Sat, 25 Apr 2009 Feature Article

Do Not Break The Nucleus

Do Not Break The Nucleus

- Special in lead up to Chernobyl Day - 26 April -

Twenty three years ago, in the early hours of 26th April, 1986 (precisely at 01.24 a.m.), the world witnessed one of its worst nuclear disasters. Reactor number 4 of Chernobyl power station, situated near Pripyat in Ukraine , exploded. Two explosions blew off the dome shaped roof of the reactor, causing its contents to erupt out. As air was sucked into the shattered reactor, it ignited the flammable carbon monoxide, resulting in a fire that raged for nine days. As the reactor was not housed in a reinforced concrete shield, large amounts of debris escaped in the atmosphere.

The accident released at least 100 times more radiations than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima . Much of the fallout was deposited close to Chernobyl , in parts of Belarus , Ukraine and Russia , where measurable health effects were observed. But traces of radioactive debris were found in nearly every country in the Northern Hemisphere. Thirty two people died in the accident.Another 38 died of acute radiation sickness, in the months that followed. In just 36 hours, 59430 persons had to be evacuated from Pripyat.

This human tragedy resulted in large scale displacement of more than 200,000 people, contamination of vast areas of land and loss of livelihood. Since then, there have been 1800 thyroid cancer cases in children, who were 0 – 14 years old at the time of the tragedy. A very conservative estimate prepared by the Chernobyl Forum in 2005, acknowledged 4000 extra cancer deaths among the 600,000 most highly exposed people. However, Dr. John Gofman, a renowned nuclear chemist, predicted that Chernobyl would cause 1,000,000 cancers and 475,000 deaths in its wake. The total cost of the disaster was estimated at $200 billion.

There is no proper scale to measure the psychological trauma suffered by the survivors. The affected people were confronted with situations they could not understand, and against which they had no defense. Many turned to drinking and to suicide.

Apart from the Chernobyl tragedy, there have been other nuclear power plant disasters in the past. The first one occurred in Chalk River Facility in Canada on 12th December 1952. It was caused by a human error, when an employee accidentally opened the four valves that regulated pressure in the system. The lid of the reactor was blown off and a large amount of cooling water, contaminated with radioactive waste, was leaked out.

The second disaster took place in the Mayak Plutonium Facility in the south Ural Mountain region of Russia on 29th September, 1957. This is considered to be worse than Chernobyl . Here the cooling equipment broke down and the over heated nuclear waste exploded. 270,000 people and 14,000 square miles were exposed to radiation hazards. Even today, the radiation levels in the region are extremely high and the natural water resources are still contaminated with radioactive waste.

The Wind Scale Nuclear Power Plant accident in England caused a radiation leak, which spread over 200 square miles, resulting in wide spread contamination.

Safety systems of the Lubmin Nuclear Plant in Germany failed on 7th December, 1975. Luckily, a nuclear meltdown was avoided due to release of coolant in the facility.

The Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania on 28th March, 1979, resulted from a malfunction in the cooling system. Although nearby residents were eventually evacuated, there have been increased cases of cancer and thyroid problems and sharp change in infant mortalities.

The Tokaimura accident in Japan occurred on 30.9.1999when, by mistake, excess uranium was mixed in nitric acid for making nuclear fuel – 35 pounds instead of 5.2 pounds. The nuclear fission explosion lasted for 20 hours. 42 employees were exposed to measurable levels of radiations, including 3 high level exposures. Two of them died.

Proponents of nuclear power plants not withstanding, it is impossible to have 100% safe

Nuclear power plants, even after providing the strictest of safety measures. They contaminate humans, animals and the environment. Radiation exposure can have very long term effects and are often difficult to quantize. In the no nonsense words of Dr. John Gofman, (who is called the Father of the Anti Nuclear Movement) --- 'There cannot be a safe dose of radiation. There is no safe threshold. If this truth is known, then any permitted radiation is a permit to commit murder.'

In 1996, Dr. Gofman estimated that most of the cancer cases in the U.S.A. were caused by medical radiations. His claims are refuted by the American Government. But on must remember that, since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, not a single power plant has been built in that country.

When the so called peaceful use of nuclear energy can result in such long term hazards, one shudders to think of the devastation that can be brought about by nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Their presence is the greatest single threat to humanity. There currently 26,000 nuclear warheads in the world (96% of which are controlled by U.S.A. and Russia ). They have the potential to unleash the power of 70,000 Hiroshimas in just a few minutes and destroy our planet many times over. The idea of a deliberate nuclear war may seem almost anachronistic, but the potential nightmare of an accidental nuclear exchange is all too real.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the global military expenditure in 2007 exceeded $1.3 trillion. Another study conducted 10 years ago, estimated the total cost of US nuclear weapons over $5.8 trillion. These are huge investments that could be put to better and productive uses. In this context, it is worth mentioning that recently, Mr. Barak Obama has announced his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. This bold gesture has won him the desired applauds. But is he merely finessing the long standing trick of the nuclear armed countries, which merely preach, and not practice, non proliferation. Mr. Obama should know that practice is better than precept. The world wants positive action from him and not mere rhetoric.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon also recognizes the need to 'promote global public goods and remedies to challenges that do not respect borders'. He strongly believes that 'a world free of nuclear weapons is a global public good of the highest order'. He is also candid enough to admit that despite long standing taboo against using nuclear weapons, disarmament remains only an aspiration. So a taboo alone is not sufficient.

The Dalai Lama pleads for an external disarmament in the form of a total ban on nuclear weapons. This, he feels, can be brought about by an internal disarmament of forsaking violence in thoughts, words and deeds. Violence brings suffering and love/compassion brings happiness. The collective desire for peace can avoid war and bring about arms reduction. The threat of a nuclear war (as some people think) can never bring lasting peace. Global and human security cannot be obtained through military superiority. We must remember that disarmament actually means the absence of violence and wars. It means having a peaceful co existence, a respect for human rights and a better environmental protection.

Shobha Shukla

The author writes extensively in English and Hindi media. She serves as Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS)

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