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Re-visiting of Chernobly
20th Anniversary of the Chernobly nuclear accident in Ukraine...

by Prof. Hayrettin KILIC

April 26, will mark 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine. The Chernobyl anniversary provides a fitting time and backdrop to revisit the issues relating to safety and environmental aspects of nuclear power plants, specially the global effects of the Chernobyl accident, which proved that radioactive radiation recognize no boundaries.

According to latest "official" studies from Chernobyl Forum; International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), and Untied Nations Development Program, 4000 projected deaths, hundreds of billions of dollar in damage, millions of acres of habitable land contaminated, and hundreds of thousand people were permanently evacuated from their homes.

However, the findings of Chernobyl Forum is highly contested by many organizations and researchers who argue that IAEA-drafted summary contradicts the key findings of the Chernobyl forum as well as the findings of a 1993 study conducted by the UN, Scientific Radiation on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). They point out that, it overlooks independent scientific data that have been accumulated over the twenty years and the report contradicts some of its conclusions. They claim that Forum's latest report is a "Whitewash" and it is a deliberate misleading IAEA effort that benefit's the nuclear industry..

Before April 26 1986, Soviet nuclear scientists had stated that a catastrophic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was impossible. But on April 29, when a United States surveillance satellite confirmed that Chernobyl's reactor number four was burning with red fire, and rumors from Sweden that a major nuclear accident had occurred in the Soviet Union became inescapable reality, in spite of the Soviet government's denials. When the impossible world's worst nuclear reactor accident happened, a thunderous blast lifted the massive 500 tons of concrete lid from the reactor core, and released huge amounts of radioactive debris that was carried two thousand meters into the air. The reactors core, mostly graphite burned two more weeks, effecting more than 20 nations that were in the radioactive fallout's path.

The total amount of immeasurable radioactivity released will never be known, but the official Soviet figure of  90 million curies suggests a minimum, says Dr. Yuri M. Shcherbak, a former  Supreme Soviet member of the U.S.R.R and ambassador of Ukraine to USA who, in 1989 initiated the first parliamentary investigation of the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union. Although, the total amount of radioactivity that effected most of Europe and Asia was estimated several times more by Western scientists, the conservative Soviet figures correspond to hundreds of times more radiation than that produced by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war.

Aftermath of the first twenty years

The debate surrounding the increased prevalence of diseases induced from the Chernobyl accident is likely to continue for many decades. Up to this date, it is not clear how many people have already died, or are suffering from illness resulting from Chernobyl radiation, due to systematically relocating and sending the local children away to different areas in the Soviet Union, and destroying medical records of victims. However, so far, ''32.000 deaths are defensible'' says Dr. Shcherbak, most of them are the so called "liquidators", 800.000 workers who were involved in putting out the initial fire, cleaning out the blown-reactor core and burying them in nearby sites.  According to the Russian Ministry for Civil Defense 38 % of the liquidators suffer from some disease, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Health in their annual 1995 press conference stated that ''according to inter-ministerial expert councils the 805 of liquidators deaths only in 1993 and 532 deaths in 1994 were connected with Chernobyl accident effects.''

After twenty years of the nuclear reactor accident, 260.000 Square kilometers of land is still contaminated with radioactive cesium 137 and Strontium 90 in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, exceeding 1 curie / km2 in some regions, and effecting nearly 9 million people.  Strontium-90 is chemically similar to calcium, therefore concentrates in the bone of the developing infant, child and adolescent. Once in the bone, it irradiates the marrow where the cells of the immune system are created. Within 30 kilometers of the Chernobyl plant there are no inhabitants, and about 60 settlements inside this zone were relocated to different places.  During the first few days of the accident, 13.000 children had inhaled aerosols containing iodine 131, a short lived radioactive isotope which induces thyroid cancer.  About 4000 of these children have received up to 2.000 roentgen equivalents  of radiation doses that is 20 times more than the maximum recommended dose for nuclear industry workers for an entire year.

So far, the Ukrainian government has been spending more than 5 percent of its budget to provide benefits for more than 3 million people who are officially recognized as victims of the Chernobyl catastrophe, including 356.000 liquidators and 870.000 children. Having major economic crises, it is not clear how along the Ukrainian government can maintain these benefits. Tens of thousands of metric tons of nuclear fuel and reactor parts were buried in rush in 800 different sites within the 30 kilometer zone, still representing radioactivity levels of some 20 million curies.  In order to clean up this dangerously contaminated zone in the world, it will take at least 30 years, and  billions of dollars.

In addition, existing sarcophagus of unit 4 which houses about 200 tons of nuclear fuel, consisting melted reactor core or an unearthly radioactive-lava is a ticking time bomb. It cost 300 million dollars to built in hurry in six months, and was planed to last 20 years.  However, this structure’s western walls is already bulged and it leaks rain and melted snow, according to experts it could simply collapse any time due to a small earthquake resulting a new Chernobyl disaster.

