With the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor catastrophe looming, an appeal has been set up to pay for a huge new sarcophagus to cover the site. So far, the fund is still twenty-five percent short of its goal.
As Japan struggles with its own nuclear crisis at Fukushima, the world is once more debating the problems of nuclear power. Many are using official figures for the death toll at Chernobyl to argue that nuclear energy is not as harmful as some would have us believe.
Even the great green campaigner, George Monbiot, of the Guardian newspaper has attempted to convince us that nuclear is best. His argument, that a stop to building nuclear reactors would result in a swing back towards coal and gas-fired power stations, does hold some water.
Where Monbiot caves on his principles is in suggesting one evil is somehow more preferable than another.
The numbers associated with Chernobyl: deaths from the immediate accident, deaths resulting from the acute effects of the accident, long-term sufferers, and birth defects resulting from the accident, have been bandied about for the last twenty-five years.
One favorite among scientists (and we don’t know how many of them are employed by the nuclear industry) is that rises in disease incidence cannot be directly linked to Chernobyl. There could be other causes. Unfortunately, they don’t seem too keen to ascertain just what these ‘other causes’ might be.
Monbiot, himself, discusses an article by the Guardian’s environment editor, John Vidal:
On a visit to Ukraine in 2006, he saw “deformed and genetically mutated babies in the wards … adolescents with stunted growth and dwarf torsos; foetuses without thighs or fingers”. What he did not see was evidence that these were linked to the Chernobyl disaster.”
Just what the hell else are they likely to be linked to?
Monbiot quoted one sentence from Vidal’s article. He could, at least, have had the grace to continue the next paragraph:
This was 20 years after the accident but we heard of many unusual clusters of people with rare bone cancers. One doctor, in tears, told us that one in three pregnancies in some places was malformed and that she was overwhelmed by people with immune and endocrine system disorders. Others said they still saw caesium and strontium in the breast milk of mothers living far from the areas thought to be most affected, and significant radiation still in the food chain. Villages testified that “the Chernobyl necklace” – thyroid cancer – was so common as to be unremarkable; many showed signs of accelerated ageing.”
No link to Chernobyl? Where else could the caesium and strontium have come from?
Ukraine needs one billion dollars to finance its massive new radiation shield over the Chernobyl reactor. It has raised three-quarters of that figure. The European Union is about to cough up another $153 million.
If Chernobyl is not significantly dangerous, why, in this age of European recession, is one billion dollars being spent on encasing it?
According to the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych:
“The catastrophe has affected millions of people; thousands died and tens of thousands continue to suffer.”
He should know, shouldn’t he?
The argument over nuclear power will likely rumble on for a long time. Radiation is an invisible enemy. Its effects may not surface for years, by which time no-one can speak with certainty as to the cause. That’s quite handy, if you’re the one to be sued for millions of dollars in compensation.
Personally, I’ll adhere to the words of Dr. Alexey Yablokov, co-author of “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
He cautioned against the downplaying of the seriousness of the radiation releases at Fukushima:
When you hear ‘no immediate danger’ then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.”
 “Chernobyl new radiation shield funding fall short” BBC, April 19th 2011
 “Evidence Meltdown” George Monbiot, April 4th 2011
 “Nuclear’s green cheerleaders forget Chernobyl at our peril” Guardian, April 1st 2011
 “Russian Chernobyl Expert Warns of Dire Consequences for Health Around Fukushima” CommonDreams.org, March 25th 2011
Filed under: Big fight over tiny atom