While we fret about cost overruns at Point Lepreau, a much more grave nuclear risk is completely ignored – the possibility of a catastrophic accident. Technological optimists refuse to acknowledge this possibility and accuse folks like me of irrational fear-mongering. The consequences of such an accident, however, are so devastating that even the low probability of it happening should be enough to convince ordinary people that the risk is not worth taking.
This is the 24th anniversary of the explosions and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. We mark many anniversaries of disasters but never this one despite its high toll. We are told that Chernobyl could not happen here – different reactor design, higher standards, etc., etc. But Chernobyl did happen here; in fact, the plumes of radiation that spewed into the atmosphere spread across the entire northern hemisphere.
The ‘official’ assessment of this disaster according to the World Health Organization suggests 9,000 people have died and 200,000 people have illnesses due to radiation exposure from Chernobyl. Yet this grossly underestimates the impact this accident has had and will have across the exposed populations, according to a report published in November 2009 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Authored by three Russian scientists (Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko) with the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow, and the Institute of Radiation Safety in Minsk, Belarus, the report was subsequently published by the Academy as a 400-page book entitled, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.
This book draws from over 1000 articles published over 20 years mostly in Slavic languages (and therefore never cited in the English press) by researchers studying the effects of exposure to radiation from Chernobyl on those exposed to its fallout. Dr. Dimitro Grodzinky with the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences and Chairman of the Ukrainian National Commission on Radiation Protection, wrote the Forward to the book. He states, “The present volume probably provides the largest and most complete collection of data concerning the negative consequences of Chernobyl on the health of people and on the environment.”
The data and analyses provided in the book are exhaustive and the conclusions staggering. It attributes to Chernobyl (between 1986 and 2004) a total of 985,000 additional deaths throughout the former Soviet Union, Western Europe and North America, a number that will continue to increase over time. Canadian researcher Dr. Rosalie Bertell calculates a total of 1.8 million people will eventually die of Chernobyl-initiated illness due to ongoing exposures to long-lived radioisotopes that remain in the environment and as disease latency periods expire.
In addition there are countless cases of chronic illnesses, birth defects and environmental contamination that continue to plague people in the most contaminated zones. I quote from the report: “Adverse effects as a result of Chernobyl irradiation have been found in every group that has been studied. Brain damage has been found in individuals… living in the contaminated territories, as well as in their offspring. Premature cataracts; tooth and mouth abnormalities; and blood, lymphatic, heart, lung, gastrointestinal, urologic, bone, and skin diseases afflict and impair people, young and old alike. Endocrine dysfunction, particularly thyroid disease, is far more common than might be expected, with some 1,000 cases of thyroid dysfunction for every case of thyroid cancer, a marked increase after the catastrophe. There are genetic damage and birth defects especially in children of liquidators [over 800,000 people who worked in site clean-up] and in children born in areas with high levels of radioisotope contamination. Immunological abnormalities and increases in viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases are rife among individuals in the heavily contaminated areas….”
Dr. Grodzinky writes in his Forward, “The main conclusion of the book is that it is impossible and wrong ‘to forget Chernobyl.’ Over the next several future generations the health of people and of nature will continue to be adversely impacted.”
As talk of the so-called nuclear renaissance gains ground in the West, and as the federal government enthuses about selling uranium and nuclear reactors abroad, we would be wise not to forget Chernobyl. A reactor need not be next door to be a threat. Any technology can fail. Any human is subject to error.
With the enormous potential for catastrophe embedded in every reactor on the planet, surely the responsible and moral stance is to reduce the number of nuclear plants operating in the world rather than increase them. New Brunswick already has a nuclear legacy to safeguard literally for eternity. We can minimize that by decommissioning Point Lepreau now. Lepreau 2 is simply not an ethical option.
Janice Harvey is a freelance columnist, university lecturer and president of the New Brunswick Green Party. She can be reached by email at waweig at xplornet.ca.