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Chernobyl Disaster - 26th April 1986

This year, the 26th April 2020 was the 34th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the most disastrous nuclear power plant incident in history, both in terms of costs and casualties. A series of human errors during a safety test led to a power surge, an explosion and a massive radioactive fire which raged on for ten days at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. This explosion led to the one-thousand-tonne concrete roof being blown off the reactor and a plume of radioactive contamination being spread throughout Europe. In the UK, the worst-hit areas were there was rainfall as the Chernobyl plume passed overhead.

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In the immediate aftermath at Chernobyl, over 800,000 workers were brought in from across the Soviet Union to clear up the site, this operation took over two years and the entire reactor building was sealed in a huge concrete tomb known as the 'sarcophagus'. Due to the radioactive nature of the materials being locked away, the sarcophagus was covered with another confinement unit in 2019 and will continue to require replacement or further installations indefinitely as the container corrodes. The Soviet workers were given poor standards of protective clothing and were allowed into the reactor site for up to ninety seconds at a time, despite the extremely high levels of radiation. Debate continues about how many have died from their exposure or suffer from the effects of their work there.

The explosion happened in the middle of the night and the closest city, Pripyat, which had a population of around 43,000 people, the majority of whom were employees of the nuclear power plant and their families, were not evacuated for over 36 hours. Eventually, over 115,000 people were displaced as a result of mass evacuation necessitated by the level of radioactivity in the area surrounding the plant. This area is now known as the 'Exclusion Zone' which covers hundreds of square miles and high levels of radiation are still present there today. Recently, interested in visiting the exclusion zone and the deserted city of Pripyat has peaked to over 70,000 visitors per year due, in part, to HBO releasing a mini-series titled Chernobyl which follows the story of several people involved in the incident and the subsequent events. The exclusion zone is a true example of the horrors that a nuclear incident can inflict on the environment and the thousands of people that were killed or displaced as a result of an accident.

Various studies over the past thirty years have indicated that anywhere up to one million people across the world may die as a result of radiation exposure from this disaster. The reason for conflicting numbers of those affected is due to limitations of the initial data coming from the Soviet Union and low estimates about both internal and external exposure. Internal exposure is what enters the body through eating or breathing, a single particle of radioactive material can remain inside a person’s lung indefinitely which can cause severe risks to health further down the line which makes it difficult to calculate. There are several excellent books, reports and websites offer further information on the accident at Chernobyl, including Ian Fairlie’s blog which provides a link to a report on the health effects. See also History of Chernobyl.

Despite uncertain numbers of deaths or people that have been affected, we do know that large numbers of children in Ukraine and Belarus have developed thyroid cancer which could have been prevented if the children had been issued with Potassium Iodate tablets (PITs) within one to two hours of the accident. Scottish CND have been campaigning for the Scottish Government to issue these tablets to residents that live within a 50km radius of our own ageing nuclear power stations, especially at Hunterston B in North Ayrshire which you can read more about here. PITs help block absorption of radioactive particles in the thyroid and, in the event of an incident, could save many lives in the event that there was a fire or explosion aboard a nuclear submarine which could unleash a similar train of events to that in the reactors at Chernobyl.

While there are hundreds of square miles in Belarus and Ukraine that are still too poisoned for people to return, the radioactive spread from this incident travelled across Europe and had a massive impact on countries thousands of miles away. One week after the explosion a significant amount of radioactive fallout was detected in raindrops in Govan, Glasgow which is over 2,300 kilometres away from the Chernobyl reactor which was still on fire at the time. MEDACT, a fellow ICAN partner, presented official figures that show that most of the highly radioactive caesium emitted in the disaster was blown across Europe by winds and that will ‘only decline slowly over the next few hundred years’. With radioactive materials, they can lose their radioactivity over time but Plutonium-234, also used in nuclear reactors, can remain lethal for over 240,000 years. In the UK, the South of Scotland, North Wales and Cumbria were amongst the areas worst affected by the radioactive cloud which took three days to travel across Europe. Livestock were some of the worst affected in the UK, sheep were eating contaminated grass and restrictions preventing the sale of sheep in Wales and Cumbria remained in place until 2012 and in Scotland until 2010. A nuclear disaster anywhere in the world can have long-lasting repercussions for our environment and people everywhere.

We know the devastating effects that radiation has had on those who were closest to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and at the heart of our campaigning at Scottish CND we look to the people whose lives have been ruined by the nuclear industry, by it by nuclear weapons or nuclear power. Most commonly, people associate radiation exposure with cancer but radioactive materials also attack the immune system and can lead to accelerated ageing, cardiovascular and blood illnesses, psychological illnesses and increases deformities in foetuses and children. We must listen to people’s stories and learn from their experiences and use that to power our campaigning against weapons of mass destruction or the silent dangers that nuclear power pose. Thousands of people have lost their lives from that one incident at Chernobyl, communities were destroyed and the surrounding environment is completely uninhabitable. 

