Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chernobyl: 25 years on

Twenty Five years to the day of the world's worst technological disaster, we post a video from HDEO's own Joe Lowry.

Humanitarian Workers and Technological Disasters

For many years, it was said that the next Chernobyl would be Chernobyl. The creaking sarcophagus seemed to be the world’s biggest risk of a civilian nuclear accident. Never did we think that Japan would have to deal with a level seven disaster at a nuclear power plant, which – like Chernobyl – would require setting up exclusion zones, moving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, putting all national emergency plans into place, and watching almost helplessly as radiation poured unseen into the surrounding environment.

Radiation poisoning is the most sinister, agonising way to die. The “liquidators” who shovelled sand onto the burning Reactor number 4 at Chernobyl in the hours after the disaster died horrible deaths, disintegrating as their families and doctors watched.

And now Japan faces a similar tragedy at home. No-one thought that Fukushima would be mentioned in the same breath as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Yes, the latter occurred in time of war, but the human consequences are the same – long-lasting medical effects, pollution of the soil, loss of home and identity, the stigma of coming from contaminated land.

Nuclear engineering and building safety had moved so far from the Chernobyl design that the world could declare that nuclear was the safest form of power for our future. Then came a massive wall of water, and our illusions were dashed. Now we can no longer say “never again”; we can see the impact of a civilian nuclear disaster on a country that is a word leader in disaster-resilient engineering. Japan has been brought to its knees by a few minutes of nature’s fury: would – to name but a few - nuclear Germany or the UK be better prepared? Or Pakistan? Or Armenia?

And although we look on the behemoths of Chernobyl and Fukushima with dread, we must also consider non-nuclear events such as chemical disasters like Bhopal or Seveso. Or the fears of hazardous material from a terrorist attack like 9/11, or Hungary’s red sludge episode of last year. Psychologically and emotionally there is a great gulf between terror attacks and technological disasters (or viral outbreaks) but the effects are similar: sudden onset, mass panic, an overwhelming of infrastructure and huge disruption of normal life.

Research shows that between 2000 and 2011 some 10,000 people have been killed and 500,000 more affected by chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear disasters, where such data has been reported. (Chernobyl affected some 8 million people).

These figures show the pressing need for governments to invest in community-level preparedness. There are currently more than 400 nuclear power reactors in 30 countries, and the number is expected to grow rapidly. If accidents are to be treated as an unavoidable risk, there must be all-out preparations for this eventuality. Experiences gained through past accidents need to be widely shared, as well as guidelines created for a global standard in accident response and agreements reached on the process of international cooperation.

Of course the elephant in the room is nuclear weaponry and the devastation that one act of war or terror could wreak on our world. People may say that humanitarian workers have no place in a nuclear disaster, that we have no voice in the debate. But as we have seen from Fukushima, and as we see 25 years after Chernobyl, the comfort we bring to survivors, the services we provide to evacuees and the long-term efforts to restore human dignity are as relevant as they are in our better-known responses in Haiti, Pakistan and other “natural” disasters.



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