Chernobyl Still a Menace 20 Years After Meltdown

KIEV, Ukraine, April 26, 2006 (ENS) - At a conference called to mark the 20th anniversary of the explosion and nuclear meltdown that destroyed Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant, President Victor Yushchenko called for an international donor conference to help his country cover the ongoing costs of dealing with the world's worst nuclear disaster.

“Obviously, we cannot resolve these problems alone. Experts claim Ukraine’s damage will be estimated at US$170 billion by 2015,” Yushchenko said. Ukraine has spent US$15 billion over the past 20 years to cope with the aftermath of the disaster, he said.

“The global scale of the Chernobyl tragedy transcends national borders and political arguments and forces us to address many problems we face now and will definitely face in the future,” Yushchenko said, adding that Ukraine appreciated the support of its international partners. He particularly thanked the UNESCO Chernobyl Program, which helped open three rehabilitation centers for children.

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Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko addresses the 20th anniversary Chernobyl conference in Kiev. (Photo courtesy Office of the President)
The three day conference, intended to strengthen and improve the world’s nuclear and radioactive safety, concluded today. It was organized by Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, the European Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization, the UN Development Programme, the Council of Europe, the European Center of Technological Safety, Ukraine 3000, the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety of France, and GRS of Germany.

Yushchenko said the world must learn from the Chernobyl tragedy to prevent such disasters in the future. “Today, we put human and environmental safety first," he said. "These principles are really important to me.”

He suggested that more scientific research is needed, saying, “It is time to create a multifunctional scientific institute to study all the problems of Chernobyl. It is also vital to renew the polluted territories."

Mikhail Gorbachev was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on April 26, 1986 when an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine resulted in a meltdown of the reactor core that spread radiation far and wide. The reactor is located about 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Kiev.

Now founder and chairman of the environmental organization Green Cross International, Gorbachev today called upon for leaders of the world’s largest industrialized nations, the G8, to create a $50 billion Global Solar Fund over 10 years.

In a letter to heads of state and leaders of parliaments in the G8 nations preparing for the upcoming G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Gorbachev wrote, “This idea reflects our vision of a way of helping the energy impoverished in the developing world, while creating concentrations of solar energy in cities that could be used to prevent blackouts, would result in lower electricity bills, and would provide a source in the future for generating renewable hydrogen fuels."

“The Fund could easily be raised by cutting subsidies for fossil fuels like oil and coal, to install solar photovoltaic equipment around the planet, thereby driving down the price, and creating a mass market for a clean fuel technology," Gorbachev wrote. Chernobyl

Chernobyl Reactor #4 shortly after the explosion (Photo credit unknown)

In an energy security brief accompanying the letter Gorbachev warned of the dangers of continued reliance on oil, gas and nuclear power while relegating renewable energy to secondary status.

The Chernobyl disaster is regarded as the worst accident in the history of nuclear power. After the explosion at reactor #4, the fire burned for 10 days, releasing 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the U.S. nuclear bomb at Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

Because there was no containment building, a plume of radioactive fallout drifted over parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and the eastern United States. Large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were badly contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 336,000 people.

A 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the IAEA and World Health Organization, attributed 56 direct deaths - 47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer - and estimated that as many as 9,000 people will ultimately die from some form of cancer as a result of the incident.

IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, who convened the Chernobyl Forum in 2001 to resolve "conflicting views on the results of the accident," said today that he was pleased with the report issued in 2005.

The IAEA invited the world´s foremost scientific experts to conduct an exhaustive assessment of the health, environmental and social impacts of the accident, he said. He said the experts took an "impartial, fact based approach to the analysis of this difficult and highly charged topic."

"I was pleased," said ElBaradei, that, after a long period of careful analysis, the parties involved - including the World Health Organization and seven other specialized United Nations agencies, as well as the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine - were able to achieve consensus on the set of authoritative reports that were issued last September."

But the environmental organization Greenpeace rejects the official figures presented by the Chernobyl Forum. In a report released on Tuesday, Greenpeace says that recent studies estimate that the actual number of such deaths will be 93,000.

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A resident of the Chernobyl area is tested in the whole body count van in Novozybkov. The van was used during the IAEA International Chernobyl Assessment Project in August 1990. (Photo by Pavlicek courtesy IAEA)
Greenpeace says its report involved 52 respected scientists and includes information never before published in English. It challenges the IAEA's Chernobyl Forum report, which predicted 4,000 additional deaths attributable to the accident as "a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering."

