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The "lessons" from Chernobyl

April 25, 2012

With clean-up around Chernobyl abandoned, what can Japan learn from 1986 disaster?




CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- April 26 will mark the 26th anniversary of the worst case of nuclear contamination in history: the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Since the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March last year, the Japanese government has shown interest in decontamination and other projects around Chernobyl as a reference point for efforts to deal with its own nuclear disaster.

However in northern Ukraine, where the radioactive husk of the former Soviet power station lies, large-scale decontamination work has been abandoned as largely ineffective, and disaster refugees are no closer to going home.

I am a little less than 10 kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in a warehouse-like building with a long, narrow trough for waste water cut into the floor. This is where workers clad in protective suits scrub down vehicles and heavy machinery that have gone into high-radiation areas. The scrubbing is done by hand, until the radiation emissions from the truck or the bulldozer drops below 0.5 microsieverts per hour.

Just after the 1986 disaster -- in which one of the Chernobyl plant's reactors exploded, blowing off the reactor housing roof and spewing radioactive material into the air -- Soviet authorities swung into a full-scale decontamination effort, including burying contaminated soil, and washing and then melting down contaminated machinery. However, in the 14 years between the disaster and the year 2000 -- when the last operating reactor at the plant was finally shut down -- authorities apparently judged that there had been "little improvement" in soil conditions, and they decided to halt soil decontamination.

The only decontamination operations going on now are for workers doing safety work in and around the dead plant, including decommissioning the reactors and preventing forest fires. There are currently about 3,700 people who work inside the 30-kilometer radius no-go area around the plant -- referred to simply as "the Zone" -- and they must have their clothes decontaminated periodically. During seasons when humidity is low, vehicles are typically washed one or two times a week, and roads near the plant are also scrubbed.

More than 110,000 people once lived in the Zone, all of whom were evacuated right after the accident. The Soviet authorities apparently attempted to decontaminate the town of Prypiat -- where Chernobyl plant workers and their families had lived -- soon after, but with no success.

Mr. Zolotoverkh, 58, who is in charge of managing the Zone, says there is no chance that decontamination will be resumed, adding, "No one will be allowed to return, not after decades, not after centuries."

About 110 kilometers southwest of the plant is the city of Korostyshiv, which the former Soviet government labeled an "evacuation advisory area" -- one of 440 residential communities given the designation. The Soviet Union established four categories for irradiated areas: forced evacuation areas, forced migration areas, evacuation advisory areas, and radiation management areas. Serious decontamination work in the advisory areas such as Korostyshiv did not begin until 1990, four years after the accident.

The municipal government, meanwhile, replaced the local top soil as well as the roof of every home and school in its jurisdiction. The city also paved over land that had been exposed to the Chernobyl fallout, including the front yard of 53-year-old housewife Ms. Valentina.

The municipal official in charge of the project emphasizes that the efforts resulted in a 50 percent drop in radiation in the 20 years after the accident. This has not, however, staunched a steady flow of people out of the city. Since 1990, Korostyshiv's population has dropped from about 80,000 to 67,000, though the city stresses that this is beginning to turn around.

Valentina's husband passed away from cancer in 2000 at just 48-years-old, and she says that many other members of her family have suffered damage to their health.

Regarding decontamination of homes, Ukrainian government radiation expert Mr. Tabachnyi says, "I can't say it's had any effect but to calm the fears of the residents," adding, "About $1 million was thrown into reducing radiation levels in Korostyshiv to 1 sievert or less per year. It was definitely not a cost-effective effort."

In June 1986, the Soviet government decided to allow residents back to parts of the forced migration areas that were relatively uncontaminated on a trial basis. Decontamination work was done, and the project drew up indices that would show whether the efforts could be applied to the clean-up of other areas. However, the authorities recognized that dangerous radioactive materials remained, and revoked permission for residents to return two years later.

Now, with buildings and infrastructure decaying, "there's almost no chance that permission to return will ever be given," says Tabachnyi, meaning the more than 10,000 Ukrainian "forced migrants" will probably never go home again.

On April 18 this year, Japan and the Ukraine finalized an agreement to share information on the countries' respective nuclear disasters, and the Japanese government is looking to learn "the lessons of Chernobyl" as it implements policy to contain the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdowns.

The scale of the two disasters, however, is different. The Chernobyl accident is thought to have released several times the radioactive material of the Fukushima disaster. The decontamination of agricultural lands -- a process that Japan has put so much faith into -- has been essentially abandoned around the Chernobyl plant, and there is increasing criticism that there is "no way Chernobyl can give any insight into the Japanese situation

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