Peaceful nuclear hazards are bad enough

Peaceful nuclear hazards are bad enough

[Published in The Japan Times, Tokyo, Japan: Sunday, 3 May 2009]

LUCKNOW, India — In the early hours of April 26, 1986, the world experienced one of its worst nuclear disasters. Reactor No. 4 of Chernobyl power station, near Pripyat in Ukraine, exploded. Two explosions blew the dome-shaped roof off the reactor, causing its contents to erupt out.

As air was sucked into the shattered reactor, it ignited carbon monoxide, resulting in a fire that raged for nine days. As the reactor was not housed in a reinforced concrete shield, large amounts of debris escaped into the atmosphere.

The accident released at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Much of the fallout was deposited close to Chernobyl, in parts of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, where measurable health effects were observed. But traces of radioactive debris were found in nearly every country in the Northern Hemisphere.

Thirty-two people died in the accident. Another 38 died of acute radiation sickness in the months that followed. In just 36 hours, 59,430 people had to be evacuated from Pripyat. This human tragedy resulted in large-scale displacement of more than 200,000 people, contamination of vast areas of land and loss of livelihoods. Since then, there have been 1,800 reported thyroid cancer cases in children who were as old as 14 at the time of the tragedy.

A conservative estimate prepared by Chernobyl Forum in 2005 acknowledged 4,000 extra cancer deaths among the 600,000 most highly exposed people. But Dr. John Gofman, a renowned nuclear chemist, predicted that Chernobyl would eventually cause a million cancers and 475,000 deaths. The total cost of the disaster was estimated at $200 billion.

No scale can properly measure the trauma suffered by survivors. The affected people were confronted with situations they could not understand and against which they had no defense. Many turned to drinking and to suicide.

Apart from the Chernobyl tragedy, there have been other nuclear power plant disasters in the past. The first one occurred at the Chalk River Facility in Canada on Dec. 12, 1952, after an employee accidentally opened four valves that regulated pressure in the system. The lid of the reactor was blown off and a large amount of cooling water, contaminated with radioactive waste, leaked out.

The second disaster took place in the Mayak Plutonium Facility in the south Ural Mountain region of Russia on Sept. 29, 1957. This is considered to have been worse than Chernobyl. The cooling equipment broke down and overheated nuclear waste exploded. Up to 270,000 people and 36,000 square kilometers were exposed to radiation hazards. Even today, radiation levels in the region are extremely high and natural water resources are contaminated with radioactive waste.

The Wind Scale Nuclear Power Plant accident in England caused a radiation leak that spread over 500 square kilometers, resulting in wide spread contamination.

Safety systems of the Lubmin Nuclear Plant in Germany failed on Dec. 7, 1975. Luckily, a nuclear meltdown was avoided due to release of coolant in the facility.

The Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979, resulted from a cooling system malfunction. Although nearby residents were eventually evacuated, there have been increased cases of cancer and thyroid problems and a sharp rise in the infant mortality rate.

The Tokaimura accident in Japan occurred in 1999 when excess uranium was mistakenly mixed with nitric acid for making nuclear fuel — 35 pounds instead of 5.2 pounds. The nuclear fission explosion lasted for 20 hours. Forty-two employees were exposed to measurable levels of radiations, including three high-level exposures. Two of them died.

Proponents of nuclear power plants not withstanding, it is impossible to have 100 percent safe nuclear power plants, even with the strictest of safety measures.

Radiation exposure can have very long-term effects and are often difficult to quantify. In the no-nonsense words of Gofman (the "father of the antinuclear movement"): "There cannot be a safe dose of radiation. There is no safe threshold. If this is known, then any permitted radiation is a permit to commit murder."

In 1996, Gofman estimated that most cancer cases in the United States were caused by medical radiation. Although his claims were refuted by the U.S. government, one must remember that, since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, not a single power plant has been built in that country.

When the so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy can result in such long-term hazards, one shudders to think of the devastation that could be brought about by nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Their presence is the greatest single threat to humanity. There are currently 26,000 nuclear warheads in the world (96 percent of them controlled by the U.S. and Russia). They have the potential to unleash the power of 70,000 Hiroshimas in just a few minutes and destroy our planet many times over. The idea of a deliberate nuclear war may seem almost anachronistic, but the potential nightmare of an accidental nuclear exchange is all too real.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, global military expenditures in 2007 exceeded $1.3 trillion. Another study conducted 10 years ago estimated the total cost of U.S. nuclear weapons at over $5.8 trillion. These are huge investments that could be put to better and productive uses.

It is worth mentioning that U.S. President Barack Obama recently announced his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. This bold gesture has won him plaudits, but is he merely finessing the long-standing trick of the nuclear-armed countries that merely preach, and not practice, nonproliferation? The world wants positive action — not more rhetoric.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also recognizes the need to "promote global public goods and remedies to challenges that do not respect borders." He strongly believes that "a world free of nuclear weapons is a global public good of the highest order." He is also candid enough to admit that despite a long-standing taboo against using nuclear weapons, disarmament remains only an aspiration. A taboo is not enough.

Global and human security cannot be obtained through military superiority. We must remember that disarmament actually means the absence of violence and wars. It means peaceful coexistence, respect for human rights and a better environmental protection.

Shobha Shukla writes extensively in English and Hindi media. She serves as editor for Citizen News Service (CNS).

[Published in The Japan Times, Tokyo, Japan: Sunday, 3 May 2009]