European round-up As the 10th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident approaches, the West is anxious for Chernobyl's remaining reactors to be closed. But some locals are not quite so sure

Richard D. North
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:33

IN A northern corner of Ukraine, the River Pripyat wanders through marshlands on its way to the Sea of Kiev, a vast inland lake. In late October, when I visited, there were warm days and bright, cloudless skies. But the nights were cold, and in the morning there was frost on the ground, and ice on the puddles. Everywhere, women bundled up in scruffy clothes were picking mushrooms, while grandfathers and grandchildren waited by the side of the road, their baskets brimming with fungi, for buses to take them back to villages whose street lights are left off to conserve power. As winter deepens in a country which has yet to benefit from its discovery of capitalism, power cuts regularly plunge homes into darkness and chill.

This - 120km from Kiev - is the soggy end of the great Ukrainian plains, a huge stretch of land whose black earth would be a vast breadbasket, except that there is no money for fertilisers. Nine-and-a-half years ago, the region was blasted out of obscurity when part of an industrial site caught fire. In the small hours of 26 April 1986, the word Chernobyl became a symbol of just how badly wrong nuclear power can go.

That morning, technicians had been testing the behaviour of one of the turbines in the event of a loss of power from a reactor. This was known to be an aspect of the plant's operation that, because of the limitations of its design, made it prone to sudden, vast increases in power and, eventually, explosion. Perhaps because the plant was even more fallible than anyone supposed, the heat of the reactor's fuel rods increased dramatically. A combination of water, heat and graphite (used to "moderate" the fission process) led to an immense blast, followed by fire of searing heat, as the graphite burned, in one commentator's words, "like a giant barbecue... with just that intense, almost flameless heat". The fuel rods' radioactivity, and that of some spent fuel stored nearby, was sent soaring up to a mile in the sky, and headed - mostly - north-west. By good fortune, the wind spared Ukraine's capital, Kiev (population, 2.5 million). The city of Pripyat, which housed 50,000 of the plant's staff and their families, was also spared the worst, although it was later evacuated.

It was two days before the West began to learn of the unfolding disaster. At 8.30am on 28 April, a technician at the Forsmark nuclear power station in Sweden arrived for work. He had just passed into the area of the plant where personnel were subject to formal radiation dose monitoring when he realised that he had forgotten something in his car. To go back outside, he had to go through the rigmarole of testing himself for radioactivity. His shoes set the monitor's buzzers going. He realised that he must have been contaminated from the outside. Anxiously, the plant's operators checked that their own plant had not spewed something into the air. Everything seemed normal. Maps were fetched, and the wind direction checked. Way down to the south- east, they plotted Chernobyl's four reactors. The news travelled quickly around the Western world. Twelve hours later, Moscow TV broadcast a terse message acknowledging an accident.

At Chernobyl, all hell had broken loose. Reactor No 4 - most of its roof and one wall blown away - was the centre of frenzied activity. Fire- fighters were drafted in. Already, one man, an operator, was listed as missing, and two young firefighters received astonishingly high radiation doses as they tried, with mad courage but without success, to find him in the chaos. They died within days.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, hundreds of men received very high doses of radiation, and 237 suffered acute radiation sickness (ARS). This can cause death within hours or days through extreme damage to the brain or gut, and within weeks from damage to bone marrow or severe burns. In fact, nearly 200 of these people were still alive seven years later. Twenty-eight of them died within months of the accident, with a further 10 deaths - whose cause is harder to determine - by 1993. These are the only adults who are known to have died so far as a result of the accident's release of radioactivity. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl blaze, the Western media has still resolutely failed to accept this simple fact of exposure to radiation: at intense levels it kills within days or weeks; but many people - including the majority of those with ARS - survive even very high doses in the short-term and then join those who receive much lower doses in having an increased chance of dying of cancer after a latency period of 10, 20 or more years. Only in childen - whose latency periods for some cancers are much shorter - is the story substantially different.

The people of Kiev were told nothing about the incident until 29 April. Then a one-paragraph story on page three of the Soviet Ukraine reported that an accident had occurred at one of the reactors at Chernobyl and that "measures are being taken to liquidate the aftermath. The victims are being helped. A special inquiry commission has been set up."

But some parts of the Soviet world were already humming with informed argument and activity. There was at the time a secret, parallel state within the USSR: that of the "Ministry of Intermediate Machine Building", with its network of nuclear power cities scattered throughout the USSR, appearing on no maps. This closed world had its own communications network, which was abuzz with news of the accident. Artur Korneyev was a health physicist at one of these cities, Chelyabinsk 40, in the Urals. A meeting was held there to discuss the accident in Chernobyl: it was, after all, an RBMK plant, a type based on the plutonium-producing military reactors that people at Chelyabinsk 40 knew well. Korneyev volunteered his services and was flown to the stricken plant, where he helped to organise the hundreds of men who were sent on to the roof of Reactor No 3 (No 4's neighbour) to clear it of highly radioactive debris. The manual workers wore lead-lined clothes and lead-soled boots, and were given one minute 10 seconds each in which to find and shovel whatever they could back into the damaged reactor hall or on to the ground.

These men were among the 600,000 workers and soldiers - the "liquidators" - from all over the USSR who, for the next three years or so, were drafted in to help with clean-up operations. The numbers involved, and the speed with which their movements were organised, testify to the power - even the merit - of the old Soviet state. In parallel, almost immediately, mass evacuations took place. By the end of the initial crisis, as many as 400,000 people had been moved out of contaminated areas. A 30km exclusion zone was established around Chernobyl, within which no one was supposed to live.

The "liquidators" worked under fairly strict control to limit their exposure to radiation. David Lloyd, a radiation health specialist at Britain's National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), says: "I've carried out a study of blood samples from about 850 liquidators and we've come up with averages doses of a few tens of millisieverts up to 300 millisieverts - that seems to be the sort of range." British nuclear workers are not allowed to receive more than 50 millisieverts in any one year; in practice, very few receive anything like that dose. Dr Lloyd adds: "At a dose of 50 millisieverts, one runs about a one in 1,000 extra risk of eventually dying of a cancer." Because most of the liquidators experienced their higher doses for only a short period of time, it is likely that they may run a 1 in 100 extra risk. That is, their chances of dying of a cancer at some time have risen from the 20-25 per cent of a Western European to - on a pessimistic view - perhaps 21-26 per cent (or more if they are heavy smokers).

This picture is very different to that promoted in the West, in which serious newspapers and television documentaries marked the accident's fifth anniversary in 1991 by giving prominence to the views of a disaffected middle-rank non-nuclear specialist, Vladimir Chernousenko, who declared that 7,000 (later 15,000) of the half-million or so liquidators had died as a result of the accident. It is true that perhaps that number have died: but that would be normal in so large a population, without any exposure to excess radiation.

This is not to say that some people who worked in the area in the aftermath will not die as a result of their exposure. Any additions to background radiation must be taken as increasing our risk of dying of cancer. Men such as Artur Korneyev, whose dose in the first two years was about 1,200 millisieverts, have certainly increased their risk, though not colossally. And there are some specialists - for instance, men from a Russian nuclear institute who volunteered to explore tunnels bored into the foundations of the burnt-out reactor hall - who, says Dr Lloyd, "have dosages ranging from 500 millisieverts to, in one case, 13,000 millisieverts. So that last man has about a 50 per cent risk of dying of cancer above the normal. In fact, it's pretty likely he'll die of cancer unless he walks under a bus. They took the view that a job had to be done. They were just being very brave."

The courage of the people who helped at Chernobyl is one of the most moving aspects of the whole affair. Hundreds of technicians and experts volunteered. Today, though, Artur Korneyev displays a degree of sang froid as he shows a party of invited British journalists and academics - including me - around the less contaminated parts of the concrete Sarcophagus which now shields the burnt-out Reactor No 4, and which is in his charge. Asked if all the helicopter pilots who flew the first horrendously dangerous missions over the reactor have since died, he replies, "No. Indeed, I was in Moscow last month with one of them. We drank some vodka and talked. He was fine!" So far, anyway.

The Sarcophagus is a controversial structure. Built in a hurry in very difficult circumstances, it needs constant attention, and there have been dramatic reports in the West of a risk of imminent collapse. Frank Ewart, a consultant to the nuclear industry who was on the management board of Alliance, an EU-funded international consortium which in 1995 reported on its plans for a safe enclosure for Reactor No 4, cites an assessment by Ukrainian civil engineers which put the risk of collapse of parts of the Sarcophagus over the next year at about one in 10. Such a collapse "would be unpleasant for people on the site," says Ewart laconically, "but it would be unlikely that anyone would get a substantial dose of radiation. It would produce a cloud of radioactive dust, but even under very adverse conditions it would be unlikely to go further than 15km." The Alliance team proposed that a new shelter be built, over-arching the existing Sarcophagus, in addition to remedial work on all the nearby buildings. Chernobyl's plant managers insist that the existing Sarcophagus is not at serious risk of collapse, and in any case could not damage other structures around it (as has been suggested in the Western press). The Chernobyl staff are now undertaking stabilisation work on the Sarcophagus and its neighbours. Meanwhile, in some parts of the Sarcophagus one can walk - as I did - with minimum precautions (a cotton suit and mask, and a hard hat). The control room of the blasted reactor is about 24 metres from the molten core, with its intense radioactivity. Ten years after the event, radiation levels in the room have fallen to the point where an hour's visit yields a dose of about one-500th of the allowed (but seldom achieved) annual dose for British nuclear workers.

