30 years after Chernobyl, we report a series of wires published in http://www.terradaily.com/ which evoke what happened in 1886, and give an account of the recent evolution of the local situation.

Lessons of Chernobyl disaster
Vienna (AFP) April 20, 2016

Ahead of the April 26 anniversary, AFP looks at the steps taken since 1986 to improve nuclear safety around the world and — as Fukushima showed in 2011 — the challenges that remain.

– Only in the USSR? –

Experts say a big factor behind the disaster was the unusual and poor design of the reactor, known as RMBK, particularly its propensity to sudden power surges — as happened at Chernobyl.

Chernobyl burning aerial view of core
Chernobyl burning aerial view of core

In addition, and unlike elsewhere outside the Soviet Union, there was no containment structure shielding the reactor to stop radioactivity escaping.

But there was also human error. According to the World Nuclear Association, the accident was also due to “the violation of operating procedures and the absence of a safety culture”.

The aftermath was also poorly handled, with officials slow to evacuate locals and Moscow sending 600,000 “liquidators” with little or no protective gear to put out a fire that raged for 10 days.

The first alarm was raised on April 28, 1986, not by Russia but by Sweden after it detected an unexplained rise in radiation levels. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did not admit the disaster had occurred until May 14.

– The response –

With enormous public outrage around the world Chernobyl, suddenly a household name, spurred an international push — even overcoming Cold War divisions — to improve atomic safety and reassure the public.

One of the most important steps was the 1989 creation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), which carries out “peer reviews” of 430 reactors around the world to detect problems.

“The industry has undoubtedly learned the lesson that we are stronger together,” WANO chief executive Peter Prozesky told AFP.

The demise of the Soviet Union and the end of its Cold War isolation has also removed barriers to international cooperation.

Ex-communist eastern European countries, many now EU members, have also been helped to adapt their Soviet-built plants. Of the 17 RMBK reactors in operation in 1986, six have been permanently shut down.

In addition the role of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency was beefed up. It expanded and revised safety standards and member states were required to report swiftly any incidents with potential cross-border effects.

A number of international agreements were signed, the most important being the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS). Others covered nuclear waste and early warning systems for accidents.

– What about Fukushima? –

But any belief that enough had been done was swamped by the tsunami that knocked out the power supply and cooling systems of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11, 2011.

“It was the belief in Japan at that time that this facility was robust… and even that it was not a good idea to conduct upgrades or changes to the facility because this could demonstrate in terms of public communication some weaknesses,” Juan Carlos Lentijo, head of nuclear safety at the IAEA, told AFP.

“This was an acute error, a huge mistake.”

This, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, also caused an outcry, further international cooperation and agreements, and an even bigger role for WANO and the IAEA.

Nuclear plant operators again say that they have made more technical improvements, including through better shielding of the nuclear material and more reliable “passive” safety systems in newer reactors.

– Human error –

But for critics, dangerous risks remain, not least because no matter how many technical and regulatory improvements are made, the risk of human error — the common factor at Chernobyl and Fukushima — remains.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there were 10 “near misses” at US reactors in 2015, events that potentially increase the risk of a meltdown by at least 10 times, most due to human error.

For Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a nuclear expert at Greenpeace, the biggest risk is that most reactors, particularly in the West, are decades old, their designs dating back to the 1960s and 70s.

“We are now in the wear-out stage for the majority of the reactors in the world,” Stensil told AFP.

In addition, these reactors were all built before another risk that has reared its head in recent years — nuclear terrorism — “was even thought about,” Stensil said.

There are also lingering concerns about Russia — there are still 11 RMBK reactors, albeit with new safety features — particularly with Russia being a big exporter of reactors to the developing world.

But Lentijo of the IAEA, whose raison d’etre is to promote nuclear technology, is more positive. “Safety has been improved, and I would say that the level is appropriate in general terms,” he said.

Chernobyl worker remembers the aftermath

Vyshgorod, Ukraine (AFP) April 17, 2016

Igor Magala can still remember the metallic taste he got in his mouth as he drove up to the Chernobyl nuclear power station on the morning of April 26, 1986.

The night before, Magala — the deputy construction boss at the plant — had received a phone call telling him there had been an accident and summoning him in to help, but he had few other details.

Now as he approached the area he found it crawling with soldiers.

“At the beginning there was no information at all — everything back then was classified as secret,” Magala, now 78, told AFP as he stood in the main square of his hometown just outside the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

“I thought that I was coming for a week, but it turned out that I had to stay there a year.”

Magala did not know at the time, but several hours earlier the plant’s reactor number four — which he had helped to build — had exploded during a safety test.

While the Soviet authorities were desperately trying to prevent news of the catastrophe leaking, clouds of poisonous radiation were already spewing out — and the reactor itself was glowing.

“There was a red pillar of light and at night it was especially visible,” Magala said. “It shone red for several days.”

– Threat of another blast –

Magala was one of the very first of some 600,000 people who became known as “liquidators” — mostly soldiers, police, firefighters and state employees — dispatched by Moscow over the next few years to try to clean up the fall-out.

decontamination (photo Sputnik news)

“There was no protective gear — that all came later,” Magala said. “There was just a sense of duty.”

