(June 9, 2006) "Chornobyl is a word we would all like to erase from our memory. It [opened] a Pandora's box of invisible enemies and nameless anxieties in people's minds, but which most of us probably now think of as safely relegated to the past. Yet there are two compelling reasons why this tragedy must not be forgotten. First, if we forget Chornobyl, we increase the risk of more such technological and environmental disasters in the future. Second, more than seven million of our fellow human beings do not have the luxury of forgetting. They are still suffering, every day, as a result of what happened 14 years ago. Indeed, the legacy of Chernobyl will be with us, and with our descendants, for generations to come."
Kofi Annan, April 2000
(645-646.5752) Rebecca Harms, MEP - According to the UK's Food Standard Agency, in 2005 there were still 379 British farms - covering over 74,000 hectares - and a total of 200,000 sheep that remain under post-Chernobyl restriction orders. Last year I asked the European Commission to confirm those numbers and the Commission not only confirmed the impact on British farmers, but also provided other alarming information. It stated that over the next decade, there would be no significant change in the degree of contamination being experienced. The farmers will have no choice but to live with the restrictions for many years to come.
In other European countries like Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and Poland, the levels of contamination found in certain mushrooms and berries in some areas still exceed the permitted maximum.
Many Western European countries still suffer notable economic costs from the accident. In Germany for example, 159 million Euros (almost US$194 million) was paid in compensation to milk and vegetable farmers in 1989 alone. The treatment of contaminated whey cost another 35.8 million Euros (US$43.7 million) and even now, two decades after the accident, Germany is still paying compensation to hunters for contaminated game animals. Overall the economic costs to Germany have reached approximately 250 million Euros (US$305 million).
This example pales into insignificance when compared with the ongoing tragedy in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus - the countries mostly affected by the Chernobyl fallout. It is difficult to grasp the full impact of the Chernobyl disaster - especially for those of us living thousands of kilometres away from the exclusion zone.
At the IAEA conference in Vienna last autumn, World Health Organisation (WHO) expert Dr. Bernett told a story about the life in the villages of one of the most affected areas. He recalled seeing children on their way to school crossing the street at the exact same spot every morning. When asked why, the children stated that this was quite obvious - they had to cross the street because of a contamination hot spot. Dr. Bernett used this example to show that people are able to cope with the consequences of the disaster; that the consequences have become part of people's every day life and that the necessary changes in behaviour have been integrated into their daily routine. Had Dr. Bernett been describing children in his own hometown crossing the street to avoid a contamination hot spot, it is unlikely that he would have painted quite the same picture.
The message being sent by the IAEA and WHO experts like Dr. Bernett since the Vienna conference has been quite clear. They acknowledge that the Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear accident in the industrialized world, and accept that the number of deaths is higher than first assumed - probably 4,000 deaths worldwide - or compared with the assumptions of other experts, "only" 4,000 deaths as IAEA puts it. However, their argument is that although this is bad, the time has now come to move on and to "Look into the future!" - as demanded in the title of the IAEA conference to be held in Kiev on the 20th anniversary of the disaster. We cannot and shall not accept that! The legacy of Chernobyl does not lie in the past - it is not over yet.
People are still suffering from the consequences of the disaster every day and the lives of many will continue to be affected for decades and generations to come. Many of the consequences are only now starting to emerge as some types of cancer and genetic malformations take years to develop. The large and increasing number of thyroid cancers, even if many of the victims survive, shows the severe consequences of exposure to the radiation released by Chernobyl.
Stress, being uprooted, fatalism and self-abandonment are also among the consequences of the catastrophe. In Belarus 135,000 people had to leave their villages, their homes, right after the accident and even recently, evacuation measures still had to be taken. 2.2 million people were living in the contaminated area before 1989 but today the number has gone down to 1.5 million people. These people have not only left all their possessions behind but also their former lives, familiar surroundings and history.
With regard to the economic costs associated with the Chernobyl nuclear accident, even the IAEA, whose function it is to promote nuclear power, states that the impact of the catastrophe was strong enough to accelerate the break up of the Soviet Union.
