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Remembrance for the Future: Chernobyl

By Emilie Moorhouse
May 17, 2006

It is a shame that Premier McGuinty’s recent comments give equal weight to the “draw-backs” of nuclear power and the unsightliness of wind turbines. This association is no different than equating the effects of full-blown AIDS with the sniffles – the two are simply not comparable. It is also irresponsible to plan the future of our energy supply mix with such disregard for the true dangers and risks associated with nuclear power.

It has been twenty years since the Chernobyl accident certainly drove home the horrendous consequences we risk by investing in nuclear power. Chernobyl is not only in the past: it is in our present and in our future. Twenty years after the accident, cancer rates are increasing, and will continue to do so. Increases in birth defects and genetic mutations have been observed. The effects of Chernobyl are increasing and scientists predict the worst effects are still to come.

An independent report commissioned by members of the European Parliament looked at global impacts of the Chernobyl disaster, and estimated that up to 60,000 people will die as a result of the fallout. Many deaths will be in Western Europe, where more than half of the fallout occurred. Approximately 40% of Europe’s surface was contaminated. Twenty years after the accident the Native Samis in Northern Sweden have to buy special animal feed for the reindeer to prevent them from absorbing too much radiation through feeding on wild lichen. Austria, Wales, Northern Italy, and Southern Germany also received significant fallout.

The opening ceremony of the Conference in Kiev featured a photo exhibit of the “dead zone,” the commonly used name for the 30-kilometre exclusion zone surrounding the reactor. As pictures of abandoned classrooms, with books still open, lying on the neatly arranged desks, floated by on the screen I could not help but wonder whether this would be a unique event in the history of the world which would serve as a reminder of what should never happen again, or if Chernobyl will be downplayed and forgotten, destined to be repeated elsewhere and the images on the screen only premonitions of future accidents.

It is extremely unpleasant to begin to realize just how vulnerable the world is to a single nuclear accident, and to imagine the horrors of radiation on human health. But we cannot afford to forget this.

This is why it is so irresponsible for a government that is considering investing in nuclear energy to dismiss the risks of an accident. The passengers on the Titanic were assured its technology made it unsinkable, just like today we are assured that technological progress means CANDU reactors cannot experience meltdown. One month prior to the Chernobyl explosion, the International Atomic Energy Agency declared the Chernobyl RBMK reactors the safest in the world. We cannot risk another Chernobyl, and the only way to guarantee averting another accident is to phase-out nuclear power.

Studies have shown we can phase it out and still power Ontario. The sooner this happens, the more diminished the risk and the less radioactive waste will be left to future generations. But even if all countries declare a phase-out today, we will still have to be sure to tell our grandchildren, to tell their grandchildren, to tell their grandchildren, to also tell their grandchildren, for many generations to come, how to manage the highly radioactive waste, some of which has a half-life of 24,000 years.

Emilie Moorhouse is an Atmosphere and Energy campaigner with the Sierra Club of Canada.


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