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Before Fukushima...

Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, we know that nuclear power isn’t always safe. But let’s also not forget that it provides hope for a safe and sustainable future. Mikhail Gorbachev writes.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2011 12:53 IST

I first heard of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor breakdown on the morning of April 26, 1986, when the Soviet ministry of medium machine building, responsible for nuclear reactors, reported it to the Kremlin. Though the seriousness of the incident remained unclear during our emergency politburo meeting, a government commission, comprising scientists from the Soviet Academy of Sciences, nuclear reactor specialists, physicians and radiologists, was established and dispatched to Chernobyl.

Initial reports were cautious, and only on the following day, did we learn that an explosion had taken place at the nuclear power station, at least two people had been killed, and radioactive material had been released downwind. The international media, however, had already started talking about a radioactive cloud. We received more concrete information on April 28 and started informing the public of the seriousness of the disaster, focusing on efforts to manage the dangerous and worsening situation.

As efforts to contain the fire and radioactive releases continued, authorities began evacuating the locals. “The heart of the reactor, the hot radioactive core, is in suspension,” academician Yevgeni Velikhov announced, adding, “Can it hold up or will it sink into the ground? No one has ever been in such a difficult position.”

Within about ten days the reactor fire and radioactive releases were contained. But, by then, nuclear fallout had spread to Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and beyond. Thanks to the thousands of emergency workers, the consequences were limited. Much long-term damage, however, had been done. Some 50 workers died fighting the fire and reactor meltdown, and another 4,000 or more deaths may eventually be shown to have resulted from radioactive releases. The radiation dosage at the power plant during the accident has been estimated at over 20,000 roentgens per hour, about 40 times the estimated lethal dosage, and the World Health Organisation identified 237 workers with acute radiation sickness.

Over 135,000 people were evacuated from the area immediately following the accident, and another 200,000 over the following months. The extent of the nuclear fallout was illustrated by the fact that within only a few hours after the accident, radiation alarms were sounded off at Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over 700 miles from Chernobyl. Today we know that about 77,000 square miles of territory in Europe and the former Soviet Union have been contaminated with radioactive fallout, leaving long-term challenges for flora, fauna, water and human health. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent in trying to contain and remediate the disaster, with a new containment shell now being constructed over the 1986 sarcophagus and what’s left of the reactor.

We must continue to examine the long-term public health and environmental consequences of the accident to better understand the relationship between radiation and human life. The 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident is an important historic milestone to remind ourselves of this solemn duty. Furthermore, it’s also the perfect time to address four issues:

Prevention: It’s important to prevent any possibility of a repetition of the Chernobyl accident. The true scope of the tragedy still remains beyond comprehension and is a shocking reminder of the reality of the nuclear threat. It’s also a striking symbol of modern technological risk.

Renewable energy: While the old Soviet nuclear reactor model is no longer in production, we must still be careful while constructing and operating nuclear power plants today. We can’t reject nuclear energy as many countries depend on it. But it’s necessary to realise that nuclear power is not a panacea, as some observers allege, for energy sufficiency or climate change. Its cost-effectiveness is also exaggerated, as its real cost doesn’t account for many hidden expenses. In the US, for example, direct subsidies to nuclear energy amounted to $115 billion between 1947 and 1999, with an additional $145 billion in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar energy combined over the same period totalled only $5.5 billion. To end the vicious cycle of ‘poverty versus safe environment’, we must shift to efficient, safe and renewable energy. We must invest in alternative and sustainable sources of energy and conservation and energy efficiency initiatives to meet both energy demands and conserving our fragile planet.

Transparency: The closed nature and secrecy of the nuclear power industry, which had experienced some 150 significant radiation leaks at nuclear stations throughout the world before the Chernobyl fire, contributed to the accident and response difficulties. We need transparency and public oversight and regulation of the nuclear power industry today, along with complete emergency preparedness and response mechanisms.

Vulnerability to terrorism and violence: We must carefully consider the vulnerability of reactor fuel, spent fuel pools, dry storage casks, and related fissile materials and facilities to sabotage, attack and theft. While the Chernobyl disaster was accidental, today’s disaster can be intentional. We must pay attention to keeping weapons and materials of mass destruction — in this case, nuclear weapons-grade materials such as high-enriched uranium and plutonium — out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations. US President Barack Obama’s initiative to secure and eliminate all bomb-grade nuclear material in four years is an important step forward in improving global security. But we must not forget that these fissile materials are often used in nuclear power and research reactors.

Let’s all remember Chernobyl not only for its negative impact on Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Europe, but also as a beacon of hope for a safer and more sustainable future.

(Mikhail Gorbachev is former President of the Soviet Union. He was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize and is now the Founding President of Green Cross International.)

*The views expressed by the author are personal.