FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Lesson of Chernobyl

by HARVEY WASSERMAN

Twenty-one years ago this week, lethal radiation poured into the breezes over Europe and into the jet stream above, carrying death and disease around the planet.

It could be happening again as you read this: either by error, as at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, or by terror, as could have happened on September 11, 2001.

Those who now advocate a “rebirth” of this failed technology forget what happened during these “impossible” catastrophes, or refuse to face their apocalyptic reality, both ecological and financial.

Radiation monitors in Sweden, hundreds of miles away, first detected the fallout from the blast at Chernobyl Unit 4. The reactor complex had just been extolled in the Soviet press as the ultimate triumph of a “new generation” in atomic technology.

The Gorbachev government hushed up the accident, then reaped a whirlwind of public fury that helped bring down the Soviet Union. The initial silence in fact killed people who might otherwise have taken protective measures. In downtown Kiev, just 80 kilometers away, a parade of uninformed citizens—many of them very young—celebrated May Day amidst a hard rain of lethal fallout. It should never have happened.

Ten days after the explosion, radiation monitors at Point Reyes Station, on the California coast, detected that fallout. A sixty percent drop in bird births soon followed. (The researcher who made that public was fired).

Before they happened, reactor pushers said accidents like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were “impossible.” But.

To this day, no one knows how much radiation escaped from TMI, where it went or who it harmed. But 2400 central Pennsylvanians who have sued to find out have been denied their day in court for nearly thirty years. The epithet “no one died at Three Mile Island” is baseless wishful thinking.

To this day also, no one knows how much radiation escaped from Chernobyl, where it went and who was harmed. Dr. Alexey Yablokov, former environmental advisor to the late President Boris Yeltsin, and president of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, estimates the death toll at 300,000. The infant death and childhood cancer rates in the downwind areas have been horrific. Visual images of the innumerable deformed offspring make the most ghastly science fiction movies seem tame.

Industry apologists have stretched the limits of common decency to explain away these disasters. Patrick Moore, who falsely claims to be a founder of Greenpeace, has called TMI a “success story.” An industry doctor long ago argued that Chernobyl would somehow “lower the cancer rate.”

In human terms, such claims are beneath contempt. As one of the few reporters to venture into central Pennsylvania to study the health impacts of TMI, I can recall no worse experience in my lifetime than interviewing the scores of casualties.

The farmers made clear, with appalling documentation, that the animal death toll alone was horrendous. But the common human symptoms, ranging from a metallic taste the day of the accident to immediate hair loss, bleeding sores, asthma and so much more, came straight out of easily available literature from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There is no mystery about what happened downwind from TMI, only a conscious, well-funded corporate, media and judicial blackout.

At Chernobyl, the experience was repeated a thousand-fold. More than 800,000 (that’s NOT a typo) Soviet draftees were run through the radioactive ruins as “jumpers,” being exposed for 90 seconds or so to do menial clean-up work before hustling out. The ensuing cancer rate has been catastrophic (this huge cohort of very angry young men subsequently played a key role in bringing down the Soviet Union).

In both cases, “official” literature negating (at TMI) or minimizing (at Chernobyl) the death toll are utter nonsense. The multiple killing powers of radiation remain as much a medical mystery as how much fallout escaped in each case and where it went.

The economic impacts are not so murky. Moore’s assertion that TMI was a success story is literally insane. A $900 million asset became a $2 billion clean-up job in a matter of minutes. At Chernobyl, the cost of the accident in lost power, damaged earth, abandoned communities and medical nightmares has been conservatively estimated at a half-trillion dollars, and still climbing.

The price of a melt-down or terror attack at an American nuke is beyond calculation. In most cases, reactors built in areas once far from population centers have now been surrounded by development, some of it bumping right up to the plant perimeters. Had the jets that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 instead hit Indian Point Units Two and Three, 45 miles north, the human and financial costs would have been unimaginable. Imagine the entire metropolitan New York area being made permanently uninhabitable, and then calculate out what happens to the US economy.

There remains no way to protect any of the roughly 450 commercial reactors on this planet from either terror attack or an error on the part of plant operators.

Those advocating more nukes ignore the myriad good reasons why no private insurance company has stepped forward to insure them against catastrophe. Those who say future accidents are impossible forget that exactly the same was said of TMI and Chernobyl.

The commercial fuel cycle DOES emit global warming in the uranium enrichment process. Uranium mining kills miners. Milling leaves billions of tons of tailings that emit immeasurable quantities of radioactive radon. Regular reactor operations spew direct heat in to the air and water. They also pump fallout into the increasingly populated surroundings, with impacts on the infant death rate that have already been measured and proven. And, of course, there is no solution for the management of high-level waste, a problem the industry promised would be solved a half-century ago.

Economically, early forays into a “new generation” of reactors have already been plagued by huge cost overruns and construction delays. At best they would take ten to fifteen years to build, by which time renewable sources and efficiency—which are already cheaper than new nukes—will have totally outstripped this failed technology. Small wonder Wall Street wants no part of this radioactive hype, which is essentially just another corporate campaign for taxpayer handouts.

This past Earth Day an orgy of corporate greenwashing, aided by the always-compliant major media, tried to portray nukes as “green” energy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We will never get to Solartopia, a sustainable economy based on renewables and efficiency, as long as atomic power sucks up our resources and threatens us with extinction.

Twenty-one years ago this week, Chernobyl became something far worse than a mere warning beacon. The radiation it spewed still travels our jet stream, still lodges in our bodies, still harms our children.

Only by burying this failed, murderous beast can we get to a truly green future.

HARVEY WASSERMAN, senior advisor to Greenpeace USA since 1990, is author of “Solartopia: Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030,
 

Harvey Wasserman wrote SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth. His Green Power & Wellness Show is at www.prn.fm

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
David Yearsley
Handel’s Executioner
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail