Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2014
Twenty-eight years have passed since technicians at Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor accidentally set off an uncontrolled reaction early on the morning of April 26, 1986, releasing a huge radioactive plume that has affected some three billion people (and counting). Yet officials are still struggling to find a containment solution for the almost 200 tons of fuel — uranium and its highly radioactive fission by-products — and other highly radioactive materials that remain buried in the destroyed building. At least five tons of reactor fuel were released during the explosions and subsequent fire.
Overwhelmed and unprepared for the magnitude of the disaster, Soviet officials threw large amounts of concrete and human power at the problem. Over half a million workers, many of them “volunteers” (including political prisoners and former dissidents) were involved in clean-up efforts, including construction of the initial concrete “sarcophagus” that still covers the site three decades later. Bulldozers, cranes and other equipment that was too contaminated to remove were simply buried in place.
Though authorities declared at the time that it would last “for eternity,” the sarcophagus began leaking from almost the first day it was completed. Workers remaining onsite are tasked with pumping out radioactive rainwater that has been in contact with fuel rods inside. The Bulletin of Atomic the Scientists noted in September 1992 that “[t]he sarcophagus began cracking soon after it was built and must be strengthened or replaced. To complicate matters, the sarcophagus is also sinking into the earth, and the ground water is rather near the surface…”
Last year, a section of the roof near the destroyed reactor collapsed, releasing radiation into the atmosphere.
In 1995, the “Group of 7” nations agreed to finance a more long-term solution for dealing with the volatile disaster site in exchange for Ukraine’s cooperation in closing the two reactors that operated at the Chernobyl site until 2000. Finally, almost 20 years later, construction of a 20 million pound, $1.5 billion arch, designed to contain radioactive materials in the event of further degradation of the sarcophagus, is now half complete. The arch is designed to last 100 years, by which point officials hope to have a more permanent repository in place for the high-level waste. One proposal involves removing it from the disaster site in order to avoid contaminating the water supply of Kiev’s three million residents.
It is still unclear where Ukraine will find funding for this “final” solution, and the technology for how it will be achieved has yet to be developed. Artur Korneyev, the radiation specialist who first alerted Western countries to the urgency of the problems with the sarcophagus, has doubts that long-term containment can ever be achieved. As he told the New York Times April 27, “There is not the technology available to access this fuel inside the unit. It’s really difficult because the pathways are obstructed.”
Of course, containing the fuel rods is just one of many daunting problems regional governments and the rest of the world must combat as a result of this particular nuclear power disaster. Belarus and Ukraine have spent more than an estimated $250 billion each in dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophe. No one knows the true magnitude of the deaths and health effects of the radiation release; one study has attributed more than one million deaths globally to Chernobyl. Only twenty percent of children in Belarus are considered well by official standards since the accident. And the genetic damage to the human population will persist, probably not peaking for many generations.
In early May, former tennis star Elena Baltacha became the latest person to die of cancer probably caused by the Chernobyl meltdown. The thirty-year-old athlete was just three years old when the accident happened at the reactor 90 miles from her home. She was diagnosed at the age of 19 with a chronic liver disease, which forced her to stay heavily medicated just to function on the tennis court. Her primary liver cancer was rare in the United Kingdom, where she lived for most of her life.
Researchers are only beginning to understand the human health effects of Chernobyl’s radiation, let alone the effects on the ecosystem. A study released this spring by researchers at the University of South Carolina and Universite Paris-Sud shows that because radiation harms microorganisms, the dead trees, plants and other organic matter affected by the radiation around Chernobyl do not decay nearly as quickly as those elsewhere. This creates an eerily intact landscape with 28 years’ worth of dead plant material that they fear will act as a radioactive tinderbox in the event of a forest fire, releasing plumes of radio-toxic smoke to population centers.
Despite Chernobyl’s legacy of terror, reactor operators around the world are still pushing increasingly unpopular plans for new nuclear power facilities. This April 26, over 1,000 people marched in the annual Chernobyl Way rally in Belarus, demanding a halt to construction of that country’s first nuclear power reactor, the Lukashenka facility in Astravets. Activists were detained after the rally, including one man — Yury Rubtsou — who engaged in a hunger strike to protest police brutality and judicial outrage during his 30 days in jail. Rubtsou was reportedly detained for wearing a T-shirt reading “Lukashenka, go away,” which the authorities seized. — ASP
— San Francisco Bay View, Feb. 25, 2012; Radio Free Europe, Nov. 04, 2013; Smithsonian magazine, Mar. 14; Live Science, Mar. 24; New York Times, Apr. 27; Charter 97, Apr. 28, May 26, & May 27; EcoWatch (Harvey Wasserman), May 4; the Express, May 5; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 5, 2014