By Amritapa Basu:
Amidst the humdrum of the recent events — the crisis in Fukushima and the controversy of the Jaitapur Nuclear Plant, and Chernobyl being constantly drawn in for reference about the aftermath of a nuclear fallout, Chernobyl Disaster silently completes 25 years.
The Chernobyl Disaster released four hundred times more radioactive material than was released in Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It was considered the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history until Fukushima joined it at level 7 of the International Nuclear Event Scale. On 26th April, 1986, the disaster struck the Pripyat dwellers in Ukraine when the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded releasing a huge radio-active cloud. A systems test was in progress, the emergency system was shut down, undermining the reactor’s safety. There was a sudden power surge and the fuel elements burst, which set off a chain of events which eventually led to two powerful explosions. The plume or the radioactive cloud spread far and wide and contaminated large parts of Russia and Europe. Added to the fact is that Chernobyl was located so close to the populated parts of Ukraine and Europe, evacuation became difficult. Though nearly 50 thousand people were evacuated, they could not be shifted very far off. The immediate statistics of the number of deaths were unprecedentedly high but now, even after 25 years, the effects are far from over. A Russian publication, Chernobyl concludes that 985,000 excess deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination. Reports suggest that there has been an increase in the number of thyroid cancers among children and every animal species had undergone genetic mutation. It is estimated that less than 20% children in some parts of the Soviet Union are born healthy, most are born with deformities or disturbances of their nervous systems. Apart from the fatalities as a direct result of the explosion, tens of thousands of young and healthy men who were involved in the clean-up activities faced early deaths but these numbers remain unrecorded in the official count. Out of the 237 rescue workers who were afflicted with acute radiation sickness, 31 died within the first three months. The disaster left nearly 100,000 sq km land was left contaminated.
Much has been said and written about the influence and effects of the radiation mishap on humans but the radioactive emissions had an equal effect on the natural surroundings. After the disaster, four square kilometers of pine forest around the reactor earned the name of “Red Forest” as the pine-trees turned red and died soon. Not only were the children afflicted with thyroid cancer, Wiki reads horses left on an island in the Pripyat River 6 km from the power plant died when their thyroid glands were destroyed by radiation. Some cattle on the same island died and those that survived were stunted because of thyroid damage. Radioactive residues have been found in animal carcasses even in 2010, 24 years after the crisis.
Like in Fukushima, Japan, radiation contaminated drinking water making it hazardous to health. Water contamination posed a great threat to the aquatic life and bio-accumulation in aquatic animals became a direct result. Thus, there were many who were direct victims of the radioactive explosion and many more indirect sufferers who consumed fishes and cattle whose bodies had accumulated the radioactive residues.
A Robot sent into the reactor a few years back has returned with black melanin-rich fungi growing on the ruined reactor’s wall. These fungi are using radioactivity as an energy source for making food and spurring their growth. Without the interference of human beings in the Exclusion Zone, the place has become home for the rarest of species of trees and animals. The Ukrainian Government declared it as a wildlife sanctuary in 2007 and it is the largest wildlife sanctuaries in Europe, sprawled over an area of nearly 500 sq km.
In spite of everything, the horrors of the disaster are fresh for the surviving victims. And it is no less a horror for us, who have only heard and read about the disaster. Though Fukushima is more ready and more competent to handle the crisis than Chernobyl was 25 years back, it definitely will have some effects in the days to come. Closer home, though Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam said, “Nuclear plants should and would continue to operate. Accidents did happen but there were always solutions to problems and precautions to be taken”, with reference to the Jaitapur Nuclear Plant, the question that inevitably arises is ‘Are we ready for it?’
Hasn’tÂ it been often repeated ‘A wise man learns from the mistakes of others, a Fool commits his own’?