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Return to Chernobyl

by IRIS CHENG

We have just returned after completing an important mission in Ukraine taking around 70 journalists from 18 countries with us to Chernobyl, nearly 25 years after the nuclear catastrophe. It was one of the largest media trips Greenpeace has organized. These seasoned journalists asked critical and insightful questions, none of them easily moved.

But many of them were deeply disturbed by what they saw and heard often by the mundane details that were mentioned matter-of-factly by the interviewees.

Like every year Ukraine government needs to spend between six to eight percent of the fiscal budget to cope with the consequences of Chernobyl.

Like how tens of thousands of Ukrainian children need to be sent away every year to uncontaminated areas for at least a month, in order to allow the body to get rid of some of the Cesium-137 accumulated through eating everyday food like milk, mushrooms, berry jam and meat.

Like how food sold in every market needs to be tested for radionuclide like Cesium and Strontium.

Like how children of Rokytne get tonsillitis several times a year because their immune systems are compromised by radionuclide. According to deputy head doctor from the District Hospital, two-thirds of the population of 53,000 he cares for is affected by Cesium-137 contamination in food. Rokytne is 300km away from Chernobyl, on the other side of the country.

Like how the local health and sanitary station in some areas need to make maps to tell local communities where the radiation hotspots are and thus unsafe to go.

Like how in school children are taught the practical steps of radiation safety, and do emergency drills with gas masks.

Like how young expectant mothers get advice about what food they need to avoid, in order to minimise radionuclide uptake, which causes deformity in the developing fetus. They need frequent checks and if the fetus develops serious deformity then it may have to be aborted.

Like how it is considered impolite to ask workers building the new sarcophagus about their personal radiation dose. If it reaches the limit then they cannot work, which means they lose their job.

Like how radioactive waste containment and management had become an important sector of the economy, because of the Chernobyl disaster. The original sarcophagus, hastily built in the months after the accident, is meant to only last 25-30 years and now at risk of collapse. Underneath, the destroyed reactor is still on site and cannot be dismantled because of its extreme radioactivity.

The consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster lie in these mundane everyday facts. Life for these communities is brutally distorted, for centuries to come.

However, when I returned from Ukraine, I was hit by another distorted reality.

Nuclear proponents now claim that despite the fact that the situation in the Fukushima nuclear plant is still not under control, despite the massive amount of radioactive water dumped into the sea with unknown consequence Fukushima proves that nuclear energy is safe, because so far no one has been killed by the radiation?

I want them to say that to the doctors and the parents who are told that the state can now only afford to send children away for breaks in clean areas for 18 days per year. Nuclear supporters probably don’t know that it takes 50 days for the body of a child (100 days for adult) to get rid of half of its radioactive Cesium-137.

I want them to say that to the public health officials who are struggling to find funding to continue monitoring food contamination.

I want them to say that to the young woman who told us her favourite fruit is the blueberries from the forests. She knows they are contaminated by Cesium but she cannot help eating them sometimes.

I want them to take human life more seriously. There are 442 nuclear power plants in the world today and the majority are aging. There will be leaks, power outages, human errors, design flaws. The nuclear industry has no solutions to the radioactive waste problem. How many more life-crippling nuclear disasters will it take before the world gets rid of this outdated, dangerous and unnecessary technology?

IRIS CHENG is a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace International, based in Hong Kong.

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