Chernobyl Implications: One Operator’s Decision to Break the System

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To understand what happened at Chernobyl, and impacts which ensued thereafter, it is necessary to look at a variety of different factors which had a lasting impact on the countries both directly affected, as well as the countries which were indirectly affected. To do so, this essay will explore the health impacts which followed after exposure to radiation, environmental implications, the public’s response to such a catastrophe, the international response, and cooperation, as well as the economic factors which followed. All of these topics are necessary to understand the exact severity of the impacts the meltdown at Chernobyl had on the affected areas. While the incident occurred in Ukraine, the majority of the fallout occurred in Belarus, and as a result, the majority of the focus of this essay will be on the implications Belarus faced after the accident. Nuclear energy is a major key to decreasing our carbon footprint to reduce the impacts of climate change. But many countries are reluctant to do so due to the issues which were presented after the Chernobyl reactor meltdown.

To reduce the stigma behind nuclear power plants, we must have a firm understanding of what happened at Chernobyl, as well as what other consequences occur when the government(s) mishandle the situation and/or do not have an appropriate plan in case of emergency. Introduction The events which occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine in April of 1986, a catastrophic event which will have impacts long after we leave occurred. In Chernobyl, the Soviet government had been completing the fourth reactor at the power plant. During a routine safety test to check the reactors’ ability to cool down in an emergency situation, such as a loss of power, the technicians dramatically lowered the reactor’s level of capacity. After the test, the technicians were ordered to shut down the reactor, which called for the lowering of protection rods into the reactor. However, the protection rods were ineffective in cooling off the reactor at such low levels of capacity. Instead of cooling off the reactor cool, it did the opposite, and increased the reactivity of the core and led to ultrahigh heats, which ultimately caused the explosion [1] The explosion was so powerful, it launched the concrete and steel ceiling off the powerplant. For the next ten days, fire and radioactive ash spewed from the plant and drifted downwind. It is estimated the plant released approximately 5% of its fuel into the atmosphere, which amounted to approximately 120 tons of nuclear fuel, and another 800 tons of graphite was burned. The radioactive cloud which rose from the plant stood 11 kilometers tall and was drifting northwest, into the airways of the Baltic states and Belarus. [1]

In essence, the cause of the reactor’s meltdown was a human error by an under-trained staff who was unfamiliar with the new technology utilized by the new reactor. Similar to Chernobyl, the accident in Fukushima was in part caused by a failure of the emergency cooling system. However, this failure was brought on by a catastrophic tsunami. Steinhauser et al. (2014) [1] in their study explain how they differ, though, is that the reactors in Fukushima shut off immediately after the first earthquake, dramatically lowering the ability for the reactor to do significant damage. Compared to Chernobyl, where the operator staff lowered the reactor’s capacity to below 20%, which is incredibly dangerous. [1] The under-trained staff was unaware they would be unable to control the reactor at such a low capacity, and when they shut the reactor off after the test, the protection rods were unable to cool the reactor down, leading to the meltdown. Second, Steinhauser et al. (2006) [1] explains how the geography in which these two incidents took place at is incredibly different, and the dispersion of the fallout demonstrates this. However, in regards to the Fukushima accident, the majority (approximately 80%) of the waste which was released ended up in the Pacific Ocean, where it was quickly diluted. This meant the population was greatly spared from much of the exposure to radiation, unlike the victims of Chernobyl.

Chernobyl took place in the center of the European continent, meaning much of the land outside of the exclusion zone was quickly contaminated, as the fallout had nowhere else to go besides in the rural communities of the areas affected. For example, at ground zero, the exclusion zone was originally mapped at 30 km outside of the meltdown and later was expanded to 4300 square kilometers. [1] Of course, many of the consequences of the incident at Chernobyl are impossible to immediately quantify, such as to what the exact extent of the exposure to radiation harmed the public. However, it is clear that the effects of exposure were and are disastrous, as the regions affected have significantly higher rates of thyroid cancer diagnosis, especially when taking age into consideration. The study published by Cardis et al. (2016) [3] provides statistical evidence that those who were under the age of 14 at the time of the incident are significantly more likely to develop thyroid cancer. And while it is likely other forms of cancers have been more prevalent since the accident, it is difficult to draw conclusions from the data which could prove or disprove this, since many of these studies suffer from an intrinsic bias and difficulty dealing with confounding variables (such as innovation in medicine which allows for a better diagnosis). And given what we do understand about radiation exposure from previous nuclear radiation exposure, it is very likely more issues will develop over time and be available for study. [3]

According to data previously accumulated, only approximately 5% of the fuel was released into the atmosphere at the time of the accident. Ten days after the meltdown, the soviet government was finally able to extinguish the fire and quickly built a shelter to contain any further radiation from leaking. This shelter, or the sarcophagus as it is called, was hastily built and did a poor job of containment. Since only 5% of the fuel was released initially, this means that when the original sarcophagus was constructed, 95% of the volatile fuel remains inside the sarcophagus to this day. [2] The radioactivity is present through aerosols, which can be relatively harmless when properly contained. However, up until recently the sarcophagus used was damaged and riddled with crevices, allowing these aerosols to escape into the environment. Since then, the international community has helped fund the construction of a new sarcophagus to contain all of the aerosols which was completed in 2019. This created an environment with a radius of 150 meters outside the chamber to release radiation doses up to 1000 times stronger than what is naturally present in the background. [2] Furthermore, over 200,000 square kilometers of Europe received a significant level of exposure.

