Demystifying Nuclear Power: Chernobyl's Forgotten People/Casualties of Atomic Meltdown

Viktoria Vetrov stands in her kitchen with a jar of fresh cow milk. Photo Credit: Associated Press

Viktoria Vetrov stands in her kitchen with a jar of fresh cow milk. Photo Credit: Associated Press

by Caroline Phillips, Program Administrator

Thirty years after the atomic meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, government agencies worldwide are no closer to understanding how to handle a radiation release of this magnitude or how to protect the people they serve than they were seventy years ago during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We are reminded of this fact almost daily with the dark comedy that is Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) futile attempts prescribed by the Japanese government to contain the current ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi (like building an ice wall….really?). Meanwhile, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s government also continues to push for restart of all its atomic reactors shut down since the triple reactor meltdown that forced at least 160,000 people out of their homes. Abe’s regime proves how governments throughout the world are failing to protect people from the tragedy of atomic calamities and the ensuing radiation fallout.

A valid argument has been made that the atomic catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi is far worse than what happened at Chernobyl. Fairewinds’ Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen famously called Fukushima “Chernobyl on steroids.” Nonetheless Chernobyl is the closest example of what the world can expect and prepare for during the next three decades as we witness firsthand the unfolding nightmare within the Fukushima Prefecture.

There is a new trend in main stream media to portray the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as a burgeoning “human free” natural oasis for elks, wolves, bears, and lynxes. This idyllic biodiverse fantasy is perpetuated in documentaries like PBS“Radioactive Wolves” and The History Channel’s “Life After People”. These portrayals are not wrong in their assessment that nature will thrive at a more rapid rate without human influence, but there is a stark down-play of the real impact radiation is having on each species’ long-term development and diversity.

Photo Credit: Dr. Tim Mousseau

Photo Credit: Dr. Tim Mousseau

Tim Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, heads a team that has been conducting long-term research into biodiversity at Chernobyl and now in the area surrounding Fukushima Daiichi. In regards to the large scale fascination and subsequent celebration of flourishing larger animals like wolves and wild horses in Chernobyl, Dr. Mousseau explains, "When you put a fence around an area, it's clear that some animals will have an opportunity to expand, but because they are visible, it doesn't mean that they have increased as much as they should have, or that you have the biodiversity that you would normally have."

Dr. Mousseau further explains his field teams’ hypothesis and current findings on the effects of radiation on wildlife in this recent article for The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community:

Our hypothesis is that species differ in their ability to repair DNA, and this affects both DNA substitution rates and susceptibility to radiation from Chernobyl…In Chernobyl, all major groups of animals that we surveyed were less abundant in more radioactive areas. This includes birds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, grasshoppers, spiders, and large and small mammals.

When we dig deeper and delve into well researched, peer-reviewed scientific journal entries and reports written by leading scientists in their field, there is significant evidence of the effects that chronic exposure to radiation has on species and biology. Sadly, this level of expertise and scientific authority is not the standard for numerous reports cited by the general media. It’s not often publicized that even the pro-nuclear  International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that Chernobyl released 400 times more radioactivity into the atmosphere than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Located approximately 60 miles from Ukraine’s capital city Kiev, and a mere 12 miles from the Ukraine-Belarus border, Chernobyl and its surrounding area were home to roughly 120,000 people before being utterly destroyed by nuclear contamination. Following the atomic meltdown, the most heavily affected areas were divided into four zones. Zones 1-3 were evacuated or allowed to volunteer for resettlement. Zone 4, which includes the village of Zalyshany, only 32 mi. away from the destroyed reactors, is not considered contaminated enough for resettlement but its populace is eligible for health subsidies. 

The Associated Press (AP) courageously chose a road less travelled by diverging from the commonly publicized Chernobyl story of growing wolf packs, and instead focused on the heart-breaking circumstances faced daily by the children and mothers of Zalyshany. With Ukraine’s current state of desperate economic depression, critical government health subsidies promised to Zone 4 inhabitants have disappeared. As reported by the AP, the Ukrainian government no longer provides lunches for school children in Zone 4. “Hot meals in the schools were the only clean food, which was tested for radiation, for the children,” teacher Natalya Stepanchuk said. “Now the children have gone over to the local food, over which there is absolutely no control.”

