[Reader-list] Custers: Remembering Chernobyl

Nagraj Adve nagraj.adve at gmail.com
Sun Apr 24 00:01:47 IST 2011

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Peter Custers <antimil at hotmail.com>
Date: 23 April 2011 07:15
Subject: Remembering Chernobyl
Dear Friends,

Below is my piece commemorating the Chernobyl disaster.

Please, feel free to distribute.

I would appreciate being informed in case of further publication.

Very best wishes,

(Dr.) Peter Custers



The accident could have served as a wake-up call to the whole of
humanity. Twenty-five years ago, on April 26th 1986, disaster struck
at the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear complex, in the
Ukrainian state of the former Soviet Union. The accident actually
started taking shape in the preceding night, when workers undertook a
turbine test that had incompletely been carried out before the nuclear
plant became operational. When the test was being carried out, the
automatic emergency system was shut down, undermining reactor safety.
During the test also, fuel elements burst, setting off a chain of
events which in no time resulted in two powerful explosions. Soon the
reactor’s meltdown was a fact, and a huge radioactive cloud spread its
contaminating effects over a vast area of the Soviet Union and beyond.
A quarter century has lapsed since this accident occurred. Until last
month ‘s accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant,
Chernobyl was considered to be the very worst disaster ever to have
occurred at a nuclear production facility since the founding of the
sector during World War Two. Moreover, as recent reports confirm, even
today the Chernobyl disaster is far from over (1). Hence a
retrospective is surely appropriate. The more so since the Japanese
authorities have meanwhile rated their Fukushima accident at the same
level as the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

First, the radioactive fall-out from the Soviet granite-moderated
reactor was unprecedentedly large. Officially, the fall-out is stated
to have been 50 million of curies of radioactivity. But it probably
was at least several times this figure. Amongst the numerous known and
unknown nuclear accidents that historically have occurred, Chernobyl
is not the only one to have resulted in a dangerously large fall-out
of radioactivity. When storage tanks for high- radioactive waste in
1957 exploded in a nuclear-military reprocessing factory in
Cheliabinsk, in a remote corner of the Ural mountains, - tens of
millions of curies of radioactivity also leaked, damaging the health
of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. Both the fall-out from
Chernobyl and that from Cherniabinsk by far exceeded the radioactive
fall-out from the US’s dropping of atom bombs on Japan’s cities of
Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in 1945. Besides, since the Chernobyl complex
was located close to densely populated parts of the Ukraine and
Europe, the radioactive fall-out from the damaged civilian reactor was
bound to be very consequential. Fifty thousand people living in
Chernobyl’s immediate surroundings had to be evacuated. A vast rural
region became either permanently or temporarily uninhabitable. And  15
countries of Europe saw half of their territories contaminated by the
radioactive cloud. As happened in the wake of the recent
Fukushima-Daiichi disaster, - public authorities every-where were
forced to put restrictions on the sale and import of food, so as to
reduce the risk of radiation-induced cancer deaths among their

Initially, the effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe and the widespread
anger it aroused put a brake on plans to expand production of nuclear
energy, in particular in Europe and the US. Yet as ´Chernobyl´ started
receding from public memory, proponents of nuclear energy once again
went on the offensive, claiming the disaster had cost very few lives.
Even a section of well known European intellectuals worried about
climate change have been swayed. The renowned British thinker James
Lovelock a few years back surprisingly stated that claims regarding a
huge death toll from Chernobyl are ´a powerful lie´ (2). The only
admission institutions representing nuclear interests, such as the
IAEA, are willing to make is that the disaster caused an increase in
thyroid cancers in children. This, they say, may result in just a few
thousand mortalities. Not even the fact that tens of thousands of
young and health men who heroically participated in clean-up
activities in Chernobyl faced an early death, is admitted from this
side. In a more critical report brought out in 2006, the international
organization Greenpeace revealed that the figure for victims of cancer
cases due to Chernobyl could top a quarter million, and that nearly a
hundred thousand fatal cancers were to be deplored. Again, in an
ambitious study brought out by the New York Academy of Sciences in
2009, Russian scientists compared data from severely contaminated, and
from less contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union. They
concluded that the death toll until end 2004 may be nine to ten times
Greenpeace’s amount (3). Undoubtedly, vast numbers of fatalities from
the 1986 fall-out remain unrecorded or hidden. Yet Chernobyl´s tragic
effects can easily be seen by those who care. In some areas of the
former Soviet Union, less than 20 percent of children are healthy.
Numerous babies have been born with deformities or with disturbances
of their nervous systems. Genetic disorders were found in every animal
species studied by the Russian scientists.

