26 April 2007


Today is the 21st anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in history. On this date in 1986, near Pripyat in Ukraine, reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl power plant was part of a routine shutdown. The employees, who have since been regarded as inadequate, disregarded the safety instructions about the reactor becoming unstable at such low power. After a quick power surge, the reactor exploded and fires fed contamination into the air, ultimately releasing 100-150 million curies of radiation. The radiation contaminated parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, although some European stations recording small amounts of radiation far away from the plant. Belarus, who got the worst, lost 20% of it’s farmland immediately after the accident. Half of the radiation from Chernobyl was found in Belarus. 200,000 people eventually had to be evacuated, but because the government was slow and wasn’t honest with the citizens in the surrounding towns, many people were exposed unknowingly to the radiation. As officials realized how far-reaching the radiation had traveled, the evacuated more and more people. Thousands of “liquidators” were brought in from around the USSR to work in the cleanup efforts. All of them received very high does of radiation. To fight the fires that were continuously feeding more radiation into the air, they threw 5,000 metric tones of lead, boron, sand, and clay onto it. After it failed to significantly reduce radiation, they built what has since become known as the “sarcophagus”. However, because it was hastily built, it was not made to last. Plans are underway to build a newer, stronger containment. Initially, there were only two deaths (both workers who will killed during the first explosions), but by August the figure had risen to 31.

Many studies have been done around Chernobyl since the accident. Today, 1 out of 4 Belarussians live on contaminated land, which is about 2.1 million people. The radiation collected in the soil, destroying farms and poisoning groundwater. Thyroid cancer has increased dramatically in children born and raised after the accident. Overall, though, it’s very hard to say what the exact toll of the Chernobyl tragedy was. Although most scientists agree that the high numbers of thyroid cancer patients is a direct result of the radiation, other illnesses are harder to attribute to it. Many of them could also be caused by stress or poor nutrition. In the studies done throughout the years, the number of actual deaths due to Chernobyl has been anywhere between the 31 killed immediately after the accident to Greenpeace’s 270,000. The number usually agreed upon is 10,000 - 50,000. Chernobyl had a lasting effect on the area’s citizens, but it also had a large effect on the rest of the world.

Chernobyl taught us that accidents can and do happen. Since 1986, nuclear power plants have been made considerably safer, but they will never be fool-proof. Activists have used Chernobyl for years to highlight just how dangerous nuclear power is. Every year in America, there are a number of unreported near-accidents at plants around the country. Luckily, none of them have become disasters, but it’s not inconceivable that it could happen here in America.

There are plenty of alternatives to nuclear power. The US would be much better of investing all of their money and resources in clean energy, which will be the choice for future generations. For example, in place of dangerous, dirty, and current sources of energy, there could be wind, water, or solar power. Great leaps are being made in science that are constantly making these forms of energy cheaper and more effective. Let’s all get behind clean energy and save ourselves from another Chernobyl.

Please take a moment to give your thoughts to the victims of Chernobyl, some of whom have to live with terrible illnesses and destroyed lives.
Chabad's Children of Chernobyl
Chernobyl's Children Project International
Children of Chernobyl USA
For the Children
Humanity for Chernobyl
Strong Like a Willow

There's also a great book on the subject, Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, a collection of first-hand accounts of the disaster.

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