Two of Vetrova’s four children. Photo Credit: AP

Two of Vetrova’s four children. Photo Credit: AP

According to Ukraine’s Institute of Agricultural Radiology, recent testing in Zone 4 shows radiation levels in wild-grown food such as nuts, berries and mushrooms were two to five times higher than what is considered safe. But that doesn’t deter the starving children of Zalyshany.

AP reports:

Nine-year-old Olesya Petrova’s mother is sick with cancer and can no longer work. Olesya hungrily awaits the coming of warm weather, when she can scour the woodlands for berries and other goodies.

Tragically little Olesya’s story is not uncommon. Viktoria Vetrova, mother of four, feeds her children milk from the family’s cows who graze in surrounding contaminated fields.

“We are aware of the dangers, but what can we do?” said Vetrova, standing in her kitchen after pouring a glass of milk. “There is no other way to survive.”

Vetrova’s 8-year old son already suffers from an enlarged thyroid, a condition with direct links to manmade radioactivity.

10-year-old Oksana receives a yearly check for radioactive elements. Photo Credit: AP

10-year-old Oksana receives a yearly check for radioactive elements. Photo Credit: AP

Hunger and thyroid conditions aren’t the only threats to the children of Zone 4. Yuri Bandazhevsky is a noted Belarusian pediatrician, whose studies on the effect of small doses of radiation on the human body have been widely cited abroad. Dr. Bandazhevsky says that there are “very serious pathological processes” that can lead to defects of the cardiovascular system and cancer as well. In a comment for the AP, Dr. Banazhevsky confesses, “With regret I have to state that nobody cares about this, and those hungry children are another proof of how authorities treat a population which suffers on these territories.” Due to these studies Dr. Bandazhevsky was jailed in Belarus for four years; he now lives in Ukraine.

Government agencies, whose job is to protect the public’s health safety, are not in agreement when it comes to atomic solutions. Currently, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in disagreement with U.S. President Barack Obama concerning an agreement to each dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium generated by the two countries’ nuclear weapons programs. President Obama has encouraged a dilution process followed by burial in a geological repository (yet to be found…but that discussion is for another Demystify Post). President Putin has objected to this proposal. A Russian spokesperson has clarified Putin’s stance by arguing that the “only way to irreversibly turn plutonium into a material not usable in a nuclear weapon is by changing its isotope composition. Any chemical method is reversible.” This Russian method of dealing with plutonium has been applauded by South Carolina Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott who have translated this proposal into a thumbs-up for MOX reactors, the power plants that allegedly safely use leftover atomic waste. 

Dr. Edwin Lyman, colleague of the Union for Concerned Scientists, and Dr. Frank von Hippel, faculty of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and affiliated with the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, disclaim both the Russian approach to plutonium “disposal” as well as Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott’s eager rush to use the Russian claim as a reason for MOX reactors in this memo:

This position has little technical merit, because the plutonium that will be produced by Russia’s disposal approach, irradiation in its BN-800 plutonium breeder reactor, may not be weapon- grade but it will be weapon-usable.3 Furthermore, Russia, unlike the United States, intends to separate the plutonium in the irradiated BN-800 fuel and the weapon-grade plutonium produced in the plutonium-breeding blankets around the BN-800 core so that it can be reused, which will also make it susceptible again to diversion by non-state groups.

Lest we forget, in 1986 during the meltdown at Chernobyl, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. And, it was only a mere seven years prior to the Chernobyl meltdown, that the United States experienced its first commercial atomic meltdown, and by far the largest atomic reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island. While an effort to dispose of excess plutonium turns into a squabble between two of the world’s most powerful leaders, it is savvy for us all not to forget how intimately familiar both the United States and Russia are to the potential for atomic chaos and how both of these nations failed their people when it was time to protect them from massive exposure to radiation.