However, it would be wrong to think the after-effects of Chernobyl
were limited to the direct consequences of the 1986 fall-out. Towards
understanding the implications of a nuclear disaster, it is also
necessary to look at the outcome of the clean-up operation undertaken
subsequently by the then Soviet authorities. First, 5000 tons of
materials were dropped from helicopters to re-cover the damaged
reactor, at the price of the life the pilots. Then, some 6 hundred
thousand workers, baptized the ´liquidators´, were recruited or forced
to rapidly build a sarcophagus of concrete and metal. This operation
carried out over a period of six months again was extremely hazardous,
and probably resulted in the largest category of radiation-induced
illnesses and deaths from the catastrophe. Besides, contrary to what
one would expect or hope for - the new outer shell for Chernobyl´s
melted reactor never functioned as an effective barrier to radiation
leakages. It reportedly has been in danger of collapse for years!
Thus, since the nineties discussions have been under way over the
building of a new arch. Such an arch would have to be erected in
proximity of the former reactor, and will need to be glided towards
its destination via rails, in order to reduce risks for humans. Also,
the existing sarcophagus and the destroyed reactor will have to be
dismantled, with the aid of robots.  As of 2011, a major chunk of the
funds required to finance this new operation still has not been
collected. Clearly, the mess from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is
long-, if not ever-lasting. And although Japan´s technological
capacity today obviously exceeds that of the Soviet Union 25 years
back, - the clean-up work in Japan is sure to extend over very many
decades to come.

What fundamental lessons can we draw from Chernobyl, -  for Japan and
for the world at large? The experience gathered since the melt-down 25
years back appears to validate the views nuclear critics expressed at
the time. The disaster fuelled immediate and worldwide resistance -
not just against expansion, but against any reliance on nuclear
energy. Many hundreds of thousands of people have since participated
in protests in Western Europe alone. One of the central arguments
critics cite is that nuclear technology is a form of technology which
is so hazardous, so destructive, that humanity would do well to
renounce it entirely. Yet since the late nineties, strenuous efforts
have been made by proponents of nuclear energy to stage a
´renaissance´ and resume the trend of nuclear expansion worldwide. It
is very unfortunate that a section of writers and intellectuals who
are vocal against climate change have sought fit to voice the same
arguments being used by representatives of the nuclear lobby to defend
a nuclear come-back. As a retrospective on the Chernobyl catastrophe
easily brings out: one cannot trade one catastrophe against another;
one can´t exchange a climate catastrophe for a nuclear catastrophe. On
this anniversary we need a sacred pledge in favor of reliance on
technologies that are productive, that squarely sustain all forms of
life on planet earth.

Dr. Peter Custers

(author of a theoretical study on nuclear production, see

Questioning Globalized Militarism (Tulika/Merlin Press, 2007)

Leiden, the Netherlands, April 14, 2011




For a comprehensive overview, see Dirk Bannink and Peer de Rijk,
‘Chernobyl; Chronology of a Disaster’ (Nuclear Monitor, WISE/NIRS,
Amsterdam, March 11, 211, no.724)


James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaya. Why the Earth is Fighting Back –
and How We Can Still Save Humanity (Penguin Books, London, 2007),


Alexey V.Yablokov, Vassily B.Nesterenko, Alexey V.Nesterenko,
Chernobyl. Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the
Environment (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Vol.1181,
Blackwell Publishing, Boston, 2009).

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