The damage at the nuclear plant exerts an obvious if bizarre fascination. The wider damage is harder to sense. Thousands of peasants in the area, many of them deeply bound to the land, were evacuated and found flats in towns. Their uprooting has involved untold misery. But the awfulness of the situation can be exaggerated. It is routinely stated in the Western press, not least citing a UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs report prepared for the UN's 50th anniversary in October, that seven per cent of the land in Ukraine is unusable because of the accident. This is nonsense. In most cases, farming is continuing more or less normally, even in the exclusion zone, to which peasants began to drift back soon after the incident. This has been tolerated because the authorities believe that the returnees are on relatively uncontaminated land.

Mary Morrey, of the NRPB, has been involved with several studies of the contamination of the wider population affected by Chernobyl and says: "My impression is that while these areas are indeed contaminated, the doses are not now a major problem. They do have a problem in that they have defined a low level of contamination at which action is taken." In other words, the chosen definition of contamination includes levels of radiation that are barely a hazard. "Outside the 30km zone," she continues, "I haven't come across villages which now have a serious radiation problem. I've done work in settlements described as contaminated, and the average doses are well below 10 millisieverts in a year. These are the sorts of levels caused by naturally-occurring radon gas in Cornwall."

Even in the case of food contamination, one of the potential long-term hazards for radiation release, the picture is quite encouraging. According to Mrs Morrey, such contamination "has been reduced by changing farming methods, for example by applying chemicals to the soil, or growing crops which don't take up so much radioactivity. A lot of the land is still worked under collective farms, so it is possible to organise it in this way. The problem is more for the private farmers, because they have their own cow and allotment and will be partially self-sufficient, eating food from ground which is contaminated." Unfortunately, the most traditional local activity, gathering and eating mushrooms in autumn, gives people a disproportionate dose of whatever radiation remains; that, and drinking milk from cows grazed on contaminated land. But, says Mrs Morrey: "It can do more harm than good to get things out of perspective. If you over- emphasise the risks from radiation, you worry people unnecessarily and disrupt their lifestyles unnecessarily. And you may find yourself spending money fighting radiation when you could help them far more directly."

Unesco has set up centres in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to try to help people understand what is happening to their health and land. This especially matters when a peasant population, starved of information for generations, finds itself the victim not only of the ultimate technological disaster but also of worldwide - and newly-liberated local - media which can't be bothered to get beyond the drama of "the horror of it all". Dr Keith Baverstock of the World Health Organisation made this point when he wrote a wounded letter to the Times this summer; he talked of misinformation leading to "psychosocial effects which are already diminishing the quality of life and well-being of millions of people and are even leading to illness and premature death."

For almost everyone outside the zones described as contaminated, the effects of Chernobyl are negligible. In cities such as Kiev, Minsk and Moscow, the annual radiation dose from the accident is equivalent to about a month's stay in Cornwall. The wider, non-Soviet, northern hemisphere suffered about one-third of the radiation fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster, and the British Medical Journal has carried a report by Finnish researchers into the effects on one of the most affected Western European populations - their own. The Finns took the most contaminated fifth of Finnish children and reported that the excess risk of leukaemia (itself one of the most sensitive indicators) was "not significantly different from zero".

We should, however, certainly be worried about children within the contaminated zones. There is no evidence that there has been an increase in deformities or any other genetically-influenced diseases in children born anywhere after the Chernobyl accident. Instances of deformity and suffering among children in the contaminated area, such as that featured in June in the Network First documentary Igor - Child of Chernobyl, are family tragedies, sure enough. But they are also, according Dr Baverstock, who has worked on childhood disease in Belarus for three years, occurring there at rates which are normal not merely for that country, but for Europe as a whole. But there are other worries, notably a significant and unexpected increase in thyroid cancer. Elisabeth Cardis, head of the programme on radiation and cancer at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, says: "In Belarus there have been about 400 cases in five years in a population of 2 million children. In the UK, in 30 years, there have been something like 154 cases. It's possible the radiation alone doesn't explain it. Possibly there are genetic factors, or it may be a matter of iodine deficiency which is increasing the childen's susceptibility to radiation-induced cancer. We were quite surprised to see how early and large were the number of cases." Fortunately, thyroid cancer is highly treatable. Only one "child of Chernobyl" is known to have died of it.

