The Lesson of Chernobyl


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,"


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