THE Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986, recedes into the past, dissolves over time, but its effects continue to live among and within the people of the stricken regions. On this 31st anniversary of Chernobyl and the 6th anniversary of Fukushima we are reminded once more of the frailty and vulnerability of nuclear technology because of its dependence on human direction and its susceptibility to the unpredictable forces of nature.
The Chernobyl catastrophe, triggered by simple human error, and the Fukushima disaster, unleashed by tsunami and earthquake, both had devastating consequences for human life and for the planet.
Chernobyl remains a dark stain on human history. Unlike war and its ravages, unlike famine and disease, unlike terror and torture, radioactive contamination attacks life silently, insidiously and with irreversible consequences. It’s a spectral but yet a visible malignant killer; the “forever” lethal consequences from its fallout as yet incalculable by even the greatest scientific minds on the planet.
There may be even an impression that because Chernobyl is something which happened such a very long time ago that it no longer poses a threat to the world but the reality of the situation is very, very different.
Chernobyl is not something from the past; Chernobyl was and is a forever event — its radioactive footprint is embedded in our world for all time and countless millions of people are still being affected by its deadly legacy.
The people of the Chernobyl regions have a long and tragic history of struggle and strife. They have endured countless foreign invasions, famines and plagues. They have lived under and survived many tyrannies including Stalinism because they are a strong, proud, resilient people. They survived until they were attacked by an enemy against which no army could defend, an invisible enemy against which there is no shield; a contaminating enemy against which there is no known antidote, an enemy from whom there is no refuge, no escape, no emergency exit.
This enemy, radiation, is one you cannot see, taste or touch. Yet it weaves insidious harm into the very fabric of life casting long and lasting shadows across the generations.
At 1.23am on this day in April 1986 disaster struck, turning this land into a modern-day Pompeii. This disaster is 31 years old, just a millisecond in the life of its radioactive pollution. While other disasters are vying for the world’s attention, relegating Chernobyl to the history books, it is our responsibility to speak out and to retell its story.
There is a new reality to be faced by all of us because if we do not know the past, we will not be able to understand the present or to be informed in making the right decisions for our children and the future of the planet. I believe there is no precedent in the history of humanity that Chernobyl can be compared to.
Over the last three decades people have shared with me the feelings, the history and the loss, of what it is like to have been touched by something previously unknown. In a sense I, too, became a witness, offering a testimony in the hope that my voice, and the voices of those around me, will help others to pose questions about the meaning of our lives, our responsibilities and our very existence on this fragile, beautiful planet.
April 26, 1986, was a dark and chilling day in human history but pausing today, on its anniversary, gives us a chance to read about it in our newspapers, to talk about it, and confront the challenges its poses.
The challenges are to ask: “What have we learned from Chernobyl and how can we ensure that a Chernobyl never happens again and that we never forget the deadly chain of events Chernobyl unleashed?” But on that front we have some good news to share. The United Nations has listened to our plea for action and have declared April 26 forevermore as United Nations Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day.
This UN special Chernobyl Day provides us with the opportunity to reflect on both the human and environmental impact of the disaster. This UN decision is of enormous significance on a global scale. These developments are the culmination of 30 years’ advocacy work.
It will tell victims of Chernobyl that they will not be forgotten, that Chernobyl, is not a past event.
This special day will ensure that the global consciousness surrounding Chernobyl will never falter. Let it be a day that will always honour and commemorate. It must also be a day for renewal and recommitment to discover new ways to alleviate further the suffering of the people in this stricken land.
May it also act as a catalyst that will help raise awareness around the fact that the effects of Chernobyl are forever. While only 3% of the radioactive material was released at the time of the accident in 1986, Chernobyl released 200 times that of the combined releases from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some 5.5m people across Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia — including more than 1m children — continue to live in contaminated zones. Continuous low dose exposure through the food chain remains a huge risk for these populations as some areas of land will be radioactive for more than 24,000 years.
Another welcome milestone in the history of Chernobyl was reached in 2016 with the completion of the first phase of a massive global engineering project to make the damaged, crumbling, still leaking reactor safer. While we welcome Phase One, the completion and sliding into place of the New Safe Confinement structure on November 29, 2016, replacing the crumbling sarcophagus, we must remain keenly conscious of the gargantuan task ahead in Phase Two of this plan which is to dismantle the exploded reactor and undertake the safe disposal of more than 180 tons of radioactive material left inside.
Phase Two will require international guidance and support into the future, and we must ensure that the safe disposal of this radioactive material is the highest priority. The science and technology required to achieve both the safe dismantling of the exploded reactor and old sarcophagus, as well as the disposal of the radioactive waste, does not yet exist. What we witnessed at Fukushima, when the cleanup robots failed, acts as a sobering reminder of how much development is still required.
These environmental, technological and scientific challenges are ones which must be prioritised by scientists, engineers and state bodies. We owe it to the generations of children inheriting this deadly Chernobyl lineage to prioritise the development of this project.
It is also a stark reminder that we must remain vigilant in our commitment to ensure that Chernobyl becomes progressively safer.
Adi Roche is founder and voluntary CEO, Chernobyl Children International.