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The Real Scale – The Consequences of Fallout

There were from little to no actual reports from TASS or any other official source of information back in 1986 regarding the scale of the catastrophe in Chernobyl. However, there are some reports from CNN and other news companies across the world who had a glimpse at the incident and tried to provide a bigger picture. The article with exposing information went public in May 12 of 1986.

The contents are still a subject of heavy debates. The true scale of the calamity is far bigger than just nightmare inducing. We managed to mess up a whole region and affect the biosphere on an unprecedented level if we don’t account wars. The contamination spread over a large portion of the world.

When the incident first occurred, the Soviet Union tried to conserve the information and fed to the world only bits of data reporting minor casualties and denominating the real scale of the catastrophe calling it an accident. The official records stated that only 200 people were injured and only 20 of those were injured seriously with only 2 people dead or missing.

The bills did not give specific numbers on the levels of radiation, potential damage, and other important numerical measurements of the scale of the incident. 7 days after the explosion, we finally received a notification that the cause of the explosion was most likely the human factor. However, people of the world saw the futile efforts of the USSR to deceive the international community. Experts from the outside demanded more information and were rightfully terrified that the area of contamination could be measured in millions of square kilometers.

The temperature of the core exceeded 4 thousand degree F 5 days after the explosion. The fire was eventually extinguished and the whole reactor was covered with a blanket of concrete to prevent leakages of radiation, but the consequences of the incident were much bigger than possible to solve with a thousand metric tons of cement. Here are some of the consequences:

  • The incident was a powerful jab to the economy of the whole country and forced it to immediately reconsider its inner politics. The leader of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev had to address the problem and reform the whole industry as well as realign his foreign politics.
  • The society was shocked with the catastrophe and people started demanding changes. The publicity quickly picked up the pitchforks and forced governments of 25 countries to immediately change the safety protocols and even rethink whether they need nuclear energy in the first place.
  • The very fabric of foreign politics changed and many governments started calling for international efforts to regulate nuclear energy and its usage.
  • The very industry has since been under heavy attention from both experts and scientists. People forced governments to either stop their nuclear agendas or significantly rethink them. Chernobyl catastrophe effectively stopped the industry from growing.

Besides the toll of human suffering and physical damage from the accident, the Soviet Union is paying a political price for the catastrophe. Ever since coming to power, Mikhail Gorbachev has been carefully crafting a new image of the Soviet Union, courting European public opinion on nuclear-arms issues and conducting a campaign for Soviet technological progress.

But the incident at Chernobyl has undercut his well-laid plans, and his political standing in the world community has plummeted. The backward state of some Soviet technology has been glaringly exposed. Moscow, which had been allying itself with environmental movements in Western Europe, is now on the defensive. Says one Soviet specialist: "Anti-Soviet feeling in Europe has increased tremendously because of the secrecy with which the accident was handled. It will be much more difficult for the Soviets to exploit our allies against us."

The immediate and long-term health effects of the radiation are an overriding concern. Massive doses of radiation result in death within days, or even hours. Exposure to somewhat lower amounts—equivalent to what victims standing a third of a mile from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts experienced—destroys bone marrow that produces the body's blood cells. The affected person comes down with infection and nausea and can be made sterile. Without a bone-marrow transplant, death can occur within six weeks.

This photo of the nuclear plant at the Chernobyl, April 29, 1986, is from a Landsat 5 satellite. The lake in the middle of the photo is the cooling pond. (AP)

Low doses of radiation--about what Japanese survivors experienced a mile or so from the blast—may not cause any immediate symptoms but can lead to birth defects and cancers of the bone marrow, breast and thyroid. One particular worry concerns iodine 131, a radioactive particle present in the Chernobyl cloud, which enters the food chain and can cause thyroid cancer or abnormal functioning of the thyroid gland. Potassium-iodide pills can block the effects of thyroid irradiation. In Warsaw, three days after the accident, hundreds of children lined up for an oral dose of the preventive medicine.

Just how many cancers will be caused by low levels of radiation from the Soviet plant is not known, but alarms are being sounded. Says Zbigniew Jaworowski of Poland's Central Laboratory of Radiation Prevention: "We can expect in the next 20 to 30 years that there will be an increase in cancer of the thyroid and cancers of other organs of the body."

The economic impact is liable to be just as profound. The region surrounding the plant is now blanketed with a layer of radioactive particles, contaminating grasses and animal feed. The accident could not have happened in a worse spot. Located in the heart of the Ukraine, about 80 miles from Kiev, the Soviet Union's third-largest city, Chernobyl sits near the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, where 47 percent of the country's winter wheat is grown.

Low doses of radiation--about what Japanese survivors experienced a mile or so from the blast—may not cause any immediate symptoms but can lead to birth defects and cancers of the bone marrow, breast and thyroid. One particular worry concerns iodine 131, a radioactive particle present in the Chernobyl cloud, which enters the food chain and can cause thyroid cancer or abnormal functioning of the thyroid gland. Potassium-iodide pills can block the effects of thyroid irradiation. In Warsaw, three days after the accident, hundreds of children lined up for an oral dose of the preventive medicine.

