On April 26, 1986, a reactor at Chernobyl exploded, setting off the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe. It is tragically symbolic that exactly 25 years later, another nuclear disaster struck Japan. It is doubly tragic that the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant may eclipse what happened at Chernobyl.
The death toll from the Chernobyl explosion remains a hotly debated issue even today. International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Yukiya Amano said an international Chernobyl conference in Kiev, Ukraine, that around 50 people engaged in the immediate emergency and recovery operations had died. Many experts find this figure grossly understated.
Greenpeace has predicted that Chernobyl may ultimately cause some 2,70,000 cancer cases, more than 90,000 of which could prove fatal. In a book published in 2007, Russian biologist Alexei Yablokov and two Ukrainian researchers concluded that some 9,85,000 people had already died, mainly of cancer, till 2004. The book, called Chernobyl in Russian, was brought out in English two years later by the New York Academy of Sciences under the title Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.
Dr. Yablokov, former environmental advisor to the Russian President, has since updated his estimate of Chernobyl- related deaths, including stillbirths, to 1.6 million.
Such estimates are fiercely contested by IAEA experts. The official view of the U.N. watchdog is that the expected death toll among those affected by high radiation doses at Chernobyl may reach 4,000 in the coming decades. Compare this with the official data from Ukraine’s Health Ministry: 530,000 died from radiation in the former Soviet state between 1987 and 2004.
Glaring discrepancies in casualty figures are mainly due to the refusal by the IAEA and the World Health Organisation to link increased disease incidence in affected territories to radiation, and to recognise the cancer risks and genetic impact of low radiation doses.
Dr. Yablokov noted that his casualty estimates were based on over 5,000 scientific papers and radiological surveys, whereas the IAEA and the WHO used only 350 sources for their conclusions. While the IAEA claims that the ecological situation around Chernobyl is improving.
Presently, heavy transuranium elements – strontium-90, cesium-137 and plutonium – have started spreading from Chernobyl across Ukraine with underground water. Plutonium has been detected in water wells in Kiev and the Dnieper River. 60 km away from Chernobyl beta radiation is 1,000 times above normal levels.
Experts have long pointed to an inherent conflict of interest in the IAEA’s twin role as promoter and regulator of nuclear technologies and material. The IAEA’s main statutory goal is to promote peaceful atoms.
Many researchers in Russia and other countries claim that the nuclear lobby has been deliberately suppressing the truth about radiation risks. Soon after its establishment in 1957, the IAEA signed agreements with the WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other U.N. agencies, which imposed constraints on independent studies of radiation and health.
The IAEA/WHO agreement required that whenever either organisation proposes to initiate a programme or activity on a subject in which the other organisation has or may have a substantial interest, the first party shall consult the other with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement. This gave the IAEA effective veto power on dissenting voices.
The agreements played an extremely negative role for the study of radiation effects in Chernobyl. Some information was withheld and selective methods were applied to exclude large numbers of radiation-affected people from being monitored for medium and long-term effects. Even after the Fukushima accident was awarded the top level 7 nuclear disaster rating, the same as Chernobyl, the IAEA continued to claim that the Japanese accident was no match for the Soviet reactor disaster.
An International Conference
On 26 April 2011, it was exactly 25 years since the disastrous accident at Chernobyl. It was an incident that affected not just Ukraine, Belarus and Russia but the whole world, changing not just the communities involved but attitudes to nuclear power on a global scale.
International radiation standards, strategies for improving the nuclear engineering process, safety standards and procedures and processes for managing nuclear waste all came under review after the incident. Now, a quarter of a century later, the time has come to evaluate those radiation safety measures, examine what can be learned from any shortcomings and outline an action plan for the future.
This international Conference, “Chernobyl, 25 Years On: Safety for the Future”, was held in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 20- 22 April, 2011, is intended to be a forum for the scrutiny of the disaster mitigation measures implemented after the Chernobyl disaster, and the examination of how the lessons learned can be used to improve nuclear and radiation safety around the world.
The aim of the Conference was to examine how the most current international knowledge and experience can be applied in solving the following problems:
i. Reducing nuclear and radiation risks; how the most recent technologies and scientific advances can be used to improve safety in the future; how governments and individuals can work together to achieve this.
ii. The consequences of nuclear and radiation accidents for the population, health and the environment;
iii. The decommissioning of Chernobyl NPP and strategies for radioactive waste and spent fuel management
iv. Improving the prevention of nuclear and other technology-related emergencies, and the response to any that may still happen.
v. The development of emergency plans, and public awareness and involvement in emergency planning
vi. Post-accident radiation monitoring;
vii. The radioactive consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe; farming in contaminated areas, social and economic development of areas affected by the disaster: successful development models, overcoming stereotypes and attracting investment to such regions.