As for childhood leukaemia, the disease that the researchers were expecting, Max Parkin, head of descriptive epidemiology at Lyon, says: "Essentially, the message is that there is no detectable effect. There has been a small increase [in Europe, including Belarus] in the past 10 years, but it doesn't fit the Chernobyl radiation profile. Something else is causing the drift in the numbers."

Dr Parkin's evidence does not rule out an increase in leukaemia in children from Chernobyl: medical opinion predicts that a five per cent increase might be expected in the most affected country, Belarus, although the statistics are so shaky that it is hard to be sure that one has spotted the trend. Even so, the figures are encouraging: increases in childhood leukaemia at more or less undetectable levels imply that increases in adult cancers of any kind will probably be so small as also to be undetectable. Eventually, probably several thousand people, none of whom will be certainly identified, will have cancers as a result of the accident. By definition, as reported to a WHO conference on the effects of Chernobyl in November, the peak of cancers lies ahead of us. But we already have a good idea of its scale.

THE REAL uncertainty - and, in Ukraine, a real anxiety - concerns the future of Chernobyl's power stations. In winter, nuclear power contributes about 40 per cent of the country's electricity. Chernobyl's surviving units alone contribute about six per cent. And as the peasants of north Ukraine walk through unlit streets, their cows bellowing in distress in dairy parlours because the milking machines have lost power, it is easy to understand why the future role of Chernobyl's remaining reactors remains an emotive topic.

The leaders of the West's G7 countries have declared that all the Chernobyl reactors ought to be shut down by 2000, and say that they are prepared to help pay for some of the decommissioning costs, as well as to help Ukraine to bring new nuclear plants on stream, while also working towards improvements to the country's conventional power plants.

There is powerful logic to the West's position. Only at Chernobyl does Ukraine have RBMK reactors, which are widely regarded as inherently less safe than the main alternative Russian design (known as VVER). Ukraine's RBMKs have not received the attention which has made the 13 other such plants in Lithuania and Russia considerably safer. Ukraine has not signed the Vienna Convention on Nuclear Liability. Perhaps worse, Westerners find it hard to interpret the real political situation in Ukraine, whose negotiating position includes an element of nuclear blackmail. "They have routinely said, in the spring, that they want to close Chernobyl," laments Dr Michael Hayns, until recently a senior member of an EU-funded effort to understand the safety issues surrounding Chernobyl's RMBKs. "But then, in autumn, they always seem to say, 'Yes, but not yet.' " The Ukrainian stop-go attitude helps explain why, uniquely among Eastern RBMKs, Chernobyl's have not benefited from Western help.

For a visitor impressed by the commitment of the plant's managers, the argument that the three remaining reactors could fairly safely be made to run through to the end of their original design lives (which would take the youngest to 2011) is a seductive one. There is certainly a case to be made that workers at Chernobyl ought to receive a sympathetic hearing. Sergei Parashin, general manager of the plant, is passionate about the fate of the 28,000 people who live in the new city of Slavutich, 40km from Chernobyl. It is a paradise compared with most cities in the former Soviet Union. Its flats look no worse than those of any Western periphery estate; the kindergartens have swimming-pools; its hospital is modern. Slavutich has only one purpose: to house the 6,000 staff of the Chernobyl plant. Its mayor believes that an early closure of the plant would be a tragedy.

The British are used to such tragedies - after a couple of decades which saw 200,000 power workers (in our case miners) put on the dole. What is more compelling is Parashin's other argument. He feels that the confidence of Ukraine, indeed the whole world, has been badly battered by the Chernobyl experience. "Mankind needs to generate the idea that it can have victories," he says. "At Chernobyl, we are obliged not merely to produce electricity safely, but to demonstrate irreproachable production methods." Instead of early closure, he wants a chance to keep it running, so that "future generations regard us with gratitude."

Perhaps, after all the scare- mongering, the West really does owe it to Chernobyl at least to consider its claims to want to become a respectable member of the world's nuclear industry. But while the world could certainly survive another Chernobyl accident - even, God forbid, several more - whether or not the nuclear industry would survive is a different question; which probably helps explain why so many Western nuclear specialists wish we could simply shut the place down. But then, their grandmothers are not likely to go to bed cold this winter. !

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