Chernobyl 30 years later. How the disaster changed the world of nuclear power

More than 30 years after the disaster, Chernobyl is still dealing with the environmental and health effects caused by the explosion, an event that stopped nuclear power in its tracks.

The 26th of April 1986 is still an indelible date in the minds of millions of people around the world. The explosion that destroyed reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union changed people’s perception of nuclear power forever, making them question its safety. Controversy regarding the death toll and environmental consequences is still an ongoing debate. An area of 2,600 square kilometres in Ukraine and Belarus, part of the Exclusion Zone, will be contaminated for at least the next 24,000 years.

The health consequences of the fallout

The nuclear fallout at Chernobyl and the more recent Fukushima disaster in Japan are the only two events that have ever been classified as Level 7 – Major accident, the highest on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). To this day, five million people are still living on heavily contaminated land in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, with hundreds of thousands suffering illnesses because of it. Although fewer than 50 deaths are directly attributed to the radiation from the disaster, predictions vary widely as to what the cancer rates and death toll have been since and will be in the long term.

 

A study by epidemiologist Elisabeth Cardis estimates that over 40,000 cases of cancer will occur, of which 16,000 will be deadly, while a 2006 report commissioned by Greenpeace projected a cancer death toll of about 93,000. Belarusian scientist Yury Bandazhevsky, director of a medical and rehabilitation centre dedicated to studying and caring for Chernobyl victims, believes the government has often downplayed the effects of the disaster. We are just starting to see the long term health effects, according to Bandazhevsky. After examining about 4,000 second-generation children, he found that around 80 percent of them, particularly teenagers, have serious cardiovascular problems, as well as suffering from major hormonal changes.

 

The effect of radiation on plants and animals

Radioactive particles released from the accident have caused numerous adverse effects on the plants and animals living in the higher exposure areas. Increased mortality and reproductive losses of coniferous plants, soil invertebrates and mammals have been observed, with levels diminishing as the radiation levels naturally weakened over time. The recovery of affected species in the Exclusion Zone has been aided by the lack of agricultural and industrial activities, resulting in the surprising expansion of the populations of many plants and animals, turning the site into a unique sanctuary for biodiversity. Some bird species seem to have adapted to the radioactive environment by producing higher levels of protective antioxidants to lessen their genetic damage, according to recent findings published by the National Centre for Scientific Research in France.

 

Current state of the nuclear site

While the slow clean-up effort has involved hundreds of thousands of workers since the 1986 accident, called liquidators, a New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure is in its final stage of construction, planned to be completed in late 2017. Once in place, the massive arch will enclose the remains of the damaged reactor number four and its neglected shelter, with the ability to contain any radioactive dust. The cost is an astounding 1.5 billion dollars, mostly financed by the United States and thirty other nations. The structure will also allow the final stage of the Chernobyl cleanup to begin, with the removal of the reactor debris for permanent safe storage.

 

The Chernobyl arch has been designed to stand for at least 100 years, the estimated duration of the full clean-up. But with a questionable long-term commitment from the Ukrainian government, and its political tensions with Russia, even a century might not be enough. “The arch is a formidable structure, and it might be able to last 300 years or more,” says Vince Novak, director of nuclear safety for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

 

The New Safe Confinement arch will contain all radiation released during the dismantling of Chernobyl's reactor number four
The New Safe Confinement structure under construction at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The future of the Exclusion Zone

The so-called self-settlers are a group of people who have defied prohibitions by illegally returning to their homes in the Exclusion Zone shortly after the accident. As illustrated in the documentary Babushkas of Chernobyl, of the original 1,200 re-settlers the last survivors are a group of 130 women, now in their 70s and 80s. Life in their native land was more important to them than the possibility of dying early from exposure to radiation. For some permanent evacuees there is now the possibility of returning to their homes, as resettlement efforts in Belarus and Ukraine are ongoing. Chernobyl has even become an attraction for tourists fascinated by the history of the site.

Nuclear power: never the same again

While in the early 1970s it was believed that the United States alone would source a large portion of its energy from nuclear power, by the end of the century the accidents at the US plant of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl drastically changed these projections. However, Ukraine is still heavily dependent on nuclear energy, financially backed by its government at least until 2030, with fifteen reactors generating about half of its electricity. On the other hand, the installation of new power plants came to a halt in Western Europe and the USA after Chernobyl (though picking up again later on). In addition, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe called for a dramatic reduction in the country’s reliance on nuclear power, while Germany has permanently shut down eight of its seventeen reactors and pledged to close the rest by the end of 2022. Other countries around the world are phasing out nuclear energy in favor of safer, renewable sources.

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