by Constance Daley
St. Simons Island, Ga.
April 5, 2011
MY TWO LIZZES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- As we nervously watch a nuclear catastrophe unfold at the Fukushima reactor complex in Japan, the memories of Chernobyl keep coming to mind.
On April 26, 1986, a fire and explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke fallout into the atmosphere. Four hundred times more radioactive material than had been released by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima showered upon the Ukraine and parts of Belarus and Russia. More than 336,000 people were resettled as their former homes turned into contaminated ghost towns.
I recently had the chance to meet three Russian women who stopped in Vermont as part of a national tour marking the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl.
Tatiana Muchamedyarova, a Russian anti-nuclear activist, was joined her colleagues Natalia Manzurova, who worked as a lead engineer in cleaning up the consequences of the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl, and Dr. Nataliya Mironova, who founded the Movement for Nuclear Safety and was one of the first organizers to press for government openness on pre-Chernobyl nuclear catastrophes.
Russia has 31 civil nuclear reactors that produce 16 percent of that nation's electricity, as well as 13 reactors that are being operated beyond their original projected 40-year life span.
"We still don't know what to do with the nuclear waste," said Muchamedyarova. "The first big nuclear accident in Russia, in the 1950s, was when a storage tank filled with contaminated material exploded. I don't know how or why we developed a technology that has no end."
The accident she was referring to was at Mayak, located in the Ural mountains. In 1957, an massive explosion spread highly radioactive contaminants over 500,000 people. It was second only to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in size and scope.
A combination of past nuclear accidents and the accumulation of wastes from more than six decades of nuclear activities at the site have made the area surrounding Mayak one of the most contaminated in the world, with significant concentrations of strontium, cesium and plutonium found within a 60-mile radius of the facility. It is estimated that there are about 500,000 cancer victims living within that zone.
Manzurova is the only survivor of her 14-member team of "liquidators," the people responsible for containing and cleaning up the contamination in Chernobyl. All the others have died of illnesses linked to the intense radiation exposure they received over the five years they worked, and she too is battling various health ailments.
More than 600,000 liquidators worked at Chernobyl, but the Russian government has never fully acknowledged how many have since died. Estimates vary, but according to Vyacheslav Grishin of the Chernobyl Union, the main organization of liquidators, 60,000 have since died and 165,000 disabled.
Likewise, while only 31 deaths were directly caused by the disaster, estimates for illnesses and deaths linked to exposure to Chernobyl's radioactive plume range from 4,000 by the World Health Organization to more than 200,000 by Greenpeace.
"The nuclear industry is stressing that not that many people died at Chernobyl, but they don't recognize the long-term effects and the traumas that have been passed down to the next generation," Manzurova said. "They don't see how the quality of life has changed for so many people."
Manzurova said for the thousands that were evacuated from the area around Chernobyl, never to return to their former homes, life is divided in two - time before the accident, and after. "Their previous lives have been wiped clean altogether," she said.
The level of denial by both governments and the nuclear industry of the extent of radioactive contamination after Chernobyl and other nuclear incidents around the world is by design, Manzurova said.
"If they recognize that they have been victims, [governments and the industry] would have to recognize what created the victims," she said. "If you talk to the nuclear industry, they are so sure they are on the right side and everything is okay."
Mironova, who was in Vermont last fall as part of a Russian delegation that examined the decommissioning process for U.S. nuclear plants, said that the Fukushima disaster has opened up a wide variety of unthinkable scenarios.
"You have a paralyzed government trying to deal with a natural disaster, a disaster that cuts across every sector of society," she said. "And then you have to deal with a nuclear disaster on top of that. It is like a wartime situation in Japan, and the world needs to understand that."
As bad as Chernobyl was, and as bad as Fukushima is becoming, there is the potential for an even bigger disaster in Russia. In addition to handling its own wastes, Russia is taking in spent radioactive material from Britain, France and Germany for reprocessing, turning it into a profit center for the Russian government.
Last fall, Mironova said that Russia is positioning itself to be "the superpower of energy." Russia already has substantial natural gas reserves and an equally substantial uranium mining industry, she said. Reprocessing the world's nuclear fuel fits into that strategy.
Mayak is still one of the biggest nuclear facilities in Russia, and reprocesses about 200 tons of spent fuel annually, according to Oleg Bodrov, a Russian engineer and physicist who is one of the founders and current chairman of the Green World Council, a St. Petersburg, Russia, environmental group.
An extraction process called PUREX (plutonium and uranium recovery by extraction) is used to separate those two elements from spent fuel. But the process, Bodrov said, creates 22,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste for every cubic meter of spent fuel.
Of the 13 Russian reactors that got authorization from Rosatom, as the Russian Federal Nuclear Agency is known, to extend their operation, Bodrov said 11 are of the same design as the Chernobyl reactor. An accident at these reactors, many of which are located in more populated areas, would have even worse environmental consequences than the Mayak or Chernobyl disasters.
But the nuclear industry in Russia, the United States and in every other country where there are reactors still believes there is nothing to worry about.
"The nuclear establishment is the same in every country," Mironova said. "It suppresses the truth."
AR Chief of Correspondentds Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.