Huge costs were imposed on the Soviet Union and three successor countries, Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine. These costs are impossible to calculate precisely owing to the non-market conditions prevailing at the time of the disaster and the high inflation and volatile exchange rates of the transition period that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. However the magnitude is quite clear - hundreds of billions of dollars of costs were incurred as a result of:
- Direct damage caused by the accident;
- The actions taken to seal off the reactor and mitigate the consequences in the exclusion zone;
- The resettlement of people and the construction of new housing and infrastructure to accommodate them;
- Social protection and health care provided to the affected population;
- Research on the environment, health and the production of clean food;
- The radiation monitoring of the environment;
- The disposal of radioactive waste
- The losses relating to the incidental cost of withdrawing agricultural land and forests from use and the closure of agricultural and industrial facilities.
In Belarus, for example, 7,000 km2 was declared blocked or a strict control zone and 23% of the country's land is still highly contaminated - including 40% of the land used for agricultural purposes.
The economic damage to the country is estimated to be around 192 billion Euros (US$235 billion) - ten times Belarus' gross national budget in 1997 and approximately six times the yearly state budget. This figure assumes that Chernobyl's consequences can be removed within 30 years but it is highly unlikely that this will prove to be the case by 2015 so this projected cost can be expected to rise.
Belarus' economic situation continues to suffer and with almost one quarter of the population living beneath the poverty level, according to the World Bank, life expectance is approximately 10 years less than the Western European average.
In Ukraine the situation is just as bad. 30,000 km2 was contaminated and 160,000 people were relocated. Ukrainian experts estimate the economic damage to be in the region of 164 billion Euros (US$201 billion). In 1992 15% of the state budget was used to cope with the catastrophe, and in 2003 the sum had been reduced to 6% of the budget. Due to the long economic crisis in the country, the Ukrainian government still owed almost 115 million Euros (US$140 million) to the victims of the disaster in April 1999.
"Shelter Implementation Plan"
The sarcophagus built - under a lot of time pressure and in the most difficult circumstances - to enclose the reactor debris is now dilapidated and fragile. Ukraine and the then G7 countries signed the "Shelter Implementation Plan" in 1997 with the aim of stabilising and improving the sarcophagus. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) estimated the overall costs for this project to be US$768 million (630 million Euros) and this amount was subsequently paid into the "Chernobyl Shelter Fund" by 37 countries. In 2003 the Ukrainian energy minister stated that, due to employment protection measures, the costs would be higher than expected. Today the costs are estimated to be close to US$1 billion (820 million Euros) - a 30% cost increase. An expert at the Russian Nuclear Institute has since suggested that the costs will instead be closer to US$2.5 billion (over 2 billion Euros).
IAEA experts want us to believe that a disaster like Chernobyl was only possible under the circumstances existing in the Soviet Union in 1986 and would never happen again. Unfortunately several nuclear incidents in recent years have shown that these assertions cannot be relied upon. A World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) list includes the following incidents with potentially disastrous consequences:
- Overheating of radioactive material outside the concrete-walled safety containment of the Paks reactor in Hungary (2003)
- Leaking control rods at the newest British reactor Sizewell B (started operating in 1995);
- Insufficient boron concentration in the emergency cooling system of the Philippsburg-2 reactor in Baden-Württemberg;
- Fuel assembly damage of a type never seen before, in block 3 of the French Cattenom power plant;
- A serious hydrogen explosion in a pipe at the Brunsbüttel boiling water reactor, in the immediate vicinity of a reactor pressure vessel;
- Massive corrosion on a reactor pressure vessel at the Davis-Besse plant in the USA, long overlooked, where only the thin stainless steel liner prevented a massive leak;
- Falsification of safety data at the British reprocessing facility in Sellafield;
- Similar data falsification associated with the Japanese operator Tepco
These serious engineering and human failures show that a Chernobyl type disaster could happen again - anywhere and at any time. We must not rely on a technology that poses these threats to society. We have to stop nuclear energy production - now!
Rebecca Harms is a German Green MEP and a member of the Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, and the Delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee. This is an extract from a paper delivered to the 8th Joint Irish & UK Local Authorities Conference on Nuclear Hazards, City Hall, London, March 23 2006. For a copy of the conference documentation please contact Jo Southall, Nuclear Free Local Authorities Secretariat, Town Hall, Manchester, M60 2NY, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org