Monday, 16 May 2011

The Lessons of Chernobyl

On the 26th April 1986, twenty five years ago this year, the name Chernobyl entered our lexicon as a byword for nuclear disaster. After a power surge caused by a failed experiment to make the plant run more efficiently, a number of explosions erupted in the plant's fourth reactor. The resulting fire led to huge quantities of radioactive material being spread for thousands of miles and across most of mainland Europe. The Soviet authorities didn't tell the world what had happened for almost three days, and the nearby town of Pripyat, not far from the border between the Ukraine and Belarus and the 'worker's town' for Chernobyl, was only evacuated days after being irradiated with highly dangerous levels of fallout. Pripyat was a ghost town by the end of the year.

In Germany the Chernobyl disaster is being commemorated with a travelling exhibition called Tschernobyl: Menschen - Orte - Solidaritaet, People - Places - Solidarity. The official opening for the Munich leg of the tour was in Munich Central Station this afternoon, a low key affair with one of the city's mayors and representatives of various groups involved with the exhibition. There was a lot of press there, a few religious as well, but only a few members of the public.

Today, for better or worse, Chernobyl stands for two things in Germany: Nuclear Power and Government Silence. Ask most Germans about Chernobyl and they will talk about the disastrous consequences of nuclear power when it goes wrong. German energy and environmental policies were shaped for decades afterwards by the amount of fallout that covered much of East and West Germany. Germans only learnt that they had been irradiated by the radioactive material from Chernobyl three days after the event. The weather had been unseasonably warm the days before, and thousands of southern Germans had been playing, eating and working outside as the fallout began to settle.

In the exhibition there are news reports showing Geiger Counters reacting to playgrounds in Bavaria. There are Vox Pops with people in Munich city centre weeping with anxiety. They had been eating lunch in the garden, their children playing outside as the radioactive material fell. They speak in rushed, high pitched voices, not believing a word they hear from the government and not knowing exactly how badly they have been affected. This had a direct impact on the role of Nuclear power in Germany. The Atomkraft Nein Danke's smiley red sun has become a stalwart of environmental movements the world over, and the German Green Party has been the most successful in the world, power sharing from 1997-2005 with the Social Democrats.

Secondly, the Chernobyl disaster is a lesson in government secrecy. There is a reason why the Soviet authorities kept quiet about their tests and the ensuing explosion, and it had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with the health of millions of people. The explosion came a year after Gorbachev's promise of Glasnost, Openness. Many were left dumbfounded by their silence, and it was no coincidence that less than five years later the system that kept the world ignorant would have toppled, not least because of the estimated 18 Billion Ruble cost of the clean up for an already limping Soviet economy.

However, there is another side which has been primarily forgotten by the West. Chernobyl left a huge humanitarian crisis in its wake as over 350,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Many can only return once a year to visit the graves of their relatives. Some returned a few years later, many of them old and prepared to bear the risk of radiation in order to die where they had spent the best years of their lives. Thousands of children are still affected by Chernobyl, many of them deformed, afflicted with cancer among other illnesses and abnormalities. According to some estimates, as many as 900,000 cancer deaths between 1986-2004 could be attributed to Chernobyl.

The emphasis there is on the "could be". Conditionals are all we have in this situation, as it is almost impossible to accurately attribute somebody's death to radiation poisoning twenty five years later. It is this state of unknowing, of ignorance of the facts, that has left people confused and anxious in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster.

The exhibition is well laid out and considers a number of angles. One is first introduced to the story itself, the explosion, the cover up and the international outcry. Then there is a section looking at the international response, the Atomkraft, Nein Danke movement and government aid to the nations most affected (Did you know 60% of radioactive material fell on Belarus? I didn't.) Finally we see the current situation, the rebuilding of homes and communities as well as the search for alternatives to nuclear power. There is a panel with a number of different words. We. 24,000 Years (the time it will take Pripyat to return to normal levels. Three Mile Island. Cancer. Hope.