The new data, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl.

The Greenpeace report also concludes that on the basis of demographic data, that during the last 15 years, 60,000 more people have died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident than would have died otherwise.

The report estimates that the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.

Chernobyl remains an environmental problem. Radioactive materials have leaked into underground waters and are carried far and wide by the waters of the Pripyat River.

The Russian news service Pravda reports today that a 2005 study of radioactive pollution in a 30 kilometer (20 mile) radius around the Chernobyl plant showed that 90 percent of the cesium-137 lies at a depth of just 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) below the soil surface.

Strontium-90 is embedded 20 to 30 centimeters (8 to 10 inches) under the ground, about the depth of plant roots that animals and birds use for food, this research shows.

The Ukrainian government has approved the construction of a new sarcophagus to cover the ruined Chernobyl reactor to guard against the release of more radioactive materials. The European company Novarka and U.S. company of CH2M Hill are currently competing for the project, promising to finish the construction in 2010.

Ukraine's Ambassador to the United States Oleh Shamshur today emphasized the urgent necessity to finalize preparations for creation of the new sarcophagus. At a meeting of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, in Washington, DC today, Shamshur said the work needs to commence by 2007.

Friends of the Earth said today from its office in Washington, DC, that the 20th anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl is "a stark reminder that nuclear power is the last technology in the world we should be pursuing to lessen global warming."

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Chernobyl's Reactor Four today, surrounded by a concrete shell. (Photo by Vadim Mouchkin courtesy IAEA)
"On this day we mourn all those who lost their lives, those who were forced to leave their homes, those who have already suffered radiation-induced cancers, and those who live in fear of cancer. Seven million people are suffering as a result of the accident. There is a dead zone the size of Rhode Island where humans are banned," the environmental group said.

The group warns that before the problems of radioactive waste and terrorist acquisition of nuclear materials are solved, the nuclear power industry is "touting a vast world-wide expansion in nuclear plants, and "peddling nuclear power as the solution to global warming in a multi-million dollar ad campaign that portrays nuclear power as clean and carbon-free."

Because the United States has no safe repository for high-level nuclear wastes, Friends of the Earth warns that as spent fuel rods accumulate on the grounds of every commercial reactor, those sites have become de-facto high level nuclear waste dumps, housing in buildings that are flimsy compared to the nuclear reactor containment buildings beside them."

In a speech today at the European Parliament Plenary Session in Brussels, European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs of Latvia told about his personal experience of the Chernobyl disaster.

"At the time when it happened I was kayaking in Ukraine, and was only told about the incident two days later by the local population," Piebalgs said. "From Latvia, about 6,000 so-called liquidators were called to help in the accident. Of those, 3,500 are today invalids, and 500 have died. On a personal level, my brother in law was called as one of the liquidators."

Piebalgs said the European Community has provided more than half a billion euros in assistance to the Ukraine for projects relating to nuclear safety. As a measure of continued EU commitment, Piebalgs said the Commission has proposed an Instrument for Nuclear Safety to reinforce it outside the EU borders, for the period 2007-2013, with a proposed budget of €500 million.

The European Union has financially supported the upgrading of the operating conditions of a number of nuclear installations within the European Union. "The reactors where sufficient upgrading could not be done are or will be closed," Piebalgs said. "The staged closure of the reactors in Ignalina (Lithuania), Bohunice (Slovakia) and Kozloduy (Bulgaria) was agreed in the negotiations for accession to the European Union, with ongoing financial support from the European Union."

The European Council of Ministers in June 2004 set up a working party on nuclear safety, which is due to produce a final report at the end of this year.

The European Commission, the executive branch of government on which Piebalgs sits as Energy Commissioner, has made legislative proposals intended to provide the EU with common rules on nuclear safety, safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste, decommissioning funds.

The EU does not have a geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste, and Piebalgs said the Commission will make "every effort in the area of research and development to help to find a sustainable solution to the issue of the radioactive waste."

The Chernobyl Forum report is online here.

To view the Gorbachev briefing paper presented to G8 leaders, visit: www.greencrossinternational.net or www.globalgreen.org.

The Greenpeace report is online here.