photo by Jo Hyde

‘All we Chernobyl people are distressed for the people suffering from the Fukushima NPP’, a friend from Ukraine wrote to me a few days ago. Natasha was about seven in 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded. She hardly remembers anything about it. Yet she still considers herself one of the ‘Chernobyl people’.

According to a UN report being widely quoted in the media at the moment, the total number of deaths that can definitely be attributed to the Chernobyl meltdown is twenty-eight. These were all emergency and plant workers involved in the immediate clean-up. A further fifteen people later died of thyroid cancer, out of over six thousand reported cases of the illness in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia after 1986.

These figures are being used to argue that nuclear power, while not perfect, is a valid answer to our energy needs, is indeed the only large-scale option open to us since it is so vastly less environmentally damaging than coal-fired power stations, and while alternative methods are still so undeveloped.

When I accompanied a UN mission into the Chernobyl exclusion zone several years ago, what really struck me was how little these experts seemed to know. It was all “We think… we expect… we can’t actually predict…” There was nothing to compare Chernobyl with; nothing like it had ever happened before. As the report itself admits,

‘…it is not possible to state scientifically that radiation caused a particular cancer in an individual. “This means that in terms of specific individuals, it is impossible to determine whether their cancers are due to the effects of radiation or to other causes, or moreover, whether they are due to the accident or background radiation.”

And because of “unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions,” the Committee decided not to use models to project absolute numbers of effects in populations exposed to low doses, the report said.’

Such an admitted lack of knowledge can be used to argue both ways. The cases of cancer and other illnesses can be probably attributed to Chernobyl radiation – or probably not. Who knows?

And what many quoters of this report have ignored is this, what seems to me crucial sentence in the summary:

‘…the severe disruption caused by the accident resulted in “major social and economic impact and great distress for the affected populations”.

It is so misleading to judge the scale of a disaster only by the number of deaths it (probably) directly caused. What about all those pregnant women forced to have abortions in Ukraine because they were told they might give birth to monsters? What about all the families who left everything they possessed behind and could never go back for it? The children sent away from their parents for months, like my friend Natasha, to safer southern regions? All these people who still, twenty-five years on, call themselves “Chernobyl people’.

My neighbour in Kiev was a telephone operator in 1986. She remembers the calls pouring in to rich and important people that she had to route on 26th April: get away, get out, leave everything, leave – and meanwhile not a single word about what it all meant or might mean to her and the other operators, the ordinary people no one cared about. Like everyone else without government connections, she stayed in Kiev with her family and went out into the streets for the Mayday celebrations less than a week later.

The fallout from the Chernobyl disaster was, and still is, utterly unpredictable. Those children sent abroad through the Chernobyl children’s funds and exposed to Western ideas. People like my neighbour, or the emergency workers dosed only with red wine and vodka to counter the radiation, shown so graphically how little the authorities cared for them.

A few years later, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Chernobyl exclusion zone has now become an incredibly rich nature reserve where scientists are still trying to work out the long-term results of radiation on the flora and fauna. They still don’t know, they might never know. And Pripyat, the evacuated town where my friend Natasha lived as a little girl, is now a sort of disaster theme park, a vast art installation labelled: Abandoned Town After The Apocalypse. Things Left Behind.

(You can see it in the background picture heading this blog).

I don’t know what the fallout from Fukushima will be. I don’t believe anyone knows. And I too feel for all those suffering from this and from the earthquake in Japan; a terrible natural disaster compounded by human short-sightedness and error.


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