Chernobyl – A Nuclear Disaster
The events of 26th April 1986 have had a renewed interest since the release of HBO’s television series, examining the aftermath of the nuclear disaster. Millions across the world have watched the series. Tourism has increased to the region. Has Chernobyl renewed the debate around nuclear power? Emilia Bazydlo examines the event and how it influences our lives today.
Recently a few new objects appeared in the main gallery here at The Peace Museum. Badges, leaflets and T-shirts symbolising anti-nuclear movements and some of them refer to the Chernobyl disaster. Is Chernobyl the ultimate reason to oppose nuclear power? Below, I will examine the circumstances and effects of the accident.
26th April 1986 was a day which changed the history of humanity. That day, or rather night, an accident occurred at No.4 nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. An accident which cost dozens of lives, directly influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and which changed, probably irreversibly, our way of thinking about nuclear power. As a result of this accident, the reactor experienced two explosions and then a fire, which in turn led up to contamination of huge areas by radioactive substances. How has this accident influenced our lives, and will it continue to in the future?
It was the biggest catastrophe in the history of nuclear power. However, occurrence of such an accident was a very unlikely event. It was a consequence of both a range of disastrous, unpredictable coincidences and inconceivable omissions as well as reckless attitude to safety regulations, because of Eastern Bloc mentality during the Cold War. If predicting consequences would have been more important to the Soviet Union than the accomplishment of a plan, this blog post would not exist.
Ironically, the nuclear accident in Chernobyl was an outcome of a test. A test which should be undertaken before putting the reactor to use. But as we know, during the test the reactor completely failed. But the first character was the Soviet Union, which in spite of appearances was not only the background of the incident. The extent to which the political system of the Soviet Union influenced the lives of its citizens cannot be underestimated. The Soviet Union was the first country to open a nuclear plant in the city of Obninsk, 62 miles from Moscow, in 1954. In the Soviet Union accomplishing 110 or more percent of a plan was extremely important, a mentality which had a substantial impact regarding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Although at least some of constructors and staff operating the Chernobyl reactor were aware of its design flaws, there were no attempts of repair. The reason for that was to open the power plant within due time. The press had to have something to announce. Delays, even ones due to security reasons, were not welcomed. Furthermore, in the Soviet Union being a member of the party was worth more than expertise. Among the people in charge of the Chernobyl plant, many were not in any way related with nuclear physics or engineering including the director of the power plant, Viktor Bryukhanov, who authorised everything what happened, often against safety regulations. However, the most important factor was the reactor itself.
RBMK-1000 was a reactor constructed by Soviet engineers and produced exclusively for Soviet use, because, as it was said, its usage outside of the Soviet Union would be too problematic. Indeed, the reactor’s design presented many problems. Graphite was used as moderator blocs, but graphite is highly flammable, hence the fire after the eruption. Security systems could be turned off manually by those in charge of the plant, and this feature was used on the fateful night. But there could be also another reason: the RBMK reactors’ fuel does not need any expensive additions what makes them economic source of energy as well as eliminate the need of turning off the reactor to exchange the fuel. Combination of these two make RBMK-1000 perfect source of isotopes used for military purposes.
This type of reactor was commonly used in the Soviet Union, even though we know now it was not safe to use but, another important factor in the causes of the accident is the human factor. It is worth to remember, that the date of the test was not accidental. Soviet authorities could prise themselves on a success of the experiment during the most important socialist holiday: 1st of May- known as International Workers’ Day. The test was designed by a group of people from which only some have been competent to do that. It was supposed to be conducted by the morning shift, however due to some problems experienced in the other power plant in the area, it has to be rescheduled for night time. The test had started before the nightshift was ready to work. The nightshift was supposed to take over the experiment but was not familiar with the plan of the test as they were supposed merely to supervise the cooling of the turned off reactor. Many hand-written notes and multiple deletions on the original plan made the test even more difficult. Additionally, in charge of the test was chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, who was impulsive and opinionated. Other employees were aware of his knowledge and experience regarding atomic power, and as most of the official reports stress, many of the later decisions were made under his pressure or on his advice. Finally, because of breach of safety protocols and continuation of the test despite many alarms, the reactor exploded around 1:23:40. In fact, this was the attempt to turn off the reactor which induced the eruption. We do not know if this was an action undertaken to stop the chain reaction created earlier or simply a continuation of the test as it was supposed to end up with turning off the reactor. The first explosion was a result of growing pressure caused by steam. The second explosion was probably caused by the combustion of hydrogen. Parts of extremely flammable graphite fell onto the roof causing a fire. The fire in turn began to spread radioactive substances.
And so began to the second test. This time it was unexpected. The test the whole of humanity took part in.
What was the most tragic civil catastrophe? Many would point out to Chernobyl. Is that validated? The Chernobyl accident definitely was a tragedy, but its impact can be misjudged. The main reason of that is likely to be the nature of the accident. What hurts victims of wars or car accidents is visible. But you cannot see the most series effects of radiation. As one of the people interviewed by Svetlana Alexievich for ‘Voices of Chernobyl’ said: ‘It was constantly compared to the war. But this was bigger. War you can understand. But this? People fell silent.’ The impact of radiation on humans can sometimes be delayed by months, years or even generations. We often can observe actions caused by radiations not in a person who directly experience it but in his/her descendants. This ‘abnormality’, uncommonness might be a reason for coming to the most tragic conclusions. If we want to think about victims of Chernobyl, we need to differentiate two groups: people who were in Chernobyl or nearby at the time of the accident and the people who were affected by the radiation all over the world in the last 33 years, as well as people who will be affected for next few centuries. In the first instance the calculation is simple. In the latter it is more complicated. In the direct aftermath of the accident 237 people died from acute radiation sickness. Among them were power plant employees. Some of them were sent in without any protective clothes to directly see the reactor after the accident, because it was not believed that it could erupt. Some firemen died even the same night, 28 emergency workers- ‘liquidators’ (around half a million were employed) died in the next three months from the catastrophe. It was said that the amount of radiation the liquidators were exposed to was strictly supervised, however, this is very doubtful. Many of them was strongly affected later on.