Just how many cancers will be caused by low levels of radiation from the Soviet plant is not known, but alarms are being sounded. Says Zbigniew Jaworowski of Poland's Central Laboratory of Radiation Prevention: "We can expect in the next 20 to 30 years that there will be an increase in cancer of the thyroid and cancers of other organs of the body."

The economic impact is liable to be just as profound. The region surrounding the plant is now blanketed with a layer of radioactive particles, contaminating grasses and animal feed. The accident could not have happened in a worse spot. Located in the heart of the Ukraine, about 80 miles from Kiev, the Soviet Union's third-largest city, Chernobyl sits near the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, where 47 percent of the country's winter wheat is grown.

The Chernobyl disaster is inevitably renewing the debate over the safety of nuclear power plants far beyond Soviet borders. The outcry has been the loudest from such countries as West Germany, which gets nearly a third of its energy from nuclear power. At a gathering in Bonn the day after the Soviet accident was revealed, the antinuclear political party, the Greens, hoisted a poster proclaiming: "Chernobyl ist überall" (Chernobyl is everywhere).

Antinuclear movements are gathering steam in Europe. Sweden, with 10 nuclear reactors, is already committed to closing its nuclear plants by 2010. Recently, for the first time, tiny antinuclear groups began popping up in Eastern-bloc countries. In Hungary last year, an environmental group called the Danube Circle collected 6,000 signatures on a petition protesting a hydroelectric plant.

On the other hand, nuclear-power advocates have plenty of their own ammunition to fire back. The nuclear-power industry can boast a generally good safety record for the 306 commercial plants now in operation worldwide. The fatalities at Chernobyl were the first in the 35-year history of nuclear-generated power that can be directly attributed to an accident.

These are the front pages of four British morning newspapers reflecting the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in April 1986. AP

Other major mishaps have occurred. In October, 1957, a fire broke out in a British plutonium reactor at Windscale near the Irish Sea, spewing radioactive iodine into the air for three days. An estimated 39 cancer cases were subsequently traced to the accident. About six months later, a devastating accident at a nuclear-waste facility in Kyshtym in the Soviet Union contaminated as much as 400 square miles in the southern Ural Mountains. The area was permanently evacuated. Road signs now warn motorists passing through not to stop, to drive fast and to keep their windows rolled up.

The worst U.S. disaster took place in 1979 at General Public Utilities' Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pa. The reactor lost its coolant, triggering a partial meltdown of the radioactive fuel in its 150-ton core. All told, plants in 14 countries have recorded 151 "significant" incidents since 1971, according to a report by the General Accounting Office. Energy officials point out that maintenance standards and the quality of equipment—and thus nuclear safety—vary from country to country. Even Japan has an ambitious nuclear program and, experts say, one of the safest. The Japanese just flicked the switch on their 32nd reactor and plan to draw 35 percent of their energy from nuclear plants by 1995. Japan also has one of most stringent inspection standards of any country. Government engineers investigate plants once a year, during which time a plant can be shut down for as long as three months.

France, which relies on nuclear power for more of its energy needs than any other country, and Canada, another heavy user, also have exemplary safety records. Both governments are involved in running the facilities and require that plants be of the same design to simplify upkeep and repair.

In contrast, the U.S.S.R. has drawn criticism for sloppy manufacturing of ոuclear plants and inadequate maintenance. Generally, the Soviets have not built the thick containment buildings of steel and reinforced concrete that surround all but a few U.S. reactors.

 

About half of Soviet reactors are graphite-moderated and water-cooled, an inexpensive technology that Western experts say is more likely than other reactor systems to catch on fire. "The Soviets will certainly now have to re-examine the proposed expansion of their nuclear program and figure out how to make existing plants more secure," says Max Jakobson, former Finnish representative to the United Nations.

Yet scientists point out that there is a limit to how much safety technology can guarantee. Most accidents—including the one at Three Mile Island—involved a combination of equipment failure and human error. Warns Harvard University physicist Richard Wilson: "With 300 big reactors in place around the world, we'll average a meltdown every 30 years."

But is there a realistic alternative? In a growing number of countries, the Faustian bargain with nuclear power already has been struck. Both Japan and France have dense populations, no fossil-fuel resources, and a strong nationalistic and political desire not to be dependent on foreign oil. "The choices are stark," says Charles Ebinger of Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies. These countries are "so overwhelmed by their concern for energy that they won't forgo nuclear power."

Even if the world wanted to turn its back on nuclear power, the cost would be prohibitive. Lester Brown of Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., says the cost of dismantling each nuclear plant could reach into the billions. By the same token, the cost of building new nuclear-power plants is skyrocketing. In the seven years since the Three Mile Island accident, worries about escalating costs, not safety, have ground the nuclear industry in the United States to a virtual halt. The likely result: A nuclear stalemate.[1]

The disaster at the Chernobyl plant isn't likely to resolve the world's nuclear dilemma. Optimists hope that it will at least increase the momentum for international cooperation to deal with the hazards of nuclear power.

[1] During the preparation of the article were used the materials of the site https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-04-26/from-the-archives-stark-fallout-from-chernobyl