One of those people is Vanya Kovarov, who was born in the months following the explosion and when she was twelve years old she spoke to author Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote ‘Voices from Chernobyl’, a book of oral histories from those affected by the disaster. Vanya wrote “I’m twelve years old and I’m an invalid… when the girls in my class found out that I had cancer of the blood, they were afraid to sit next to me. They didn’t want to touch me. The doctors said that I got sick because my father worked at Chernobyl. And after that, I was born. I love my father.”

The majority of first responders to the explosion were the worst affected by the radioactivity and Vasily Ignatenko was a firefighter and lived in the city of Pripyat with his pregnant wife Lyudmilla Ignatenko. Lyudmillo was also one of the people whose story was amplified in the ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ book. Vasily was taken to a hospital in Moscow once he started displaying symptoms of acute radiation poisoning and Lyudmilla travelled to see him “I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes… he started to change; every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks – at first there were little lesions, and then they became grey. It came off in little layers – as a white film... He became covered with boils and he was left with clumps of hair on the pillow.” Vasily died fourteen days later and Lyudmilla sadly lost her baby not long after due to radiation exposure.

The human and environmental cost of the disaster at Chernobyl lives on. Thousands of people had their lives ruined and over one-third of Ukraine, a country of over forty-three million people will remain radioactive for hundreds of years. There are still babies being born today, two generations later that have abnormalities due to radioactivity. In the communities around Ukraine and Belarus that were worst affected there are increased rates of cancer and suicide. People still live the weight of this accident. In 2011, we saw the Fukushima disaster which was caused by a natural disaster albeit that locating the power station by a coast susceptible to tsunamis might be regarded as a human error. The extent of harm to Japan and the world of the subsequent leaking of contamination is again not yet fully known. We need to learn the lesson that nuclear power is not safe and despite advances in technology there is no way to contain radioactive gases and particles in the event of an explosion or incident; no one is safe.

Scottish CND opposes nuclear power for many reasons, firstly because of the inherent links between nuclear power and nuclear weaponry. Over its history, the UK has created nearly 140 tons of weapons-grade plutonium by reprocessing the fuel rods from nuclear power, a legacy of worry and cost for thousands of future generations. The first nuclear power station in Scotland was commissioned to create materials for the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. With more countries seeking nuclear power as an alternative form of electricity production due to the climate emergency, it is vital that now, more than ever, that we campaign against nuclear power and for renewable energy sources that do not leave the legacy of harm and risk created by the nuclear industry. Thirty-one countries around the world currently have operating nuclear power stations and there is still no long-term solution for safely storing radioactive nuclear waste, an issue we can’t keep passing on to future generations. When it comes to the overall carbon emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear power is far more dangerous for our planet than say, renewable wind or wave energy, at a fraction of the cost. Nuclear power is dangerous, expensive and bad for our planet and should not be posed as the answer to the world’s ever-increasing energy needs.

Our friends at Greenpeace, who have released many reports about the impact that Chernobyl had and continues to have on our environment have said: “This generation may no longer remember that, for a few months, spinach and other green vegetables had to be destroyed in countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Cows all over Europe needed to be kept in stables and milk taken out of consumption – for more than two decades. Reindeer in Lapland, sheep in England and wild boar in Germany had to be slaughtered because of high radioactive contamination.” This quote shows that nuclear power is not worth the risk. The effects of Chernobyl are still clear today and there is no way to rule out any human error or mechanical failure at any of the 450 operational nuclear power stations today. Scottish CND have been drawing attention to the fact that nuclear power stations are routinely allowed to release low levels of radioactive emissions into the environment. This Invisible spikes of radioactive gases occur particularly when reactors are shut down and inspected. They are dangerous to people living immediately downwind and at places like Hunterston B in North Ayrshire, where this has happened several times this year. These emissions are the most likely cause of the unusually high incidence of leukaemia and other cancers around nuclear power stations (according to worldwide research). 

Scottish CND will continue to campaign against nuclear power through demanding the closure of both Scottish nuclear power stations and demands that workers are retrained in socially useful sectors such as renewable energies. We will always campaign against nuclear weapons until the last warhead is dismantled and we do this in memory of all the people who have died or had their lives cut short because of the nuclear industry - all the first responders at the Chernobyl disaster, all the displaced Japanese people due to the Fukushima meltdown, all the victims of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all of the indigenous people around the world who are victims of uranium mining and nuclear testing. Please join our campaign today and let their voices be heard. Together we can bring an end to nuclear domination and make this world a safer place for the generations to come.

Recent books:

Brown, K., 2019. Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. Penguin UK.

- Higginbotham, A., 2019. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Random House.

- Plokhy, S., 2018. Chernobyl: History of a tragedy. Penguin UK.


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