Certainly, the worst thing which might happen after a contact with radioactive substances is the radiation sickness. In her book Alexievich presents stories of people who survived the Chernobyl accident. First of her interviewees is Ludmilla Ignatenko, the wife of deceased fireman Vasily Ignatenko. From very emotional narration, the exact description of severe radiation sickness appears. She said about her husband:
“He started to change- everyday I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, on his cheeks- at first they were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers- as white film…the colour of his face…his body…blue…red…grey brown! And it’s all so very mine!’. And later: ‘his skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became cover with boils. When he turned his head, there’d be clumps of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: ‘’It’s convenient, you don’t need a comb.’’ Soon they [soldiers employed in the hospital to care for Chernobyl survivors, because hospital staff declined to care for them] cut all their hair. I did it for him myself. […] I’m ready to do whatever it takes to so that he doesn’t think about death. And about fact that his death is horrible, that I’m afraid of him. There’s a fragment of some conversation, I’m remembering it. Someone is saying: ‘’You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, no a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You’re not suicidal. Get ahold of yourself.”
What do we know about the situation in the last 30 years? Can we predict anything for the future? Right after the accident the biggest threat was related to the presence of radioactive iodine which can be absorbed by the thyroid. It is dangerous especially for children. The time required for iodine to reduce its quantity to half of its initial value (half-life) is only a few days, so after 2 to 3 months there was almost none of it in the environment. But there are other radioactive substances which could be absorbed by the human body as they are similar to minerals we need, whose half-life is significantly longer. Therefore, to this day, in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone firemen still work to ensure safety as a fire could release radioactive substances which are currently stored by plants. The biggest efforts are put into keeping the New Safe Confinement in good condition as it stores the remains of reactor and protects the temporary ‘sarcophagus’ built right after the accident. Even knowing about the fatal safety practices of the former Soviet Union, nowadays it can be said that Chernobyl power plant and its environment is efficiently protected. At the same time, it does not mean that the reactor is not dangerous anymore.
There are many conflicting opinions about the actual impact of the disaster on those who lived in and around Chernobyl. After the accident more animals with mutations were born. Children of the liquidators born 5 years after the accident had more medical conditions in comparison to their older siblings born before 1986, according to the Chernobyl National Museum in Kiev. It is absolutely sure that the number of children with thyroid cancer increased due to radioactive iodine absorbed by this organ. Approximately 70 children died because of this disease.
However, the report of the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not note many statistically important differences. There are many reports from international, respectable institutions, which propose not only disparate but even opposing conclusions. Nowadays, we can still observe some radioactive substances from the reactor, but they significantly lost their importance in comparison to natural radioactive isotopes.
WHO and International Atomic Energy Agency estimate that as a result of Chernobyl disaster an additional 4000 death and 9000 instances of cancer is going to occur. For many these numbers are too low. For example, the Green Party of Germany predicts around 60,000 instances of death as a result of cancer caused by eruption of the reactor. Greenpeace proposes an even more worrying report: 270,000 instances of cancer, out of which approximately 100,000 are lethal. As well as around 200,000 deaths which have already occurred from 1990 to 2004. The numbers are large, but they are marginal to overall death rate from cancer. This is why the subject of Chernobyl victims is extremely difficult and probably the true impact of Chernobyl disaster is always going to be debatable.
Whilst Chernobyl undoubtedly released radioactive substances in the environment, it is important to remember that before the 1963 the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, many countries were testing nuclear weapons. Due to this, very intense nuclear fallout occurred during the early 1960s. Even after the test ban treaty was signed, many nations continued to conduct tests until it came into force. It is thought that Chernobyl emitted to the atmosphere less than 1% of what was produced by nuclear tests in the 1960s. Therefore, the overall use of nuclear power, and in particular nuclear weaponry, were cause for concern, and remain so to this day.
Chernobyl became a synonym for a catastrophe which threatens everyone even after 30 years, but in reality, it probably does not affect us physically anymore. Nevertheless, Chernobyl led us into the epoch of new way of thinking. It is not to say that Chernobyl accident was not a tragedy. Of course, it was a tragedy both for atomic science and humanity as well as the directly affected people. There are many people who will never think about civil nuclear power in the way it could be thought before the disaster. Is it justified? Regardless of the answer, there is no doubt that Chernobyl became the icon of nuclear safety and a strong argument used by anti-nuclear movements, what had an impact on policies as well as on popular culture. It can be said, that these movements achieve their goal. In 2005, the majority of people from 14 out of 18 countries which took part in International Atomic Energy Survey are reluctant to support building of new power plants and the potential climate change benefits of using the nuclear power influences positively only 10% of respondents.
The Peace Museum explores the history of anti-nuclear campaigns through the exhibition in the main gallery. The display focuses strongly on women’s role in campaigning for nuclear disarmament through the example of Women’s Action for Disarmament March and Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Placards, photos, a banner and objects from the camp remind us about the activity of anti-nuclear movements during the Cold War, when the thought of nuclear weapons were prominent in general consciousness. But the debate about nuclear weapons and power did not end with the Cold War: anti-nuclear movements still campaign today.