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Chernobyl: An unlearned lesson

As the clock turned 1:23 am on April 26, 1986, the plant’s reactor number four exploded and changed the fate of a generation living across the former Soviet Union. Church bells rang and mourners laid flowers with tears, anger and screams at Chernobyl’s memorial square. The Chernobyl tragedy once again fanned an everlasting pain for those lost their lives to fight nuclear death. Survivors said the chaos of that time is etched in their minds forever.

Ukrainians held candlelit vigils last Tuesday to mark 30 years since the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl spewed radiation across Europe and left several thousand people dead or dying. Thirty years later, the effects of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine are still being felt.  A 30-kilometre zone surrounding the nuclear reactor is still uninhabitable, with only radioactive animals wandering the wasteland. The radioactivity in the air is estimated to be 10-100 times greater than the amount that is considered safe. The 100,000-plus people who lived in the area were only evacuated more than 10 days after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. This unlawful delay is believed to have caused at least 4,000 deaths in the last three decades and untold tens of thousands will die early deaths because of the radioactivity.

The terror struck locals as they watched poisonous clouds of radiation waft in from Chernobyl. The exact number of dead remains a subject of intense debate because the Soviet authorities kept most of the information about the disaster under wraps. More than 200 tonnes of uranium remain inside the crippled reactor that spattered radiation across three quarters of Europe. The plant’s reactor exploded on April 26 and burned for 10 days in a disaster that horrified the world but which locals only heard about through rumors and tidbits from jammed Western radio broadcasts. The Communist Party kept to its steadfast tradition of saying nothing or even lying in order to keep the public from learning of a tragedy that could stain the image of the Cold War-era superpower. And it took them a day-and-a-half to vacate the 48,000 inhabitants from the nearby town of Pripyat.

It is undoubtedly true that the Soviets deserve a lot of blame for their culture of secrecy, which contributed to the scale of the tragedy. The Soviet Union did not have any safety plans in place, was slow to acknowledge the disaster and woeful in clean-up efforts. International suspicions were only raised on April 28 after Sweden detected an unexplained rise in its own radiation levels. Communist Party Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev – winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democratic and economic reforms – did not publicly admit the disaster until May 14.”Nobody told us anything. There was only silence,” local resident Yevgeny Markevich recalled in an interview.  But the authorities did relocate 116,000 people that year from the 30-kilometre (19-mile) exclusion zone that still surrounds the now-dormant plant. Some 600,000 people who became known as “liquidators” – mostly emergency workers and state employees – were dispatched with little or no protective gear to help put out the toxic flames and clean up surrounding lands.

The incidence of babies being born with deformities is much higher in Ukraine than the rest of the world as are cases of rare forms of cancer. Subsequent investigations have shown that a combination of design deficiencies and operator errors caused the disaster. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the disaster his country’s greatest challenge since the Nazi occupation in the 1940s and what he referred to as world’s largest “man-made catastrophe”

The 1979 Three Mile Island incident in the US state of Pennsylvania and Chernobyl’s explosion prompted a strong shift in public opinion against nuclear power. But even after Chernobyl, the 2011 nuclear plant meltdown in Japan after an earthquake should have given the world pause. . We must have learned a value able lesson from this horrible accident. The Great powers should realize that the temporary strategic advantages gained by possessing nuclear weapons will quickly be countered as opponents develop nuclear weapons of their own. All that is left then is a very strong likelihood of mishaps like the one at Chernobyl destroying towns, cities and countries. The lesson we should have learned from the disaster is that nuclear power is inherently risky. Predictably, there will be an accident and, given that the effects of radioactivity last generations, this is a risk not worth taking.

Saima Ali works in Strategic Vision Institute in Islamabad and can be reached at saima@thesvi.org 

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