Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Could Chernobyl happen again? Have Ukraine, Russia and Belarus learnt anything?

Today, as we remember the tragedy of the world's worst accident (the title of a 1987 book on he explosion), we also remember all the lives affacted by its legacy

Children with terrible mutilations and mutations, a huge area's population left without hope, and many more with a ticking time bomb of cancers many still waiting to fruit.

The consequences of the 'peaceful atom' (as it was called in official Soviet propaganda) has, according to some estimates, affected more than seven million people.

Hundreds of people died from direct exposure to the high doses of radiation; many more continue to die from related diseases.

The economic damage to the regions affected in Ukraine and Belarus, brings its human cost too. And all over northern Europe, conaminated land still results in restrictions on animals.

The nuclear industry is adamant that the combination of events which led to Chernobyl's explosion could never happen again. The reactor design is different. Safety procedures are more stringent, information flow is more open, and so on.

All of this is true. but the very nature of an accident is that it occurs as a result of a combination of unforseen factors.

And foreseen ones. Like greed and the desire to make money. How so? Read on. We begin with a short story...

Back to 1986

"On the 1 May, me and my parents went to the countryside, to have a nice day together in the sun and gather some dandelions.

"We walked around, ran in the fields, played, dined on the grass and collected a whole bag of flowers.

"Happy, tired and covered with dust, we came home.

"Next evening my father, who worked in the energy sector, came home pale-faced and brought something I've never seen before.

"He said it was a 'dosimeter' to measure radiation - a word known to me only from political propaganda of the so-called 'peace lessons' in school.

"He measured the flowers first, and the dosimeter beeped madly.

"We threw them away, as well as the trainers, clothes we'd been wearing that day.

"Only at that moment we started to realise what had really happened on 26 April at Chernobyl- the scale of disaster official propaganda was silent about.

"We hardly knew that it was only the beginning of an endless story, and that we'll remember the year 1986 forever."

This is the testimony of one survivor.

Has the region learnt from the experience? Could it never happen again? Let's see what Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have done since then.


In 1993, overturning a previous resolution banning new nuclear development, the moratorium was cancelled, and nuclear projects were renewed, focusing on the unfinished 2nd reactor unit at Khmelnitsky and 4th unit at Rivne nuclear power plants (K2/R4).

Ignoring warnings about the danger of continuing with outdated technology, as well as the technical difficulties of 'crossbreeding' Soviet projects with Western ones, the government had only one concern; where to get the cash.

Western governments and international bodies, which insisted on the closure of Chernobyl, were told it would only be possible after receiving the funds needed for K2/R4.

Initially the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) promised to pay but then changed its mind, perhaps realising that nuclear energy is not the best option - especially in a country where a similar amount of energy could be saved by energy conservation programmes, which were practically non-existent.

This changed when a determined man, the head of the state nuclear energy company "Energoatom", Serhiy Tulub, was appointed energy minister.

In spite of public opposition and international concern, K2 was launched in August, and R4 in October 2004.

In July 2004 EBRD and Euroatom made an unprecedented decision - to provide Ukraine a loan of $125m on the security of K2/R4.

The loan is over 18 years, with the payments coming ultimately from people's taxes.

Poor Ukrainian citizens have already paid for the new units due to a governmental decree in which energy prices were raised to pay for the construction.

Regardless of the proclaimed 'independence' from Russian oil provided by nuclear power, Ukraine still imports nuclear fuel...from Russia, and until recently sent back the nuclear waste.

To reduce this dependency, two liquid nuclear waste storages were created.

In Jan 2005 "Energoatom" announced that work on a new solid waste storage plant will be carried out by US company Holtec International.

The new Ukrainian government thought that seeking US cooperation in the construction of its own nuclear fuel-cell capabilities would finally eliminate the dependence from Russia and allow Ukraine to produce even more energy.

But really, Ukraine has no need to produce more - already much of its energy is exported to Central and Eastern-European neighbours.

So: Europe gets cheap energy, the Ukrainian government some cash, Western companies get contracts and the Ukrainian people have the loans and debts to repay, 15 nuclear power stations, three nuclear waste storages and the prospect of a fully complete nuclear industry in their disaster-ravaged country.


Some of Russia's old reactors are of the same type as Chernobyl - RBMK - as well as outdated versions of Soviet-constructed VVER.

But the disaster never seriously affected the powerful Russian nuclear lobby.

In December 2004 the lives of the oldest reactors were extended and the Russian nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, is developing new nuclear power stations.

In 2001, the Russian parliament, under pressure from the Kremlin and in the face of public opposition, adopted a law allowing the importation of nuclear waste from other countries.

Officials painted a picture of huge amounts of cash pouring into Russia's coffers but this didn't happen: frightened by the appalling environmental conditions and prospects of technological disaster, no major Western government has dealt with them.

The only countries that export waste to Russia are Bulgaria and Ukraine.

The waste from Bulgaria and Ukraine arrives by long-distance railway but the security and disaster prevention measures are either unknown to the local authorities, or labelled "top-secret".

Every now and then a smuggler carrying weapons grade plutonium is caught leaving Russia. How many get through undetected?


Chernobyl is 7 km from the Ukrainian-Belarus border and so Belarus was hit hard by the disaster.

About 23% of the whole territory has been officially recognised as radioactively contaminated.

In 1996 MPs adopted a 10-year moratorium on nuclear power.

It's unlikely it will be renewed this year.

Belarus' authoritarian president Aleksandr Lukashenka, started to talk about the prospect of a "Belarus nuclear power plant" a couple of years ago, and now this proposal is talked about openly in partnership with the French.

Last year many of the contaminated areas were proclaimed 'clean'.

At the same time, compensation was given only to selected people - those designated "really harmed" by the disaster.

While the impact of radioactivity on human health is still unclear, a government paper claims that the only indicator of harm is cancer of the thyroid gland.

The strategy includes the idea that these 'clean' territories should now become economically 'self-sufficient', develop private business and compete on the global market.

Such a change has been met enthusiastically not only by Belarus officials, but also international institutions: the World Bank agreed to provide money to the isolated regime to help implement the project.

So, the governments of all three affected states have managed to effectively silence or ignore anti-nuclear opposition and plan openly to revive the industry.

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Anonymous said...

This article is horribly biased

Low Carbon Kid said...