The Uneasy Sleep of Chernobyl
By Sue Prent
I was an expectant mother here in the United States in 1986 when news of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster began to seep through the veil of secrecy surrounding the Soviet Union. Though the events leading to the meltdown began unfolding on April 26 of that year, news of any potential for international impacts was well-off the radar of average Americans like me until the warmth of approaching summer drew us into our gardens.
It was the first time since our childhood civil-defense drills in school that I had even thought about radiation. Suddenly, Strontium-90, the “bone seeker,” was in the news, and I remember harboring estrogen-fed pangs of empathy for expectant mothers whom fate had placed in Ukraine that spring.
We were told that Chernobyl was on the other side of the globe, so there was little chance of the radiation reaching us all the way over here. Of course, in due course some of it did, but that time America won the luck lottery.
Maps of the radiation release in 1986 describe a graceful but malevolent plume, blanketing the western Soviet regions, curling in wispy trails through Europe, and petering out over Asia and beyond.
As was the case at Fukushima Daiichi, the radiation deposited in various regions over which the lethal cloud drifted, was unevenly distributed and spotty. Even if the Soviet overlords had been fully prepared and acted in a responsible manner, attempting to quickly evacuate the known affected areas would still have left “hot spots” scattered well beyond the perceived scope of the disaster.
If the Soviets had applied one-tenth of the effort that they invested in suppressing bad news to ensuring that the plant had operated safely in the first place, and to planning evacuation in the event of a nuclear power disaster, many thousands of lives and tens of thousands of people with life-altering disabilities might have been spared.
Thanks to Soviet obstructionism and a distinct lack of curiosity on the part of international nuclear regulators, we were left with virtually no usable lessons from Chernobyl. The world received absurd underestimates of the human toll and of the quantity of radioactive material that was ejected into the atmosphere from hundreds of tons of plutonium and other isotopes present in the molten reactor core.
Now we confront a fresh hazard rising from the ghost of Pripyat where the devastated Chernobyl reactor lies inadequately entombed.
In case you missed the news, there is an escalating war going on in eastern Ukraine. Pripyat lies to the west near Kiev, the capitol. That’s just across the Dneiper River from the contested region.
Russia doesn’t want to wake the sleeping giant any more than Ukraine does, but in a war, accidents happen…and renegade terrorists happen…and forest fires most certainly happen, as well.
This is perhaps the biggest worry in Chernobyl, because fires break out every day, in war and in peace.
Incineration re-releases all of the deadly isotopes that have been sequestered for almost 30 years inside living trees that were blanketed with fallout way back in 1986. The tree roots drank deeply of the radioactive groundwater all around them.
Funny thing about Chernobyl: the tiny insects that routinely reduce dead trees to formless mulch in the rest of the world seem to have disappeared from the habitat of the Exclusion Zone.
Oh, we’ve all heard about the “Wolves of Chernobyl,” those supposed harbingers of natural resilience in Pripyat, that seem to defy the alarming Geiger counter readings. The nuclear industry has taken great pains to highlight a superficial resurgence of life in the Exclusion Zone. What they leave out is the truth that biodiversity in the region has been dealt a deadly blow by radiation.
The balance of nature in that “Peaceable Kingdom” has been disrupted in ways that will magnify with time. While some larger mammals like the celebrity wolves may appear to be doing well right now, it is to a great extent because their principle predators, humans, have been removed from the environment.
Smaller organisms like birds and insects have not been so lucky. Greatly reduced in number, many species now bear the signs of advancing mutations.
Contrary to what many people may think, the genetic imprint of radiation does not limit itself to a single generation. The effect is redoubled by the presence of ever degrading isotopes in the living environment of the offspring, where they are routinely re-introduced through ingestion, then redistributed to affect different cells in possibly different organs of future generations.
These facts bring us back to the trees and the tiny organisms nature relies upon to return them to the soil. In the absence of those organisms, the trees stand tall, withering through winter cold and summer heat. Forest fires are the real enemy in this region of the Ukraine. Winds sweep the fires through tinder dry stands of exhausted trees, releasing and wildly redistributing the radioactive particles that have long been held in check within their living hosts.
This deadly cycle of contamination will repeat countless times, as it will take hundreds to thousands of years to reduce all the different isotopes in this lethal radioactive payload to a state of harmlessness. With each iteration more individuals will be affected, absorbing the genetic signature of nuclear damage and passing it along to their progeny.
Because the Soviet regime officially blocked any effort to honestly capture disease and morbidity statistics resulting from Chernobyl, any estimate of the total number will inevitably fail to capture the true scale of this tragedy. The lack of accountability in what was then the Soviet Union is compounded by the special interests of governments and regulatory agencies all over the globe, which found it convenient not to press the issue at the risk of losing public support for their own nuclear energy programs.
Apologists for and promoters of nuclear energy have so feared repercussions from an informed public that they have made every effort to discredit virtually all evidence that radiation, other than that sufficient to cause obvious immediate injury, can be harmful in any way. This singularly fantastic position depends on both a gullible and uncurious audience for its efficacy, and the fact that no one wants to believe a truly frightening fact about a world we feel powerless to change.
Despite their best efforts, it is impossible to overlook the photographic evidence of deformities and the cumulative record of dramatic changes in morbidity, disease and mutations among populations in areas that were most heavily exposed. That accurate record is available to anyone who cares to read the detailed and dispassionate compilation provided in “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” by biologist, Alexey V. Yablokov and his colleagues at the Russian Academy of Science.
These scientists do not need to make the argument that the dramatic increase in cancers and deformities amongst the population were the direct result of radiation exposure. The statistics by themselves make that case admirably well.
Future generations are sadly destined to bear witness to this tragic truth.