Chernobyl: A monument to folly that may outlast human civilization


In addition to the sixth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill, this month marked another grim environmental anniversary — 30 years since the April 24, 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in what was then the Soviet Union and is now the Ukraine. In a strange way, the fact that the accident occurred well behind the Iron Curtain of the 20th Century has left much of the Western world numb to the horrors that took place at Chernobyl, both in the initial meltdown and the long aftermath. Journalists from the U.S. and other nations had no way to report from the disaster zone, and the initial Soviet reaction was to deny that anything particularly significant had happened. I still remember the sketchy first news report of the atomic disaster — attempts to piece together what had happened from rumors and from spy satellites.

The reality was horrific. The massive reactor accident and fire at one of Chernobyl’s four reactors sent radioactive contamination across much of Europe. In the immediate aftermath, some 31 people — mostly firefighters and rescue workers — died from their exposure to the radiation. A large area around the plant — including a nearby city, Pripyat — was evacuated and then deemed unsafe to return. Experts are in agreement that thousands died premature deaths — although they disagree about the exact number — from thyroid cancer or other types of cancer or diseases. An area of about 1,000 square miles that was once home to roughly 120,000 people is now an uninhabited “exclusion zone.”

But the long-term nightmare is, in some ways, even more shocking. To mark the 30th anniversary, the McClatchy newspapers looked at the grim future of Chernobyl and its Reactor No. 4 which melted down:

Reactor Number 4 today is essentially an unplanned nuclear-waste dump. To serve in that role requires it to last for 3,000 years. That means the area surrounding Chernobyl will be safe to inhabit by people again in the year 4986.

How likely is that? To get an idea of what it means to contain and control a deadly and potentially devastating radioactive pile in Ukraine for 3,000 years, consider what the world looked like 3,000 years ago:

The Iron Age was beginning. The Trojan War was fairly recent news. Egypt had Pharaohs. King David was succeeded by his son, Solomon. Canaanites were the big world traders. Christ was 1,000 years from showing up. Muhammad was 1,500 years away.

The legendary founding of Rome, of Romulus and Remus and the wolf, wouldn’t take place for 300 years.

It’s not simply that a lot has changed in the last 3,000 years, it’s that almost everything has.

And yet, Detlef Appel, a geologist who runs PanGeo, a Hamburg, Germany, company that consults on such nuclear storage issues, notes that 3,000 years probably isn’t long enough. He suggests that truly safe radioactive waste storage needs to extend a million years into the future. Think back to when man’s earliest relative began to walk the Earth.

“We can trust human endeavor, perhaps, for a few hundred years, though that is doubtful,” he said. “Storage implies a way to retrieve the materials. It requires trained personnel, maintenance, updating and security. Clearly, nothing man made is more than temporary, and therefore it isn’t adequate.”

When you think about it, it’s truly remarkable that the worldwide nuclear industry didn’t shut down for good after April 1986 — when it became known just how catastrophic the impact of a nuclear failure actually was. Imagine, for example, the size of the exclusion zone that would have to be created around the Indian Point Nuclear Plant north of New York City, and how many people would have to be evacuated. And think about the tons of nuclear waste that are being created by today’s reactors, and the still unsolved problems of how to safely store that waste, and where. And yet the American industry churns ahead, with even Europe now much more aggressive in its efforts to close nuclear plants and turn to renewable energy. The energy company executives so desperate to keep aging plants like Indian Point operating should be required to make their pronouncements from the heart of Chernobyl.

Read the lengthy McClatchy expose on the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl here:

Learn the story about how I fought Big Oil on its radioactive pollution in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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