Victims of the world’s worst nuclear accident may never find closure decades after it shuttered the lives of more than 5 million people in the former Soviet Union.
As the world marked the 32nd anniversary of the accident yesterday (April 26, 2018), some 4,000 people have lost 13 years of their total life expectancy, thanks to effects of the Chernobyl disaster.
While Germany and other large economies contend with plans to phase out nuclear power amid teething controversy, the Chernobyl shadow is a stark reminder of the damage radioactive energy can cause in the event things go wrong.
“The figures of those affected by the accident could still be higher. It may be well over five million. It could go to 20 million,” according to Annedore Smith, a journalist familiar with the accident.
The accident occurred on April 26, 1986 when reactor 4 burst at the Lenin Atomic Power Station at Chernobyl due to an operational error as engineers tested if the turbine generator could produce enough energy to run coolers when cut off the power grid.
The reactor burst into fire, spilling radioactive waves. Soviet Union’s administration was slow in admitting what happened over fears it would create panic.
“Had the government done something straightaway like giving iodine tablets, 90 per cent of the casualties would have been prevented,” says Smith, who visited the Chernobyl plant in 2006.
A radius of 30km was declared an exclusive zone and 100 towns evacuated. But despite the prohibition on living in the exclusion zone, at least 800, mostly older, people have returned to their former villages. Some 20,000 square kilometers of arable land was contaminated.
Victims are today as sad as they were 32 years ago after the fateful accident, blamed on human error and imperfect technology. Today, researchers are afraid that at least 4,000 could die of cancer from the accident. Many have cancer of the skin, leukemia and deformities at birth.
“The Chernobyl accident caused many severe radiation effects almost immediately. Of 600 workers present on the site during the early morning of 26 April 1986, 134 received high doses and suffered from radiation sickness. Of these, 28 died in the first three months and another 19 died in 1987-2004 of various causes,” says a report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic radiation.
The station is situated at the Belarus-Ukraine border on the River Pripyat area. “There is controversy on compensation. While some say Rusia should take blame and pay victims, others think Ukraine should be held to account,” Smith once told a journalists’ workshop in Berlin.
She added: “The destructive potential of the accident was 100 times more fatal than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki incidents in 1945 combined.”
Up to 60 deaths have been recognized as a direct consequence of the accident. These include 30 fire fighters dispatched to the nuclear station after reactor exploded.
As the world marks the Chernobyl anniversary, questions continue to rise over the efficacy of nuclear energy, especially in the wake of climate change and the renewed threats to environmental conservation.
Several countries are yet to ditch nuclear despite overwhelming evidence on the dangers. According to the European Nuclear Society, China had 11 nuclear stations, Finland 4, France 58, Germany 17, Russian Federation 32, Slovakian Republic 4 and Ukraine 15 as at 2010. Apart from existing nuclear power plants, there are several under construction.
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Eight of the 17 German nuclear power stations are still in operation despite the clamour to face them out by the year 2022 in a push towards ensuring a carbon free regime.
The Italian parliament voted in July 2009 to return to nuclear power after 22 years and now, four to eight atomic power plants are planned which are supposed to supply 25 per cent of the country’s energy needs by 2020.
South Africa’s government plans to set up six new nuclear power plants by te year 2030 at a cost of between R400 billion and R1 trillion despite mounting fears of possible coast overuns which the taxpayer will bear.
In Kenya, a team spearheading an ongoing nuclear energy project expects to begin construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant in 2024. The team is betting on a 15-year strategic plan and has done a pre-feasibility study under the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines.
“By 2027, we will have our first nuclear power plant with construction expected to start in 2024,” according to the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board’s technical officer Edwin Chesire.
But experts have been jittery, saying Kenya’s nuclear ambitions should be reviewed given the country’s inadequate financial and technological ability.
The caution comes hot on the heels of a recent warning by the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that before execution, the nuclear plan should be “subjected to a rigorous economic, environmental and social assessment.”
Paul Okinyi, an environmental lobbyist, argues that nuclear technology as a power source could have lost its cost advantage over renewable sources and therefore not ideal for a developing country such as Kenya.
“Let us not bite more than we can chew. We have no money. We are still technologically disadvantaged yet nuclear technology has a lot of safety challenges,” he says.
Other experts warn that while the cost of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind have been declining, that of nuclear has been rising in the last decade, casting doubts as to whether it could be a good option for developing economies such as Kenya. They say US$4 billion should not be spent on a single nuclear reactor when cheaper sources of energy can be explored.
“We still have a variety of options. We can explore the renewable energy. We are rich in wind, solar and geothermal. Why are we going for technologies that even big countries are abandoning? Remember the crisis in Japan and the infamous Chernobyl,” says Okinyi.
Eighty five per cent of Kenya’s electricity comes from hydro although solar, wind and geothermal remain largely untapped. Five years ago, 40 Kenyan researchers were dispatched to Korea to undertake nuclear power training. In Kenya, 28 other students are undertaking studies in nuclear science at the University of Nairobi. The trainees are expected to champion the project.