Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, May 02, 2005

"Chernobyl 19th Anniversary," May 2, 2005.

This week, we take a walk down memory lane as people in Belarus, Ukraine, the Russian Federation and even Lithuania commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident.

Ironically, it was a good week to begin commemorating the Chernobyl tragedy. George Bush has been speaking more and more about energy. At his most recent press conference, he urged the development of new nuclear power plants.

The beginning of the review conference for the Nonproliferation Treaty this morning to run until May 27 is another good reason to think seriously about Chernobyl. Nuclear power reactors and research reactors are the engines that allow states that wish to develop nuclear weapons. Pakistan and India developed their nuclear bombs in programs that made use of Canadian CANDU reactors. The Israeli nuclear weapons program is based on a French research reactor.

But of course, the best reason of all, the accident in reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station took place on the night of April 25 to 26, 1986, during a test. The operating crew planned to test whether the turbines could produce enough energy in the event of a power loss to keep the coolant pumps running until the emergency diesel generator was activated.

"In order to prevent the test run of the reactor being interrupted, the safety systems were deliberately switched off. For the test, the reactor had to be powered down to 25 per cent of its capacity. This procedure did not go according to plan: for unknown reasons, the reactor power level fell to less than 1 per cent. The power therefore had to be slowly increased. But 30 seconds after the start of the test, there was a sudden and unexpected power surge. The reactor's emergency shutdown (which should have halted the chain reaction) failed.

"Within fractions of a second, the power level and temperature rose many times over. The reactor went out of control. There was a violent explosion. The 1000-tonne sealing cap on the reactor building was blown off. At temperatures of over 2000°C, the fuel rods melted. The graphite covering of the reactor then ignited. In the ensuing inferno, the radioactive fission products released during the core meltdown were sucked up into the atmosphere" (

The Chernobyl accident helped to dim the public's memory of Three Mile Island, a reactor in Harrisburg, Pennasylvania where a similar accident had been narrowly averted 7 years before in 1979. (March 28).

Last week, a blogger who goes by the moniker of euroforex wrote this brief recollection: I lived in a Soviet block apartment complex in Lithuania that was built as relocation housing for hundreds of families that were exposed to Chernobyl. From our fifth floor apartment window we could see the ravage of the radiation cloud upon the agricultural landscape that nearly destroyed all of Lithuania's rich fertile lands. One may recall that 2 million people formed a human chain in protest of any further building of nuclear power plants in the Baltic States" euroforex

Just a few weeks ago, President Bush told the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce "Because our foreign energy dependence is growing, our ability to take actions at home that will lower prices for American families is diminishing. Our dependence on foreign energy is like a foreign tax on the American Dream -- the tax our citizens pay every day in higher gas prices, higher cost to heat and cool their homes -- a tax on jobs. Worst of all, it's a tax increasing every year....I believe America should not live at the mercy of global trends and the decisions of other nations....If we're serious about diversifying away from foreign sources of energy, Congress needs to send me a bill that includes liability protection and regulatory certainty for nuclear power plants" (Bush Hispanic Chamber Apr 20 05).

Federally funded liability protection and regulatory certainty might help nuclear plant owners to keep down dollar costs, but they would have been no comfort at all to those on the front line at Chernobyl.

"To put out the fire and thus stop the release of radioactive materials, firefighters pumped cooling water into the core of the reactor during the first ten hours after the accident. This unsuccessful attempt to put out the fire was then abandoned. From 27 April to 5 May, more than 30 military helicopters flew over the burning reactor. They dropped 2400 tonnes of lead and 1800 tonnes of sand to try to smother the fire and absorb the radiation.

"These efforts were however unsuccessful. In fact they made the situation worse: heat accumulated beneath the dumped materials. The temperature in the reactor rose again, and thus also the quantity of radiation emerging from it. In the final phase of firefighting, the core of the reactor was cooled with nitrogen. Not until 6 May (11 days after it started) were the fire and the radioactive emissions under control (

Last Wednesday, Skip Bowman, the Nuclear Energy Institute's president and chief executive officer called nuclear power "an emission-free source of electricity" and praised President Bush for "his willingness to embrace new ideas." Bowman spoke of his hope that regulatory certainty...will be established, and that the risk insurance program ... the president is proposing never will be needed" (Nuclear energy industry Apr 27 05).

Needed or not, more was required of the families who actually suffered through the details of "emission-free" nuclear power in Chernobyl. Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, a father, recalls the tragic details.

"We didn’t just lose a town, [he says] we lost our whole lives. We left on the third day. The reactor was on fire. I remember one of my friends saying, “It smells of reactor.” It was an indescribable smell.

"They announced over the radio that you couldn’t take your belongings! All right, I won’t take all my belongings, I’ll take just one belonging. I need to take my door off the apartment and take it with me. I can’t leave the door. It’s our talisman, it’s a family relic. My father lay on this door. I don’t know whose tradition this is, but my mother told me that the deceased must be placed to lie on the door of his home.

"I took it with me, that door – at night, on a motorcycle, through the woods. It was two years later, when our apartment had already been looted and emptied. The police were chasing me. “We’ll shoot! We’ll shoot!” They thought I was a thief. That’s how I stole the door from my own home.

"I took my daughter and my wife to the hospital. They had black spots all over their bodies. These spots would appear, then disappear. They were about the size of a five-kopek coin. But nothing hurt. They did some tests on them. My daughter was six-years-old. I’m putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: “Daddy, I want to live, I’m still little.” And I had thought she didn’t understand anything.

"Can you picture seven little girls shaved bald in one room? There were seven of them in the hospital room … My wife couldn’t take it. “It’d be better for her to die than to suffer like this. Or for me to die, so that I don’t have to watch any more.”

"We put her on the door … on the door that my father lay on. Until they brought a little coffin. It was small, like the box for a large doll.

"I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it" (Voices from Chernobyl).

"Although a great deal of information about Chernobyl is available, on the internet and elsewhere, each source represents its own interests, which are not always immediately apparent....This situation has created uncertainty about many issues, both internationally and among the local population

"Even more serious is the effect that this situation has had on aid programmes: many major organisations and key countries have been reluctant to act because they do not have reliable information about the situation on the ground. In certain cases it is unclear where genuine gaps in our knowledge exist and where information has simply not been processed or has not been made public" (

Every time an article appears to say that aid dollars or drying up or that the aging sarcophagus in which Chernobyl-4 has been entombed is beginning to crack and leak, western news agencies are sure to remind readers that the Belarussian Lukashenko is a violator of human rights. They never mention that mushrooms are one of the national dishes of Belarus. In half the land area of the country, studies have shown that mushrooms are contaminated with reactor byproducts from the nuclear disaster. Still they are being collected. (

Advertisements are beginning to appear again for Robert C. Morris's, book The Environmental Case for Nuclear Power, originally published by Paragon Press in August of 2000.

One reviewer claims that for "the very survival of our way of life, and for many even life itself...only two technologies capable of meeting [our energy] need: burn the fossil fuels, or use nuclear power plants."

"Nuclear power [the ads proclaim] emerges as being so clearly superior that one can only wonder why the superstition that nuclear power plants are too problematic to use persists."

And yet "The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Energy Information Administration says the global strategy to mitigate carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, besides conservation programs, should include retiring coal-fired plants in favor of natural gas and renewables and not to construct new nuclear plants" (Brothers Greenwashing Apr 29 05).

"25 years after after... TMI Unit-2 periodically releases small amounts of radiation to the Susquehanna River. It is uncertain how much uranium and other radioisotopes remain inside" (TMI Alert

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