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Chernobyl Day
Alex Steffen, 27 Apr 06

Twenty years ago yesterday, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear station created the worst nuclear disaster so far, contaminating an area the size of England, driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, exposing millions to a plume of radioactive pollution (killing thousands, perhaps many thousands) and leaving behind ruined land which will remain invisibly deadly for thousands of years.

If you'd like to refresh your memory of the events of that April, the BBC is offering up a terrific short documentary. Or you can take a photo tour. But some bits of stupidity are so evil that only poetry can express them fully. As a survivor wrote:

How masterfully
the blind promoters
of gigantic plans
manipulated us so far!
Now the bitter payment for what we so easily overlooked yesterday...
Has day died?
Or is this the end of the world?
Morbid dew on pallid leaves.
By now it's unimportant
whose the fault,
what the reason,
the sky is boiling only with crows . . .

We believe in the power of science and technology to improve the world. Indeed, we hold true the idea that without new understandings of the world and more innovative tools building a bright green future is next to impossible. But we must also remember, always, that no technology is in itself trustworthy, and changing the world demands widespread understanding of and democratic control over science and its fruits. The Chernobyl disaster should have seared into our minds not only a disgust for radioactive pollution, but also a hatred of secrecy and elite control.

Indeed, perhaps in future years we ought to commemorate a Chernobyl Day as a day to remember past scientific failings and practice technological transparency? Perhaps, especially those of us who value the power of science and technology to create change need to regularly reflect on the cost of hubris, and on the corrupting influences of power and greed, to acknowledge that all of us have within us some of the same arrogance and greed, and commit ourselves to democratic control of the future. Perhaps on that day we make sure that the work we do on the other days of the year is breeding no Chernobyls for our children.

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Umm, I thought there were approximately 50 fatalities resulting from Chernobyl, not "thousands".

It was clearly a disaster, and a stupid one too. But it didn't even kill 100 people, let alone thousands.


Posted by: Robert on 27 Apr 06

Well, that's wrong actually. From the Guardian story linked above:

"Official UN figures predicted up to 9,000 Chernobyl-related cancer deaths.

"But Greenpeace says in a report released on Tuesday that recent studies estimate that the actual number of such deaths will be 93,000. Stressing that there is a problem with diagnosis, it adds that other illnesses could take the toll to 200,000."

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 27 Apr 06

If we are going to spend trillions on energy infrastructure (and it would take multi- billions in investment to produce, say, half our electricity from nuclear energy) why not more local, decentralized energy production? Windmills, passive solar, active solar, mini-turbines, co-generation, etc.

Posted by: Jon on 27 Apr 06

It's been 20 years, have 9000 people really died?

What fraction of the "predicted 9000 deaths" have occurred?

C'mon people think critically here, don't be lead by your emotions.


Posted by: Robert on 28 Apr 06

Well, I'll trust the UN's over your opinion, Robert, and I suspect that the real answer is probably somewhere between the UN's numbers and Greenpeace's.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 28 Apr 06

Difficult question, compounded by lack of data and axes to grind.

One view:

and another:

and the Greenpeace view:

Now - decide for yourself how many deaths are "acceptable".

Are we so helpless that we can't figure out a way to heat our homes, cool our food and make light to read by without killing our fellow humans?

Posted by: David Foley on 28 Apr 06

The dead do number in the thousands not because of the accident but because of the coverup and way the russians handled it.

It ws a tragic accident but in it we have learned alot of very encouraging things. One is that life manages very well indeed even in such a place as wildlife have come back to the area abnd are doing wonderfuly. We never realy expected that.

Posted by: wintermane on 29 Apr 06

compassion is a great feeling and can help healing the hurts

additional to this, there are some material sollutions, which could be applied to help the still contaminated land and the by radiation threatend people:
Bacteria that bind toxic metals: Are they the future of nuclear waste cleanup?
The new process uses low temperatures (less than or equal to 90°C) to solidify and stabilize high alkali, low-activity radioactive waste. The resulting form is a hydroceramic, which is strong, durable and has the potential to tie-up and hold minor radioactive components in its zeolitic structure. The preparation is similar to the rock formation process that occurs in nature.

Interestingly, spirulina has been used in Russia to treat the victims, especially children, of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. In these children, whose bone marrow had been damaged from radiation exposure, spirulina seemed to boost the immune system.

President Gorbachev said recently. "You don't actually solve problems by finding solutions that create more problems down the track. It doesn't add up economically, environmentally or socially. Of all the energy options, nuclear is the most capital intensive to establish, decommissioning is prohibitively expensive and the financial burden continues long after the plant is closed. In the U.S., for example, direct subsidies to nuclear energy amounted to $115 billion between 1947 and 1999 with a further $145 billion in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar combined during the same period totaled only $5.5 billion." An extract from his press release, commemorating Chernobyl 20 years on, in which he beseeches the leaders of the G8 to show some spine, and support solar energy with a global fund of $50 billion USD.

Posted by: andreas buechel on 29 Apr 06



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