After twenty-eight years, Chernobyl remains a ‘ticking time bomb’

We, all of us, have a problem with keeping things in mind, with remembering what it is important to remember, while allowing other things that might have seemed important at the time to fade. We can, perhaps, be forgiven for such lapses of recollection. We are, after all, bombarded 24/7 with an unprecedented flood of information, from every corner of the globe.

On April 26, 1986 an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, at that time under the control of the Soviet Union, released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which subsequently spread over much of the western USSR and Europe. It is estimated that over 200 times the amount of radiation released at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was spewed out of the nuclear reactor. It seemed almost unimaginable at the time. There are some who can still recall gazing into the sky over Ireland in the wake of the disaster, atavistically, as if the sky might suddenly show the very form of the angel of death in the clear, blue skies of the days that followed the explosion.

Fact: The Chernobyl disaster is the worst nuclear power plant accident in history in terms of cost and resulting deaths, and is one of only two classified as a level seven event (the maximum classification ) on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the full effects of which will neither be known nor appreciated for years to come. Chernobyl stands as both precedent and warning.

At Chernobyl the efforts to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved more than 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles. Thirty-one people died during the accident, while the ghastly long-term effects, such as cancers and deformities, provide terrible evidence of what will ultimately be a generational tragedy.

Statistics are too often dismissed as ‘just numbers’. They are not. They are lives.

There are now more than 148,274 invalids on the Chernobyl registry in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Many of those exposed have now reached adulthood and are having children.

All of the consequences add up to an enormous challenge for those having to deal with them and live with them. It is like living with a ticking bomb in your house. But a new factor of uncertainty has now been added to the existing challenges - the dangerously escalating situation involving Russia and Ukraine. Chernobyl is in Ukraine, and the ‘ticking bomb’ is the poisoned legacy of the old Soviet Union to the entire area.

Though all reactors on the Chernobyl site are now shut down, 200 tons of radioactive material are still sitting inside the reactor. The contamination thus far is the result of just three per cent of radioactive material escaping into the environment. Some 97 per cent is still there.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, a protective shield was erected over the damaged reactor to prevent any further leakage, but with the dissolution of the Communist state, this means of containment, never meant to be more than a temporary solution, has itself been deteriorating.

The international community is funding the on-going construction of a huge "sarcophagus" which will prevent further deterioration at the site. But it has now emerged that uncertainty over the Ukrainian economy in the light of the current crisis, along with foot-dragging by a resurgent Russia under President Putin, has put completion of this urgently needed construction off by perhaps two years.

The world is just getting used to a Russia that appears determined to assert itself again as a major world power. That is as may be. But surely part of that involves assuming and shouldering the responsibilities and dealing with this poisonous legacy of its past.

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