It is now 30 years since radiation monitoring stations in Sweden detected a massive surge in airborne contaminants and Western intelligence satellite images showed something unusual happening at a Ukrainian nuclear complex.
Not long after an ashen-faced Michal Gorbachev, the President of an increasingly disunited Soviet Union, introduced the world to a new name with confirmation of an uncontrolled fire, nuclear meltdown and massive radiation release at Chernobyl.
Without a hint of irony the Australian government is marking this anniversary with a plan to open up uranium sales to the country that hosted this continuing warning about the dangers of the nuclear industry.
Globally, nuclear accidents are ranked on a sliding scale of severity from one to seven. Chernobyl was the first time that scale reached the highest warning signal of seven. Fukushima was the next.
The disaster, the result of a reactor safety training exercise that went wrong in every possible way, spewed a radioactive cloud that affected much of Europe and has a toxic legacy that continues today. The human impacts of the disaster were – and are – massive.
At the time millions of lives were dislocated with civilian populations being removed, sometimes forcibly, from an exclusion zone around the reactor and other affected areas. And as the civilians were driven away from their old lives, Red Army conscripts were trucked in to face a new and invisible enemy.
Over half a million ‘liquidators’ were mobilised in an attempt to control the situation. Often without training or protective equipment these young men and women bore the brunt of much of the early impacts of the disaster. Their first-hand reports highlight confusion and courage while the subsequent health and social assessments are deeply sobering accounts of disease, dysfunction and despair.
Quantifying the health impacts of Chernobyl is complex and contested. Differences in modelling assumptions and quality of data coupled with multiple causation factors and delays in illness presentation all add to the uncertainty of hard numbers.
There are three basic approaches to the numbers at Chernobyl. One school of thought uses International Atomic Energy Agency estimates and weights these with a risk estimate to arrive at estimates of between 9,000 and 93,000 deaths. Another approach has been to acknowledge that the long term death toll is unknown and unknowable because of uncertainties with the science.
The third approach – to baldly state that Chernobyl’s death toll is around 50 and mostly made up of emergency responders – is profoundly misleading but strongly pushed by pro-nuclear advocates seeking to downplay the severity of the disaster.
A detailed new report prepared to mark the 30th anniversary highlights increased thyroid cancers, leukaemia and solid cancers among clean-up workers and others and elevated levels of nervous system birth defects. Five million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia still live in highly contaminated areas with a further 400 million living in regions with a continuing radioactive fingerprint.
Extensive construction and confinement work continues at Chernobyl today. The centre-piece of these efforts is around a massive new concrete shield to replace the current embrittled ‘sarcophagus’ erected over the failed reactor to stop further radioactive release.
Against this backdrop ‘adventure tourists’, independent journalists and radiation monitoring teams in the exclusion zone witness the visible return of animals and vegetation and monitor the silent continuation of radioactive contamination.
The 30th anniversary has also seen increased international attention on the current parlous state of Ukraine’s nuclear sector – an issue of great relevance to Australia as Foreign Minster Julie Bishop inked a deal to supply uranium to Ukraine earlier this month.
The country that fuelled Fukushima supplying uranium to the land that gave the world Chernobyl is hardly a match made in heaven and deserves far more scrutiny.
There are serious and unresolved safety, security, governance and performance issues facing Ukraine’s nuclear sector.
Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors – four are currently running past their design lifetime while six more reach this date in 2020. So two thirds of the Ukraine’s aging nuclear fleet will be past its use by date in four short years, with all the increased risk this involves. Civil society groups and neighbouring nations have expressed deep concerns over plans to extend the reactors operations and Ukraine’s approach has seen the nation in breach of international agreements regarding transboundary environmental impact assessment.
The recent G7 foreign ministers meeting in Japan identified the conflict in Ukraine as one of the key reasons for increased global nuclear insecurity and tension. There have been armed incursions by pro-Russian militia forces into Ukrainian nuclear facilities and these have been described by some commentators as pre-deployed nuclear targets.
Two years ago Australia prudently suspended uranium sales to Russia because of this conflict. It makes scant sense now to fuel further nuclear instability in this troubled region by starting sales to Ukraine.
The 30th anniversary of Chernobyl is an important reminder of the risks and dangers of the nuclear sector. It is not a time to ignore important lessons in a bid to advance risky and radioactive uranium sales.
Dave Sweeney is a nuclear-free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.