The Japanese earthquake and memories of Chernobyl

The disaster caused by the earthquake today off the coast of north east Japan is quite breathtaking. To give some idea of the scale of things, news agencies are now saying that two trains have been ‘reported missing’. That’s two entire trains, full of people, swept away by the tsunami.

Even more worrying is what’s going on at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station, which is in one of the regions worst effected by the earthquake. The 8.9-magnitude quake caused the cooling system of reactor No.1 to fail, and the reactor started overheating. A secondary cooling system was brought into play, and earlier today the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant, said that things were under control. As I type this, though, they’re now saying that the reactor is overheating again and they are going to release radioactive steam in a bid to ease a build-up of pressure. Let’s hope they manage to keep the reactor under control.

By happenstance, it’s almost 25 years since reactor No.4 blew-up at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. At the time a friend and I were hiking in the far north of Scotland, the stretch of coast that runs from Wick in the east to Cape Wrath in the west. One night we camped beside a small loch near the Kyle of Tongue (this was about 6 days after reactor No.4 blew its lid in the Ukraine). I remember waking up the next morning to find the landscape littered with dead birds. There were thousands of them, mostly seagulls.

Twenty five years later there are still places in the UK (and many other parts of Europe) that are off bounds because of Chernobyl radiation, and there are UK farmers who can’t take their sheep to market because the sheep are contaminated (see here).

In 2005 The Chernobyl Forum (consisting of various UN agencies and the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine) released a report about the disaster (see here). The report says that 47 people died as a direct result of radiation from the disaster and an estimated 4000 will die from cancer in the long term.

Thing is, The Chernobyl Forum only looked at figures from the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and the original estimate was 40,000 deaths, which was reduced to that 4,000 after some hokey pokey by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who have a vested interest in making nuclear power appear to be safe.

Further, the Chernobyl Forum did not take into account any of the 50,000 residents of the city of Prypiat, which was just 3 miles or so from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Prypiat was not evacuated until 30 hours after reactor No.4 blew-up, by which time everyone in Prypiat had received huge doses of radiation. There are no records as to what happened to those 50,000 people, and how many of them are still alive.

Likewise, there are no records of what happened to the people in the rest of the 30 kilometre evacuation zone around Chernobyl (probably about another 50,000 people) who also received huge doses of radiation.

But it doesn’t stop there: more than 600,000 people (the vast majority of them military personel) took part in the clean-up/containment operation in the immediate aftermath of the disaster – they are known as ‘the Liquidators’. Once again, most of these people were exposed to huge amounts of radiation and there are no records as to what happened to them afterwards. The Chernobyl Forum only took into account people from the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. The Liquidators came from all over the Soviet Union.

Who do you believe, the generally accepted Chernobyl Forum estimates (as can be found on Wiki, etc), or the much higher estimates? (which sell books and newspapers) My own way of thinking is that the higher estimates are more consistent with the amount of radiation that was released into the environment (as far as I’m aware there’s not much arguement about how much radiation came out of reactor No4).

I’m a cheery soul, aren’t I.

UN accused of ignoring 500,000 Chernobyl deaths
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2006/mar/25/energy.ukraine

Chernobyl Radiation Killed Nearly One Million People
http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/apr2010/2010-04-26-01.html

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