Spring should bring flowers in bloom, birds, sunshine, and renewed hope after a long winter, not nuclear meltdown. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi – all nuclear industry made disasters that started during springtime continue to forewarn us of the dangers of nuclear power. As Albert Einstein said, “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking ... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker (1945).”
Fairewinds Energy Education commemorated the nuclear catastrophes at Fukushima Daiichi and Three Mile Island during March and April and Sunday, April 26, marks 29 years since the horrific and memorable meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine. Burlington, Vermont playwright and author Spencer Smith, who created the readers’ play Voices From Chernobyl joins Maggie Gundersen, president of Fairewinds Energy Education, in this week’s emotional and moving Fairewinds’ video production about the ongoing Chernobyl tragedy.
Spencer Smith remembers 1986 and the nuclear mess that the meltdown at Chernobyl created and her Peace Corp service from 2001-2003 in the Ukraine further deepened her interest in the Chernobyl meltdown and concern for those still experiencing the significant human repercussions. As a Peace Corp Volunteer, Spencer was advised not to swim in the lakes, not to eat foraged berries and mushrooms, and definitely not to drink the water due to residual traces of radioactive chemicals from Chernobyl, which remains to this day an uninhabitable radioactive zone. Spencer learned from first hand accounts about the Soviet Union’s cover up during the Chernobyl nuclear crisis that subsequently exposed hundreds of thousands to high doses of radioactivity.
After her Peace Corps service, Spencer moved to Vermont where she became involved with the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance in Montpelier in an effort to draw attention to the shutdown of Vermont Yankee. After reading Voices From Chernobyl, the highly acclaimed book by Soviet journalist Svetlana Alexievich, Spencer created the readers’ play Voices From Chernobyl, in an effort to make people around the world more aware of this ongoing catastrophe for the people of the Ukraine. Exiled from her own country, Svetlana Alexievich’s work is that of a truly dedicated journalist who risked her life by entering radioactive zones in order to interview victims and expose their stories about the truth of nuclear power.
Spencer’s play tells the story of six of Svetlana’s interviewees: the wife of a fireman, a physicist, a scientist, an executive of Chernobyl, a peasant who moved back to the contaminated area, and a mother.
“If you look back at the whole of our history, both soviet and post- soviet” said Svetlana Alexievich, “it is a human common grave and a blood bath, an eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims, the accursed Russian questions, what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolutions, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan War hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions: Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my book. This is my path, my circles of hell.”
Minsk, Belarus. Children's Home #1, photo by Paul Fusco
I was an expectant mother here in the United States in 1986 when news of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster began to seep through the veil of secrecy surrounding the Soviet Union. Though the events leading to the meltdown began unfolding on April 26 of that year, news of any potential for international impacts was well-off the radar of average Americans like me until the warmth of approaching summer drew us into our gardens.
It was the first time since our childhood civil-defense drills in school that I had even thought about radiation. Suddenly, Strontium-90, the “bone seeker,” was in the news, and I remember harboring estrogen-fed pangs of empathy for expectant mothers whom fate had placed in Ukraine that spring.
We were told that Chernobyl was on the other side of the globe, so there was little chance of the radiation reaching us all the way over here. Of course, in due course some of it did, but that time America won the luck lottery.
Maps of the radiation release in 1986 describe a graceful but malevolent plume, blanketing the western Soviet regions, curling in wispy trails through Europe, and petering out over Asia and beyond.
As was the case at Fukushima Daiichi, the radiation deposited in various regions over which the lethal cloud drifted, was unevenly distributed and spotty. Even if the Soviet overlords had been fully prepared and acted in a responsible manner, attempting to quickly evacuate the known affected areas would still have left “hot spots” scattered well beyond the perceived scope of the disaster.
If the Soviets had applied one-tenth of the effort that they invested in suppressing bad news to ensuring that the plant had operated safely in the first place, and to planning evacuation in the event of a nuclear power disaster, many thousands of lives and tens of thousands of people with life-altering disabilities might have been spared.
Thanks to Soviet obstructionism and a distinct lack of curiosity on the part of international nuclear regulators, we were left with virtually no usable lessons from Chernobyl. The world received absurd underestimates of the human toll and of the quantity of radioactive material that was ejected into the atmosphere from hundreds of tons of plutonium and other isotopes present in the molten reactor core.
Now we confront a fresh hazard rising from the ghost of Pripyat where the devastated Chernobyl reactor lies inadequately entombed.
In case you missed the news, there is an escalating war going on in eastern Ukraine. Pripyat lies to the west near Kiev, the capitol. That’s just across the Dneiper River from the contested region.
Russia doesn’t want to wake the sleeping giant any more than Ukraine does, but in a war, accidents happen…and renegade terrorists happen…and forest fires most certainly happen, as well.
