Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Chernobyl: the myth

Late last year the Polish government announced a plan to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and cut down emissions of greenhouse gases. But environmentalists are none too pleased about the new initiative.

The Polish government’s deputy economy minister, Jacek Piechota, announced that by 2023 Poland would have its very first nuclear power reactor. He said, by that date, Poland’s demand for electricity would have almost doubled from what it is at present. And nuclear power just could be the answer.

The energy minister did say that alternative sources of energy would be developed – like wind power, hydro-electric power, and something called biomass – which appears to be refining energy from biological substances, such as ‘cow’s emissions’ - but building a nuclear power station was one of Poland’s main contributions to cleaning up the planet.

This is not the first time that Poland has decided to ‘go nuclear’. During the 1980’s the communists had plans to build quite a few of them, such as one near Gdansk.

Many countries in the old Eastern bloc did have them and still do. Of the 10 countries that joined the EU last year, seven, all from this part of the world, have nuclear reactors. During that period, Bulgarians for instance, received about 40 percent of her energy requirements from the nuclear power industry.

But the Polish communists just couldn’t get their nuclear power policy together. And then something happened outside of Poland that buried the plans, quite literally, under a few meters of concert.

At 1.23 A.M on 26 April, 1986, the night shift made a routine shutdown of Reactor 4 at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl. Taking advantage of the reactor’s inactivity, the chief scientist on duty decided to make a little test. A huge explosion was then heard in the area and, well, we know the rest.

Or do we?
According to the International Agency of Atomic Energy, (IAEA), the main cause of the accident was faulty construction of the reactor. One hundred and thirty-four people working at the reactor, and emergency staff who came to the site after the accident, suffered from radiation sickness, 28 later died from irradiation, and two others from scolding.

The radiation from Chernobyl, which is about 70 kilometers from Kiev in the Ukraine, reached Belarus, Russia and parts of northern and southwestern Poland. The Soviet government managed initially to stifle reports of the disaster and the world only heard about what was going on when a scientist in Sweden noticed a suspicious rise in radiation levels in the area where he was working.

What has happened since is contested. Estimates of how many people have died vary widely. When Chernobyl was finally closed down in December 2000, the BBC reported that, “several thousand [have] died from radiation related illnesses.”(1)

At the same time, a story in the Polish current affairs magazine - Wprost, headlined the ‘Chernobyl Con’ - disputed the claims that thousands had died.(2) They quoted from a report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which found that radiation exposure in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had little effect on the health of the local populations. One of the UN report’s authors, Polish scientist Zbigniew Jaworowski, told Wprost that, “There is no scientific evidence of increased cancer incidence, increased mortality or the occurrence of other diseases attributable to radiation."

Mortality rate had increased in the area, and so had the rise of what UN scientist Jaworowski calls ‘psychosomatic disorders’, including digestive, repertory and nervous complaints. These were not due to radiation, said the Polish nuclear boffin, but from the fear of getting sick from radiation. The UN report calls this condition ‘vegetative dystonia’, including cultural and social reactions to the nuclear accident, but which are not radiological in origin.

But what about the 1800 children in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus that have since been diagnosed with thyroid cancer? The United Nations report says that, “These increases should be attributed to the Chernobyl accident until evidence proves otherwise.”

That said, Jaworowski thinks that this increase could be attributed to something other than exposure to radiation.

No such increase in infant thyroid cancer has been observed in Poland.

So, according to the UN, the reports immediately after the accident and since have been greatly exaggerated. The most crazy of these reports came, not surprisingly, from America’s National Enquirer, which reported that a 2-meter high chicken had been seen wandering around a forest in northern Ukraine.

So if you are coming to visit Poland in the year 2023, the year of the completion of the nation’s first nuclear power station, and you do see people walking around with three heads glowing luminously in the dark, then the probable cause might be something to do with the vodka they’ve just drank, or a psychosomatic disorder – and nothing to do with nuclear power.

(1) Chernobyl shut down for good

(2) Chernobyl myth - English translation