|WIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 08, No. 1 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1996, 16 pages)|
Like the canary in the coal mine whose death warns humans of lethal carbon monoxide fumes, the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, cautioned all of us about the ultimate dangers of nuclear energy. The Chernobyl accident further signaled our responsibility to know as much as we can of the risks involved in the technologies we use. The world's inhabitants may face the same fate as the canary if we ignore the warnings and look the other way, captured by the illusion that Chernobyl had nothing to do with us.
Chernobyl heightened several problems about nuclear power plants that remain unsolved. The first has to do with waste storage facilities; the second concerns low level chronic emissions of radionuclides and the influence of those emissions on local habitation of people, animals and vegetation; the third regards human errors, a series of which ultimately resulted in the widespread and generational devastation caused by the Chernobyl meltdown. In too many discussions with knowledgeable individuals, the common response to Chernobyl is that the accident was the result of antiquated technology in a totalitarian political system. At this point, it is probable that former Soviet politicians and private citizens know better than others what nuclear energy can breed. The paradox is that relative to fossil fuels, nuclear power is clean, cheap and renewable. However, unlike the knowledge about the environmental impact of fossil fuel use, no one yet fully understands ecological influences of nuclear energy-except when there is an accident.
Why then, do educated people tolerate the insufficient levels of safety and knowledge about the ecological and health effects of nuclear power plants? If the world's citizens are capable of protesting against the French government's resumption of nuclear tests, why don't those same people rage against generators powered by nuclear fission-the same chain reaction that produces the atomic bomb. The critical problems of nuclear power plants-fall-out, waste storage and human error-pertain to nuclear weaponry. Is it that we are blinded by the need for what we believe is "cheap electricity" and ignore the possible reality? Add to this, faith in technology and belief in human imperfection that induces us to accept the view that technology can compensate for human blunders.
We lean towards a vision of a peaceful future, free of nuclear warheads, yet fueled by nuclear power. Yet, when we start to question what happens to unspent nuclear material after the world's bombs are dismantled we begin to recognize the similarity of the hazards posed by both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.
Another signal warning that nuclear power plants put human health at risk comes from predicted worldwide water shortages in the not too distant future. Nuclear and fossil fueled power plants are the single largest industrial users of fresh water due to the vast quantities of water required for the job of cooling. While most of the water used for industry is returned to the water cycle, it is often contaminated with chemicals including PCBs, dioxin, and heavy metals. Water thus polluted, contaminates the supply of drinking water, bodies of fresh water in which fish consumed for food swim, and water used for agriculture.
Since Marie Curie's death from radiation poisoning in 1934, it has been known that radioactive material threatens human health depending on degree of exposure. Madame Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre and physicist Henri Becquerel for their discovery of radioactive elements. She won an unprecedented second Nobel Prize in 1911 in chemistry for her work on radium. Her momentous discoveries took her life as the radiation poisoning that killed her occurred from chronic rather than acute exposure.
Everyone and everything around and alive at the time of the Chernobyl explosion and fire absorbed increased amounts of radiation, the quantities depending on one's proximity to ground zero. Pregnant women in the region unavoidably exposed their unborn fetuses to mild or severe abnormalities. While Chernobyl was not the first accident at a nuclear power plant, it is the worst and the best known as it affected the greatest number of people and has been attributed to bringing down the Moscow dominated Soviet Regime which ignored and obfuscated the magnitude and devastation caused by the accident. Rightly, the nations most damaged by radioactive contamination from this disaster-Ukraine, Belarus and Russia-are willing to remember and memorialize that day of devastation.
The future health of humans remains at risk until nuclear energy becomes a safer technology and is based on a much greater knowledge and awareness of the impacts of low level chronic emissions of radionuclides and other waste material produced by nuclear energy. Those of us who think about the future inherited by our children and grandchildren, should heed the warning of Chernobyl, increase our knowledge of the health impacts of nuclear and other energy sources, and decide how we want to try and secure a technologically safer future for our loved ones than we have presently claimed for ourselves. Finally, alternative sources of renewable energy which pose fewer health hazards exist and require fuller appreciation, dedication and development, so that sun, water and wind become more widely utilized as sources of inexpensive power to fuel the world's growing economies.
World Ecology Report
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