This is perhaps the biggest worry in Chernobyl, because fires break out every day, in war and in peace.
Incineration re-releases all of the deadly isotopes that have been sequestered for almost 30 years inside living trees that were blanketed with fallout way back in 1986. The tree roots drank deeply of the radioactive groundwater all around them.
Funny thing about Chernobyl: the tiny insects that routinely reduce dead trees to formless mulch in the rest of the world seem to have disappeared from the habitat of the Exclusion Zone.
Oh, we’ve all heard about the “Wolves of Chernobyl,” those supposed harbingers of natural resilience in Pripyat, that seem to defy the alarming Geiger counter readings. The nuclear industry has taken great pains to highlight a superficial resurgence of life in the Exclusion Zone. What they leave out is the truth that biodiversity in the region has been dealt a deadly blow by radiation.
The balance of nature in that “Peaceable Kingdom” has been disrupted in ways that will magnify with time. While some larger mammals like the celebrity wolves may appear to be doing well right now, it is to a great extent because their principle predators, humans, have been removed from the environment.
Smaller organisms like birds and insects have not been so lucky. Greatly reduced in number, many species now bear the signs of advancing mutations.
Contrary to what many people may think, the genetic imprint of radiation does not limit itself to a single generation. The effect is redoubled by the presence of ever degrading isotopes in the living environment of the offspring, where they are routinely re-introduced through ingestion, then redistributed to affect different cells in possibly different organs of future generations.
These facts bring us back to the trees and the tiny organisms nature relies upon to return them to the soil. In the absence of those organisms, the trees stand tall, withering through winter cold and summer heat. Forest fires are the real enemy in this region of the Ukraine. Winds sweep the fires through tinder dry stands of exhausted trees, releasing and wildly redistributing the radioactive particles that have long been held in check within their living hosts.
This deadly cycle of contamination will repeat countless times, as it will take hundreds to thousands of years to reduce all the different isotopes in this lethal radioactive payload to a state of harmlessness. With each iteration more individuals will be affected, absorbing the genetic signature of nuclear damage and passing it along to their progeny.
Because the Soviet regime officially blocked any effort to honestly capture disease and morbidity statistics resulting from Chernobyl, any estimate of the total number will inevitably fail to capture the true scale of this tragedy. The lack of accountability in what was then the Soviet Union is compounded by the special interests of governments and regulatory agencies all over the globe, which found it convenient not to press the issue at the risk of losing public support for their own nuclear energy programs.
Apologists for and promoters of nuclear energy have so feared repercussions from an informed public that they have made every effort to discredit virtually all evidence that radiation, other than that sufficient to cause obvious immediate injury, can be harmful in any way. This singularly fantastic position depends on both a gullible and uncurious audience for its efficacy, and the fact that no one wants to believe a truly frightening fact about a world we feel powerless to change.
Despite their best efforts, it is impossible to overlook the photographic evidence of deformities and the cumulative record of dramatic changes in morbidity, disease and mutations among populations in areas that were most heavily exposed. That accurate record is available to anyone who cares to read the detailed and dispassionate compilation provided in “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” by biologist, Alexey V. Yablokov and his colleagues at the Russian Academy of Science.
These scientists do not need to make the argument that the dramatic increase in cancers and deformities amongst the population were the direct result of radiation exposure. The statistics by themselves make that case admirably well.
Future generations are sadly destined to bear witness to this tragic truth.
Book of the Month:
Award winning author, Peter Eichstaedt uncovers the devastating impact that the US nuclear age has had on the health, land, and culture of the Navajo people who reside on some of the richest uranium deposits in North America.
Working as a senior reporter for Santa Fe’s daily paper the New Mexican, Eichstaedt exposed problems with the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) to bury nuclear waste in salt mines around Carlsbad, New Mexico. When Eichstaedt conducted his research and published in 1994, WIPP had not yet opened as an operational waste site. Eichstadt continued his investigation of the nuclear industry as a professor of English at the Institute of American Indian Arts culminating in the production of this book.
Based in Santa Fe, Eichstadt spent years collecting interviews, and data that reveals the forced sacrifice of a people. Native Americans of the Four Corners, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet, comprised about one-quarter of the miners and millers working in the atomic mills located on the Navajo Reservation between 1950 and 1980. Despite growing evidence that uranium mining was dangerous, unhealthy, and destructive to the environment, state and federal agencies did nothing to protect their workers. Forty years later, after having given up their land under the impression that it was their patriotic duty, the Navajo people have suffered physical, psychological, and cultural devastation with little to no compensation.
“They’re saying you have to die first before you get a [compensation] check,” says Cecil Parrish in an interview translated by his son, Wayne, outside of Cecil’s traditional Navajo Hogan.