One word is absent from the list, but is all the same very much present at the opening: Fukushima.

The name is now used in the same breath as Chernobyl, and indeed it has led to a resurgence of Atomkraft Nein Danke protests and public anger at the current CDU/CSU-FDP alliance's attempt to postpone the decommissioning of Germany's few remaining nuclear power stations. Yet to me, at a commemoration of the Chernobyl disaster, this seems almost perverse. No doubt many have suffered in Fukushima and in northern Japan, and their suffering is something we must not ignore as it slips off the front pages, but in comparison to Chernobyl few people have been directly affected by nuclear meltdown. Only one person of the thousands dead in the earthquake was killed directly by the meltdown at Fukushima, and the prognosis is good for the community around the plant. Even George Monbiot, a man revered with a demigod-like aura by environmentalists and metro-liberals now actually supports nuclear power as a result of Fukushima. This is not to dismiss out of hand the fear felt by people when they saw the images of evacuations and smoking reactors. A witness to the events present at the exhibition opening this evening said it felt like Chernobyl was occurring all over again. That is a perfectly understandable fear, and safety issues should never be ignored. Thousands of peoples lives were altered by the earthquake in Japan earlier this year.

Yet Chernobyl acts as a spotlight on a number of other issues, and they are clouded out when we link it with other nuclear disasters and turn it solely into an environmental issue. It is as much an environmental issue as a Central/Eastern European cultural and social issue. To have learned from Chernobyl isn't simply to slap a green badge on your lapel, but also to look at the wreckage the Soviet Union left in its wake.

Over 60% of all the fallout ended up in Belarus, and over 6,000 children are currently diagnosed with thyroid cancer linked to radiation exposure. Reactor 4 still isn't completely covered, as the Ukrainian authorities still haven't raised enough money to fully encase the reactor in lead. In the Ukraine there is only one clinic in Kiev for the entire country dedicated to looking after those born with Chernobyl-linked abnormalities and cancers. This is a humanitarian issue, largely forgotten by the rest of the world.

Those responsible for organising the exhibition were Naturschutzbund Bayern (Envionmental Protection Association of Bavaria), Tschernobyl Kinderhilfe Muenchen e.V (Munich Help for Chernobyl Children) and Renovabis, a Catholic organisation with responsibility for Central/Eastern European Solidarity. It was the last group, Renovabis, who at the exhibition opening put the most emphasis on helping those in Central and Eastern Europe. They acknowledge the fact that the transition into a post-Cold War society has not been entirely successful and that many areas experienced economic and social turmoil when the Soviet Union collapsed. I have been interested in their work for a while now, as there is no similar group in the UK to speak of.

You've already noticed from previous posts how I feel about Central and Eastern Europe after these nine months in Dachau. Listening to what I have heard from colleagues of mine, coupled with the experience of spending those precious few days with the Dachau survivors from the former Soviet Union, it has made me think about our attitudes to Eastern Europe. I strongly suggest you have a look at Renovabis , or at the very least their Information in English. It is perhaps the only organisation I have seen that faces the poverty that lies right under our noses.

Everything I have done here in Dachau seems to be forcing my attention in one direction: East. It is a part of the world that has always remained, in the words of Winston Churchill, "A riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma". He, like all Englishmen, likely said "Russia" when he meant "The Soviet Union". Chernobyl continues to bring people's attention to the Ukraine and its neighbours, and should force us to face up to our responsibility as European neighbours to work in solidarity with their poor. Yes, Nuclear power can be dangerous and yes, we should look to find renewable alternative energy sources that will mean we never have to take such a risk with people's lives again. However this should not be done at the expense of forgetting the local issues that arose from the Chernobyl disaster, which millions in Eastern Europe still live with today. If we turn away from the millions affected in Eastern Europe, then we really haven't learned anything from Chernobyl

Renovabis: An Act of Solidarity of German Catholics with the people of Central and Eastern Europe. The name comes from Psalm 104 "You (God) will renew the face of the Earth".

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