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However, of the wide range exposed, just three countries received over 70% of this exposure: Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Though multiple materials were launched into the atmosphere, the most concerning of these materials was radioactive Iodine. While radioactive Iodine has a quick rate of decay, and the danger was contained to just the first few months, any farm which was not quickly decontaminated by the government had a high probability of danger, since the surface deposits could easily seep into the crops, or be consumed by livestock. Furthermore, many of these decontamination efforts have been proven fallible due to problems with disposal, as often times the waste which was originally removed was then transferred to another area which might present an issue at a later date. [5] The greatest problem faced by Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus today is contaminated cows which continue to feed off of soil which was never fully and properly decontaminated. To combat this, however, these countries have enacted systematic measures that allow for the proper decontamination of land as well as a more proper use of Cesium-binders on livestock, which prevent radioactive cesium from being reabsorbed into the body, allowing for the radiation to pass through. [5] In response to the accident in Chernobyl, public distrust in the governments under whose constituents were affected grew exponentially.

While the general public did direct anger towards the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, many citizens were disappointed by the government’s nonuniform and utterly nonexistent response plans. This anger and distrust also “included general considerations about the acceptability of nuclear power, the domestic nuclear power program, and the efficacy of risk management in each country” (Ortwin Renn 1990) [4]. Furthermore, many people felt that their government was withholding information, even in countries that were not directly affected. For example, 63% of the French population. [4] After Chernobyl, the world’s view of nuclear energy shifted to a negative perspective, and the public largely became skeptical. Following the accident, Renn (1990) demonstrates in his study that there was a dramatic sweep in regard to political responses to nuclear energy. Both in countries directly affected and not, the global audience quickly became skeptical of nuclear energy.

At the time of the accident, U.S disapproval of nuclear energy jumped 5% up to its peak at 49%. [4] Furthermore, many states responded by either reevaluating or delaying future plans to develop nuclear power plants due to public pressure. In states with strong nuclear programs, opposition parties quickly developed strong anti-nuclear sentiments to garner public support and therefore increase their odds of winning reelection. Regardless of how severe a state’s given response was to Chernobyl, almost all states increased their emergency response measures, which has worked to return nuclear-approval ratings to pre-Chernobyl levels (Renn 1990). After the meltdown in Chernobyl, people across the world became more skeptical of both their governments and their nuclear programs. [4] Though the meltdown itself had little to do with the Soviet government, constituents quickly formed opinions based on suspicions and voted accordingly. The Chernobyl nuclear accident created an environment which fostered multinational cooperation, in which help-providers and help-receivers worked in concert to resolve issues created by the fallout. [4] Through the fallout had a devastating impact on the country, it created a scenario in which the international community was able to create new friendships, and also dampen past relationships. For example, Belarus and Germany are notable historical enemies when considering their relationship in World War II, however, when Belarus needed aid, Germany stepped forward as a help provider.

When analyzing Belarusian news articles, Zhukova and Ekatherina (2012) [6] discovered that Germany was considered to be the European state who provided the most medical care and equipment. Though Germany had previously created severe trauma to the people of Belarus, the Germany of today provided great aid and was held in high regard as a result. Furthermore, though Japan and Belarus had been political strangers, as they had little to no interaction before Chernobyl, Japan became a help provider to a country in need, which worked to create a friendly relationship between the two nations. [6] Japan, inspired by their own nuclear tragedy (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), worked with Belarus to create a bilateral committee which would work to improve the management and the protection of nuclear materials and waste. Considering this, it is easy to see how the accident at Chernobyl, though traumatic, led to decreased tensions between a historical enemy and a stranger. When Chernobyl struck and affected a large portion of the Belarusian population, these countries utilized their high GDPs and capacity to share resources to create friendly relationships through international response. The economic burdens created by the Chernobyl accidents did not end immediately after the accident, and still harm the economic systems of these countries, even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

While it remains difficult to estimate the exacts costs due to the unstable economies which prevailed in these countries after the dissolution of the USSR, an approximate cost can be estimated. The countries who were affected the most, however, are still dedicating portions of their budgets to deal with the catastrophe- even to this day. Immediately following the accident, the government of Belarus was spending approximately 22.3% of its budget on programs designed to counteract the effects of Chernobyl. And while the spending in Belarus dipped to around 6.1% in 1991, the country spent more than 13 billion USD on Chernobyl-related issues between 1991 and 2003.[5] Though Belarus has been doing relatively well in recent years, the radiation caused by the accident at Chernobyl accounted for a significant portion of the government's spending, which could have been used to rebuild after the collapse of the USSR, or instating social programs to help some of the nation’s poorest. Of the industries affected, the agricultural industry was impacted the most. Many of the land in rural areas which was previously used for family farms were shut down to radiation concerns, and many crops themselves were restricted in concern for public safety. Much of the government’s efforts to treat radiation within the country has made farming more burdensome on farmers since many of the new cultivation techniques and fertilizers have proven to be extremely costly.

Furthermore, many consumers within Belarus are prejudiced to much of what is produced in the countries as a result of Chernobyl despite the government’s efforts. [5] While radiation cannot be blamed for all of the issues which faced Belarus after Chernobyl, it did contribute to government prohibitions on certain types of farming, which in turn crippled local economies in rural areas. The disaster at Chernobyl forever changed how the world viewed nuclear energy. The mismanagement of the facility, the explosion itself, and the inappropriate response effort by the governments involved helped build a stigma around the energy source. The incident which happened at Chernobyl was mainly caused by an under-trained staff who attempted to cool the reactor by lowering the protection into a cooling system that was deprived of water, causing a meltdown. The soviet government waited three whole days to evacuate, leading to unnecessary exposure.

Furthermore, the efforts to decontaminate were ill pursued, resulting in regards to the population’s health, environment, and economic burdens. The means by which the government addressed the issue led to public distrust and international intervention. Furthermore, the international community played an instrumental role in helping Belarus, the most severely affected country.

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