Voices From Chernobyl : The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
By Svetlana Alexievich
On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear accident in history occurred in Chernobyl. Although this was one of the most devastating tragedies ever, until now, no book has appeared in English giving the inside story of what happened to the people living in Belarus, and the fear, anger, and uncertainty that they lived through. A journalist by trade, Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people in Belarus affected by the meltdown. From residents of Chernobyl to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucial document of what happened and how people reacted to it. Alexievich presents these interviews in monologue form, giving readers a harrowing inside view into the minds of those affected untempered by government spin, detailing the tragedy and devastation.
(Review provided by IndieBound.org)
The combination of solar panels and solar batteries are challenging the traditional utility and energy corporation business model due to Tesla Motors’ production of solar batteries in New Mexico according to a recent report issued by the Rocky Mountain Institute. With the creation of solar battery packs, the utility industry is facing what a 2013 Edison Electric Institute report called “disruptive challenges” to the industry. In last week’s presentation to the World Uranium Symposium in Quebec City, Fairewinds’ Chief Engineer, Arnie Gundersen, called for a paradigm shift from big business controlled centralized energy to small, locally distributed renewable energy. It would appear that some energy giants are willing to adapt as David Crane, the CEO of NRG, has confessed, “[NRG] is headed down the path towards a distributed generation-centric, clean energy future featuring individual choice and the empowerment of the American energy consumer.” James Mandel of the Rocky Mountain Institute points out that with the addition of solar batteries in the home, “batteries could do a lot of balancing and grid management services more cheaply.” For example, in a crisis, homeowners would be able to help the grid stabilize by ceasing to draw power from their solar panels while still being able to provide energy to their homes by using energy stored in charged solar batteries.
China has refused to load fuel at two European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) nuclear plants designed by French company AREVA at the Taishan nuclear site. Since the discovery of manufacturing anomalies pertaining to the steel composition within the EPR reactor at Flamanville in Normandy, China will not continue with the Taishan 1 and 2 nuclear reactors until this issue is resolved. It appears that all the ‘new’ reactors have fabrication failures and/or design safety flaws as Fairewinds pointed out in 2010, and is being seen today in the delayed construction of the world’s first AP1000 reactor, designed by US-based company Westinghouse, which also has a flawed safety design.
International safety specialists say there is a 50% chance that a Chernobyl-scale event or larger will occur during the next 27 years and a 50:50 chance of another TMI-level disaster during the next 10. The MIT Technology Review calls the work of Spencer Wheatley and Didier Sornette at ETH Zurich and Benjamin Sovacool at Aarhus University in Denmark the most comprehensive list of nuclear disasters ever created. Wheatley, Sornette, and Sovacool then used this list to calculate the likelihood of other nuclear meltdowns in the future. Acknowledging the importance of better understanding the nature of risk in the nuclear industry, they took it upon themselves to conduct the largest statistical analysis of nuclear catastrophes ever undertaken using a nuclear event’s total cost in U.S. dollars as the system of metric for assessment of damages. Wheatley, Sornette, and Sovacool defined an “accident” or nuclear disaster event as “an unintentional incident or event at a nuclear energy facility that led to either one death (or more) or at least $50,000 in property damage.” Each nuclear disaster must have occurred during the generation, transmission, or distribution of nuclear energy, including incidents at mines. By calculating the economic losses such as destruction of property, the cost of emergency response, environmental remediation, evacuation, fines, insurance claims, and evaluating each loss of life at $6M (a figure used by various US agencies) the team was able to accurately rank and assess each nuclear risk incident. The top five are: Fukushima, Chernobyl, the fire at Tsuruga, a fire at Rocky Flats, and the incident at Sellafield known as Windscale. (Sellafield appears five times in the list of top 15 most expensive nuclear disasters).
We all know the saying a “canary in a coal mine” and scientific data has continuously shown that the behavior of animals within an environment speaks volumes about the safety of that ecosystem. Recent studies by University of South Carolina biologist Tim Mousseau shows heavily diminished bird populations or the absence of birds all together in both Fukushima Prefecture and the Ukraine as a result of the tragic meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. With the help of coworkers, Dr. Mousseau has undertaken a series of bird census from contaminated areas worldwide that indicate a heavy radioactive impact that does not bode well for birds, animals, or humans. The most disturbing trend evaluated so far takes place in Fukushima, where bird populations continue to dwindle and disappear even as radiation levels decline. In an interview with CBS News, Mousseau said that there are dramatic reductions in the number of birds that should be present based on overall patterns. "In terms of barn swallows in Fukushima,” Mousseau told CBS, “there had been hundreds if not thousands in many of these towns where we were working. Now we are seeing a few dozen of them left. It's just an enormous decline."