Ukraine Marks Chernobyl Anniversary as Japan Still Grapples With Nuclear Accident

View of Daiichi Nuclear Plant from AP

Japan’s Tepco Electric Company has been working nonstop to cool the reactors at its Daiichi nuclear plant since a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March severely damaged the facility and released high levels of radiation throughout the plant and surrounding area.  An evacuation zone of at least 20 kilometers around the plant in Fukushima has displaced tens of thousands of residents.  Farmland has been contaminated by radiation and traces of radioactive material have been found as far away as the state of Maryland in the United States.

Radiation released in Fukushima are much lower, though, than that released 25 years ago, when reactors at Chernobyl exploded, sending clouds of contaminated debris over Ukraine and parts of what was then the Soviet Union.  But an emergency worker from what is still the worst nuclear accident of its kind to date, Natalia Manzurova, says she sees a parallel.

Natalia Manzurova at the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability

“Technologically, they have no means to stop this reactor from releasing, discharging radioactivity into the environment.  And again there are liquidators who are fighting this and they live in the same very hard conditions.”

Manzurova was one of the so-called “liquidators” sent to Chernobyl in the aftermath of the 1986 disaster.  She was part of a team of scientists that studied the effects of radiation in the region on plants and animals, and directed some of the cleanup operations including burying the contents of entire villages that had become contaminated by radioactive isotopes.

Despite such remediation efforts, radiation in and around Chernobyl will last several lifetimes (around 300 years).  The United Nations estimates between four and nine thousand cancer deaths in the region can be linked to Chernobyl.

Honor guard stands by the monument to Chernobyl victims during a ceremony to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, April 26, 2007. Hundreds of mourners laid flowers and lit candles early Tuesday before the monument to mark the anniversary of the disaster, which spewed radiation over much of northern Europe and claimed thousands of lives. Photos of Chernobyl victims are seen around the monument. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Lake Barrett, a former nuclear engineer at the Three Mile Island nuclear facilities in Pennsylvania, which had a partial meltdown in 1979, says he doesn’t believe this latest incident in Japan will come close to that of Chernobyl.

“The risks involved in Japan or anywhere worldwide are much less than the risk we encounter everyday in our lives.  So I don’t believe this is going to be a health catastrophe or a health disaster. It’s a huge economic disaster for the folks.  I mean this is a 10 billion dollar plus electricity generating plant that produced clean, affordable energy. ”

Barrett says society has a choice to make about nuclear energy, which is clean and non-carbon emitting.  He says if you want to have things in modern society, you have to accept risks that go along with it.

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