ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Chernobyl as Symbol

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This week Chernobyl’s third and last active nuclear reactor was shut down after the Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma gave the relevant order, remotely, through a video link-up. This brings to a close another long chapter in the horrifying story of a nuclear disaster that the industry consistently asserted would never happen. More than 14 years ago, in April 1986, Chernobyl’s reactor number 4 blew up in the course of an experiment that was later termed controversial. According to the official report of the investigative team constituted by the Soviet government and published four months later, the fault was in the design and the immediate cause was an engineer’s misjudgment. As the reactor began to burn, radiation over 200 times more deadly than that of the two atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 spewed out. Over 30 firemen were killed trying to control the conflagration and over the years countless others due to radiation damage. The contamination spread rendering vast areas around the plant into a radioactive wasteland. There is sufficient evidence to show that these releases also took a global toll, in countries as far away as Greece and Scotland; and with the global food chain, radioisotopes were found in milk and milk products in the US. Later studies of childhood leukaemias across Europe which show that there has been little or no effect connected with the accident have been under dispute for faulty and biased methodology.

Shutting down Chernobyl, finally, is unlikely to bury the many questions that the disaster spawned. While the west quickly branded it a consequence of both poor Soviet design and lax operating and emergency procedures adopted in Soviet plants, it has nevertheless led to a great deal of soul-searching even among those in industry. After all, this was not the first nuclear accident, even if it was the worst. Any number of Chernobyls have been narrowly prevented more due to chance than design. The best known is the fire at the Windscale plutonium reactor in the UK resulting from a build-up of heat in the graphite moderator causing the uranium fuel to catch fire. More than 20,000 curies of Iodine-131 escaped causing, according to the official estimates of the UK National Radiological Protection Board, over 100 premature deaths. The Windscale enquiry subsequently threw up many safety issues, some that were deemed inherently beyond solution. The inquiry revealed that in a period of 27 years since 1950 there had been more than 190 reportable incidents, a dozen of which involved explosions and some 45 led to release of plutonium in the environment. According to a report published a couple of years ago, a German reactor safety study showed that there had been an accident every three days on an average and at least 20 per cent involved releases of radiation above permissible limits. A worse accident occurred in the Soviet Union around the same time – though known to the world only later – similar to the Chernobyl accident which prompted the evacuation of villages in a 13,000 sq km zone.

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