Thirty Years after Chernobyl, Human Suffering and Economic Losses Continue

By Paul Walker, Environmental Security and Sustainability Director, Green Cross International

Today, 26 April, 2016 is the 30th anniversary of the catastrophic nuclear power reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Green Cross makes note of this historic tragedy, recognizes the hundreds of thousands of victims who continue to suffer from the accident, and pledges to continue to pursue less risky, less damaging, and more sustainable energy options which address global warming and nuclear non-proliferation.

As we commemorate the many victims of the Chernobyl disaster thirty years ago, we must still remember that the number of victims and the material costs continue to rise. The effort by Ukraine to build a new sarcophagus (“New Safe Containment”) to cover the Chernobyl plant is now ten years behind schedule and costing billions of dollars. And Ukraine estimates that the “zone of alienation,” an exclusion zone with a radius of thirty kilometres around the plant, will not be safe for human habitation for 20,000 years.

Chernobyl was the first Level-7 (the worst possible case) nuclear disaster, while the 2011 Fukushima nuclear catastrophe has now become the second such worst-case scenario. A new study by Professor Jonathan Samet and Joann Seo at the University of California Institute of Global Health, commissioned by Green Cross Switzerland, cites rough long-term damage estimates for Chernobyl at $700 billion or more (Click here for the full study).

In the early morning of 26 April, 1986, during a nuclear reactor systems test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, reactor #4 experienced a catastrophic power surge which resulted in an explosion, fire, and release of dangerous radioactivity downwind over thousands of miles and across several national borders. The Chernobyl reactors were early Soviet designs without any full containment vessels, so enormous amounts of radiation, smoke, and debris were released, covering the immediate Pripyat area with deadly radiation. Some estimates indicate that the out-of-control reactor surged to 33,000 megawatts (MW), over ten times its normal operating energy output, and spewed up to 30,000 roentgens/hour in and around the facility. Experts estimate that 500 roentgens over five hours is lethal for human beings.

Some Chernobyl workers received lethal radiation doses in a minute or less. Emergency response teams, including local fire fighters, also suffered high radiation doses. Fires were finally extinguished over two weeks later, with over 5,000 tons of sand dumped on the reactor from helicopters.

It’s estimated that 31 workers died immediately, with several thousand people subsequently contracting cancer and dying. The 2005 Chernobyl Report of the IAEA, other United Nations agencies, and the governments of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine estimated that another 4,000 people would die of cancer caused by the catastrophe; the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates 27,000 cancer deaths. By 2000, 350,400 people had been evacuated from Soviet regions surrounding Chernobyl. Over 160,000 square kilometres, primarily in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, have been badly contaminated with radiation, with another ten countries as far away as Italy and Norway also impacted.

As we all strive to build a more secure and sustainable world in the 21st century, both the Chernobyl and Fukushima catastrophes, along with many lesser accidents including the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States, illustrate the terrible price which we have all paid to date for nuclear power, no longer a safe and sustainable option for power generation.