|WIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 04, No. 6 - The Digest of Critical Environmental Information (WIT, 1992, 12 pages)|
We are often asked why we continue to devote so much editorial space to the Chernobyl nuclear accident which occurred in April of 1986. While the name "Chernobyl" will long be associated with the dangers associated with nuclear power, it is surprising how quickly the enormity of this event passed from public consciousness.
The importance of the Chernobyl accident, however, is well known to those professionals engaged in a continuing effort to study, mitigate and minimize what the UN General Assembly formally calls "the Chernobyl disaster."
The office of the UN Secretary General, for example, released a report this summer which called for an increased international effort to understand and respond to the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. The UN General Assembly, too, has passed a resolution (#46/150) designed to mobilize international efforts to address these consequences.
The Secretary General's Report on the subject is most instructive and highlights the enormity of what transpired at Chernobyl. We, for example, quote below from a section of this report.
"In the early hours of Saturday, 26 April 1986, an accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. A series of explosions blew the roof off the unit 4 reactor building, exposing the burning reactor core and thereby emitting into the environment the largest amount of radioactive material from a single source ever recorded. An estimated 50 million curies of radioactive isotopes were released and dispersed in the western portions of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), over Eastern and Western Europe and, in smaller amounts, throughout the entire northern hemisphere. It is estimated that 4 million people were exposed to enhanced levels of radiation and vast areas in Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation were contaminated to a greater or lesser extent by radionuclides. Whatever the precise figures, it is beyond dispute that the impact of the accident was immense.
The consequences encompass a wide spectrum - ecology, human settlement, human health, agriculture, social welfare, industry and economics. The impact on cultivated land and water supplies in the affected areas has been severe. Agricultural produce, including livestock, has been contaminated by radioactive fallout; industries situated in contaminated areas have been forced to shut down; and large numbers of people have suffered, both directly and indirectly, in numerous ways.
Apart from the immediate effects there is a possible longer-term impact on the health of the population that cannot be fully known for years to come. At a meeting in March, 1992 researchers in Belarus reported a steep rise in thyroid cancer among children in the areas most contaminated by radiation; a moderate increase in the condition has also been detected in contaminated areas in Ukraine. Thousands, uncertain as to their health and future, suffer from acute stress and anxiety."
While the Secretary General's Report focuses on the longer-term consequences of Chernobyl, other organizations are sounding alarms of a more immediate nature.
Geologists at the Ukrainian State Committee on Geology, for example, have recently issued a report voicing increasing concern about the stability of the foundation on which the crippled reactor stands. Seepage from an ill-conceived slurry-wall dam upgradient of the reactor coupled with the effects of a low magnitude earthquake are changing the subsurface geology below the plant and may ultimately cause the collapse of the entire structure. These same geologists also report increasing accumulation of radioactive cesium and strontium in the Kiev Reservoir and in the Pripat and Dnepr Rivers, the latter being one of Europe's largest with millions of people along its course.
The response of the United Nations' system to Chernobyl has been immediate and aggressive with many UN affiliated agencies like the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the United Nations Environment Programme playing active leadership roles.
Experts from these various agencies dispatched to deal with the disaster have developed 131 project proposals requiring outside funding estimated at $647 million. A "Pledging Conference" for member states was held at the UN headquarters in New York in September of 1991 and while virtually all member delegations pledged support, through July only some $9 million was actually pledged in the form of contributions and bilateral arrangements.
This pronounced lack of international financial support is rather shocking given humanity's actual and potential exposure. UNESCO, for example, at a conference this fall attended by the world's leading hydrologists reported that, "the radioactivity released in the accident continues to spread via ground and surface waters, effecting the ecosystems of large areas in Europe."
The Report of the Secretary General accorded a high priority to doing whatever is intellectually, financially and politically possible to properly address the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.
"It has been said that a nuclear accident somewhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is international in its dimensions - not only because its insidious effects have transcended national boundaries but also because important lessons are to be learned from its aftermath by countries throughout the world. In spite of the fact that six years have passed since the accident occurred, all of the most serious consequences have not yet been addressed, some remain unclear and others will not fully be known for years."
It is for these urgent and compelling reasons that we shall continue to focus attention on Chernobyl and its aftermath in the hopes of averting another such disaster.
SOURCES: Report of the Secretary General,
"Strengthening of International Cooperation and Coordination of Efforts to
Study, Mitigate and Minimize the Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster",
July 15, 1992. UNESCO Conference, Paris, September, 1992. WIT Chapter,