Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1986

Through a series of negligent actions and omission, the government created the worst nuclear disaster in history.  Deficiencies in plant design (no containment), improper clearance for operation (without completing safety checks), and testing of the backup power supply started the disaster.  Further failures prolonged and deepened the risks.  A lack of appropriate warnings and safety systems for rescue personnel — fire ladders that did not reach the roof, a roof made of bitumen, inadequate monitoring equipment and protective clothing — forced them to endure direct exposure to radiation.  Many did not endure. 

The failure to timely warn the people of Pripyat put those people to needless risk and exposure.  With no warning, the people of Pripyat went about their daily chores, outside, unable to imagine what dangers were lurking in the fire that seemed to be engulfing the nuclear power plant nearby.  Some pretended that it was nothing, others belittled those who expressed anxiety. 

Suppressing the reality of what was happening at Chernobyl extended the risk to people throughout Europe.  Without full disclosure from the Russian government,  people and governments throughout Europe could only speculate what risks they faced, and what they could do to protect themselves.  There was little confidence that the Russian government was doing or was capable of doing what was necessary to protect anyone.  The world-wide fear about the effects from Chernobyl derived not only from the scope of the radiation risks, but from the deep anxiety when no one could assure people of the full nature of the risk. 

When evacuation came to the people in the area of Chernobyl, it was hurried and people had little time to gather their lives.  The relocation was traumatic.  These environmental refugees had to leave their belongings behind, including the graves of loved ones.  Despite the restrictions, some older people returned to the exclusion zone choosing to die in homes they had always known rather than to live in strange, unfamiliar surroundings.

To avoid some relocations, the government simply redefined what constituted a risky area, much like the safe level of contaminants in reindeer was changed so that reindeer did not have to be slaughtered.  And a part of the exclusion zone was renamed as an ecological reserve instead of cleaning it.  Playing with language is a form of risk management that most often is used to obfuscate rather than to reveal what is happening.  

Such linguistic slights of hand saved some from relocation and helped to preserve a way of life for the Sami; they also saved the governments considerable costs.  The long-term costs to those who were not relocated or continued to eat the reindeer meat remain unknown.  Yet we do know that the people of Seveso who were left in place in certain of the areas, on the assumption that they were safe, later developed illnesses that did not show to the same extent in those who were relocated early. 

At Chernobyl, the earliest expectations were that many would die or contract severe illnesses from the radiation exposure.  The catastrophists in Kiev tried to dress against such possibilities.  When the direst predictions did not materialize many relaxed and congratulated themselves on escaping the worst.  Yet as so often happens in environmental disasters, with exposure to low levels of toxic substances, comfort can be short lived.  No one learned that lesson better that the very young who have developed thyroid cancer, some from radiation exposure in the womb, and their parents and loved ones who have had to bear witness to their suffering.  When someone tries to dismiss possible adverse effects of an environmental disaster — as we will see some do for global warming —  remember Chernobyl. 


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