent leader of the anti-nuclear movement in Russia, shared the lessons she learned from Chernobyl.  Before leaving for the United States, her advisor said to her, “Natalia, you need to remember, Americans know nothing about Chernobyl. Be as simple as possible; be as visual as possible because they need to understand this emotionally.” Mironova’s advisor had a point; a majority of Americans have either forgotten or dismissed the Chernobyl accident and the risks that come with nuclear power. According to Russian scientist Alexey Yablokov, in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia alone, the Chernobyl catastrophe is expected to cost $9 trillion by 2015.  Of course the cost goes beyond the money spent to reduce the nuclear fallout to the deaths resulting from the incident.  Catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima highlight the cost of nuclear power.

Mironova compared lessons from Chernobyl with Fukushima.  In reference to the causes of both disasters she stated “The Chernobyl accident was a result of an unpredictable mixture of human and technical mistakes.  What do we have in Fukushima?  An unpredictable link of environmental, human, and maybe technical mistakes.”  Mironova pointed out that nuclear power is being chosen over the threat to human health and safety. At the end of her presentation, she gave specific actions to take including: stop nuclear loan guarantees, stop the so-called “nuclear renaissance,” and start energy alternatives.  “What is needed is to mobilize think tanks to understand what we need to do immediately.  If we, as a society, did not learn from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, then we need to use Fukushima as the turning point We need to develop our message for each government: Japanese, American, Russian, and others.”

Natalia Manzurova is a survivor who was involved in the Chernobyl “liquidation” process for five years.  She currently advocates for the rights of victims of radiation exposure internationally. Manzurova presented her personal experience as a “liquidator” and her concerns regarding the Fukushima accident. Her pictures evoked many emotions in the audience: horror, sympathy, disbelief, and sadness.

The presentation started with a picture of a nuclear radiation sign.  The sign indicates that cattle should not be allowed to graze and that people should not enter the contaminated zone.  Manzurova explained, “Ukraine and Russia have a huge territory.  The long term life of radionuclides will go through their half-life cycle from 300 to millions of years and that is why that zone will not be returned to any use for humans for a long time, for millions of years.  Japan is a small island. If a lot of territory must be taken out of economic turnover, then what will be left?

Manzurova’s next slide showed Chernobyl liquidators sleeping on a bus. She explained the lack of protection given to the liquidators, “They didn’t have any special equipment, any special uniform.  They tried to at least cover their heads and to protect their respiratory system. On the buses that they were taking to and back from work, they put sheets of lead along the sides so as to protect them from high levels of radiation.  You see they are just tired and sleepy. The dose of radiation they were exposed to at this time made everyone want to sleep all of the time.”

While most liquidators did not have any means of protection, the military chemical protection units used special uniforms with lead shirts and lead shorts; they also had military grade measuring equipment for high radioactivity.  Manzurova noticed that “Now the Japanese government calls their liquidators heroes, but at that time, we called our liquidators ‘biological robots’ because high radiation did not allow work with any electrical robots – they would break immediately.”  As an example, Manzurova told a story about a tractor that was supposed to remove the highly radioactive materials from the roof of one of the facility’s rooms. The tractor broke down in a few minutes due to the high radioactivity.  “The liquidators had to stay in a line, they ran to the roof one by one, worked for one minute, and ran back.  And because a huge number of people had to go and be exposed to extremely high levels of radioactivity, we came up with the term ‘to burn the liquidators.’ These people were then taken away and no one was interested in their fate any longer.”   

In Pripyat, the town with the most radioactive contamination after Chernobyl, one can still see propaganda signs that state that the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Reactor represents “A peaceful nuclear atom to the house of every resident of Pripyat.”  But the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant brought nothing but devastation, relocation, and illness to the region.  The photo of the mask and a toy bear depicts a “population’s life sharply divided between peaceful time and a time of turmoil after the accident.”  In fact, the toy bear shown in the image is a symbol of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow that promoted healthy and happy life of the Soviet people.  Some of the victims of Chernobyl were brought to a specialized clinic in Moscow. These victims “had acute radiation disease and were sources of radiation themselves.  Any microbe would be fatal for them and the doctor had to touch the patient through special plastic sleeves.  Due to the novelty of the situation, all of the treatments were experimental and almost all of the patients died. The government organized a special cemetery and buried corpses in lead coffins, four meters deep into the ground.” 

Currently, there is a new sarcophagus being built for Chernobyl.  Mironova worries about the shelters needed for the Fukushima reactors. “Chernobyl is one reactor and this is only one shelter.  The question is what will Fukushima have to do when there are so many reactors?  In Chernobyl everything was buried under the ground but Japan is an island and so the underground waters are near the surface.  I think this will be impossible.  Most likely, it will be transported to some other country. I am afraid the Russian government will say ‘bring your waste to us, we’ve got a lot of space.”

When Mironova first came to liquidate this accident there were neither birds nor animals.  “Two years after Chernobyl, we saw the first bird and everybody left the bus and started laughing and applauding, shouting ‘life is returning to this land!’”  This isn’t a happy ending though. Manzurova, as a scientist, still has questions: “the birds live for one season in the radioactive territory, eat contaminated food and thus become sources of radioactivity. Ducks and wild geese fly to other countries and it is not clear where and who will hunt and eat this contaminated game.”

In addition, Manzurova explained some of the psychological consequences that came out immediately after Chernobyl. “Children were afraid that their parents would die very quickly and that they would be left alone. Liquidators suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. When they first returned home they only thought about the past where they say they were fighting.  It was difficult for them to adapt to a new, peaceful life. They closed all of the pain and all of the horrible experiences that they went throughdeep inside.  But these memories did not go away; they continued to damage their health.”

Before flying to the United States, Manzurova saw the former minister of atomic energy, Yevgeny Adamov, on TV announcing that “nothing terrible happened in Chernobyl and only 1,000 people died.  Those who died afterwards, died not because of exposure to radiation but because of ‘radiophobia’.”  Manzurova was not impressed, “I would ask Mr. Adamov, ‘If a nuclear plant forms such big radiophobia among the public, then why do we need such an industry? And why does the nuclear industry not have any plans on how to cope with the accidents? There are no plans on preventive measures. Why did the Japanese population start taking iodine only after two days after the radiation release? Why did the people not evacuate in time?  The absence of these plans and policies demonstrates that the values of human life, environment and public health have very little value for the industry.”  In her final remarks, Manzurova concluded that both Fukushima and Chernobyl show that nuclear accidents damage more than just one country. “One country simply cannot cope with the aftermath of a radioactive accident; the whole world has to do something about it. And therefore the whole world should mobilize now and come up with new energy solutions.”                                                                

The presentations given by Mironova and Manzurova were extremely poignant. In the discussion that followed, the audience indicated not only their gratitude for the informative presentations but their desire to spread this message to a wide audience.

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In 2006, our partners at Green Cross Russia and Green Cross Switzerland published a book titled Unknown Chernobyl: History, Events, Facts, Lessons that provides additional information on Chernobyl.  The nuclear industry calls nuclear energy “clean,” but the possibility of a meltdown and the resulting long-term human health and environmental impacts refute this claim.  Global Green USA’sseminar series, “Energy Futures: Nuclear Power, Global Warming, and Nonproliferation,” explores the consequences of the nuclear fuel cycle from uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel production to finally spent fuel storage and the reprocessing of fuel rods. In addition, Global Green USA will explore the economics and terrorist risks of nuclear power.  Throughout these topics, we will consider the implications for global warming and for nuclear proliferation.  For more information on these events visit: http://www.globalgreen.org/events/166.