For those working at the site in the immediate aftermath of the disaster there were more pressing concerns.

Experts worried that radioactive material could leak into a safety pool under the reactor and cause a second, more powerful explosion that would threaten the millions of people living in Kiev, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the south.

That May, Magala and 10 other volunteers were handed the task of using special equipment to drill through the two-metre thick wall of the safety pool to check.

After working for four days the team were relieved to find that their worst fears were unfounded.

“When we cut the hole through it turned out that it was all quiet, peaceful and calm there,” Magala said.

“We did not need to evacuate Kiev.”

– ‘Dying like flies’ –

Thirty years later, Magala walks with a stick but says he has not suffered serious health problems from the aftermath of Chernobyl.

That, he concedes, makes him one of the lucky ones.

“People that we called ‘partisans’ arrived — kids who were mobilised by the army. They gave them a helmet and a lead apron,” Magala said.

“Five year later these soldiers began dying like flies.”

He reserves the greatest respect for those who took the worst risk by clearing radioactive graphite from the roof of the damaged reactor before radio-controlled bulldozers buried it in the earth below.

Their electrical equipment kept breaking down because of the radiation.

“The firefighters bore the brunt of that first wave,” Magala said.

“The equipment stopped working, but the people stood firm.”

Chernobyl zone turns into testbed for Nature’s rebound
Chernobyl, Ukraine (AFP) April 19, 2016

What happens when the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident is left all but abandoned for nearly 30 years?

In the case of Chernobyl, it becomes a unique chance to see how wildlife recovers in what is a giant nature reserve, bereft of humans but tainted by radiation.

“When the people left, nature returned,” Denys Vyshnevskiy, a biologist in Chernobyl’s so-called exclusion zone, told AFP during a visit, while nearby a herd of wild horses nosed around for food.

Some may wonder how the northern edge of the former Soviet nation, where a part of the station exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing toxic clouds that reached from Sweden to Greece, could host any life forms at all.

Today’s animals in the exclusion may have shorter lifespans and produce fewer offspring, but their numbers and varieties are growing at rates unseen since long before the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, says Vyshnevskiy.

“Radiation is always here and it has its negative impact,” said Vyshnevskiy.

“But it is not as significant as the absence of human intervention.”

– Environmental renaissance? –

About 130,000 people were rushed from the region in the disaster’s wake, with signs of former existence like children’s sandpits and swings still standing and collecting snow in the winter, as if frozen in time.

With the quick death of the local Red Forest — 10 square kilometres of pines that wilted from the radiation that permeated the ground — various birds, rodents and insects were lost.

Over time, the forest was cut down and a new, healthy one sprung up in its place.

The exclusion zone was placed under military surveillance to keep away the homesick for their own safety, and while a few hundred pension-aged people slipped back in over the decades, curious things slowly began to emerge in nature.

On the one hand, species dependent on human crops and waste products vanished: white storks, sparrows and pigeons fell silent and no longer filled the skies.

Yet on the other, indigenous species that flourished in the lush flora long before the catastrophe, reappeared.


These include elks, wolves, bears, lynxes, white-tailed eagles and many others.

One of the more brazen experiments came in 1990, when a handful of endangered Dzungarian horses were brought in to see if they would take root. They did so with relish, and about a hundred of them now graze the untended fields.

For Vyshnevskiy, the rebound is an “environmental renaissance”.

Other scientists, though, are more cautious.

Tim Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, heads a team that has been conducting long-term research into biodiversity at Chernobyl — a mission that they are also carrying out in the zone around Fukushima in Japan.

In a phone interview with AFP, Mousseau said that the range of species, the number of animals and their survivability in Chernobyl is less than what would be expected in a non-contaminated area — especially in “hotspots” where radiation is high.

Butterflies and birds in particular seem to have been affected most, apparently because of susceptibility on a key chromosome, he said.

“When you put a fence around an area, it’s clear that some animals will have an opportunity to expand, but because they are visible, it doesn’t mean that they have increased as much as they should have, or that you have the biodiversity that you would normally have,” Mousseau said.

He added in an email: “Overall, in almost all cases, there is a clear signal of the negative effects of radiation on wild populations. Even the cuckoo’s call is affected.”

– Disaster’s sole positive outcome –

Maryna Shkvyrya, a researcher at the Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology, Ukraine’s oldest in the field, also urges prudence to those tempted to idealise the exclusion zone as a nature reserve.

The zone is “unique… but not exactly a paradise for the animals nor an oasis”, Shkvyrya said.

“There are lots of people working on the power plant. There are tourists, stalkers and poachers.”

Vyshnevskiy says that the biodiversity benefits will rise with time. When the woods sprawl even wider across the empty fields, forest fauna and flora will multiply, he predicts.

Bison (photo Tatyana Deryabina)
Bison (photo Tatyana Deryabina)

“There is a huge contrast between Chernobyl just before the catastrophe and Chernobyl 30 years after,” said Vyshnevskiy.

“These animals are probably the only positive outcome of the terrible catastrophe we had”.




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