In order to prevent further destruction, building a "super-sarcophagus" around the existing one, after a long negotiations with Western countries, was finally completed last year. Construction work on a new sarcophagus is expected to start later this year, and estimated to cost 800 million dollars.

In Europe, many countries suffered economic losses. According to the Belarus government, the total economic damage caused between 1986-2005 will be $ 235 billion which is equivalent to 21 times its 1991 national budget, and as of 1994 the Belarus government spent 13.46 % of its budget to minimize the consequences of the Chernobyl accident.

The total loss to the Soviet Union was prepared by Yuri Koryakin, the then-chief economist of the Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering of the Soviet Union, his analysis showed that the total loss to the Soviet Union between 1986-2000 will be equivalent to $ 283-358 billion. After the accident, the total cost of compensations paid by some European governments to farmers who had to destroy their livestock and crops were $18 million in England, $ 307 million in Germany, and $ 94 million in Austria.

On December, 2000, Ukrainian officials met with IAEA and European Union (EU) officials to discuses the possibilities of permanently closing remaining  three reactors in Chernobyl. Estimates were that the first phase of decommissioning three units, projected over 5 years horizon, and would cost $ 85 million per year, with tasks  mainly focused on removal of wastes and nuclear fuel. On December 15, 2000, After securing financial assistant from EU, Ukrainian government, permanently shut down the 925 MW, unit 3 at the Chernobyl power plant, disabling the last remaining reactor at ill-fated nuclear power plant complex.

Next twenty years, a countdown for new meltdowns

In response to the constantly growing International concern over the safety of old Soviet-designed reactors that are operating around the world, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) conducted an intelligence study in 1993 titled "Most dangerous reactors". The purpose of this project was to study Soviet designed and built reactors currently operating in the successor states which are in deteriorating economics, political turmoil and lacking from sufficient technical and regulatory oversights. As of February 1995, nine Soviet built power plants have been surveyed and the preliminary top five worst power plants-reactors happened to be Chernobyl in Ukraine, Kozloduy in Bulgaria, Kola in Russia, Iganalina in Lithuania, and Metzamor in Armenia.

Unfortunately, Turkey is situated in the middle of the most dangerous reactors operating in the world today. In the west, Bulgaria has 6 nuclear reactors, four of which have been condemned by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Operational Safety Assessment Review Team (OSART), and in 1991, called for the immediate shutdown of these first generation Soviet design and built reactors.

In the east, Matzemor power plant in Armenia was closed shortly after the December 1989 earthquake and due to local opposition was never to be reopened again.  But cut off from major energy supplies and having severe economical conditions, Armenia has gambled by starting unit 2 in 1995. Although the G-7 countries and World Bank were opposed to unit-2's restart, it was determined by IAEA experts that, because of its age and that the plant is situated in the middle of the most seismically active and dangerous foult, that the Matzemor power plant unit-2 can operate only until the end of  2004, provided, if the facility complies with the all the above applicable safety and technological upgrading requirements.

Prior to restart of Matzemor unit-2, the Armenian Government has signed an agreement with IAEA and European Union to receive necessary financial and technological support to upgrade and operate the unit-2 close to the western standards, and has agreed to close permanently the Matzemor unit-2 by the end of year 2004. Unfortunately, Armenian government did not honor their commitment to close the Matzemor nuclear power plant in 2004, and at the present time this power plant is running as a time bomb in the Ararat valley, threatening more than two million people life's on the both Turkish and Armenian side of border.

In the north, the worst of the worst, remaining of the Chernobyl power plant complex and existing old Soviet designed reactors. These type of reactors  have serious problems, abound in nearly every face of the operation since they were commissioned to generate electricity and Pu-239 for the Soviet nuclear weapons program, and racing against the time for another accident. As a result of losing a vital cooling system, on October 11 1991, a fire started in the Chernobyl unit 2 reactor, another  meltdown of the power plant was prevented by heroic efforts of plant workers and this unit had to be shutdown  and was out of commission since then. Until final shutdown of all units in year 2000,  remaining units were operating in very poor technical conditions that are expected to significantly increase the likelihood of a large scale accident.

Finally, due to weak regulations, poor moral, and funding difficulties at Kola power plant in Russia has experienced 43 off-normal events in 1993 alone, representing nearly 25 % of all events reported in Russia. In March 1994, a pipe rupture in Kola-2 that leaked about a fourth of the reactors primary coolant leading to a possible meltdown, fortunately this event happened when the plant was shutdown for maintenance. After a long international pressure, this power plant was also permanently shutdown.

There are two types of Soviet designed and built reactors in existence for the purpose of generating electricity. They are the RBMK-boiling water reactors and the VVER-presurized light water reactors. The RBMK is a boiling-water, graphite-moderated, pressure-tube reactor. Nuclear fuel is contained in approximately 1700 of individual pressure tubes vertically mounted in a large graphite core. Cool water passes through these tubes and is boiled by nuclear heat to produce steam which is transferred to turbine generators for the production of electricity. The RBMK design does not meet Western standards, and deficiencies are known to exist in the emergency core cooling system, fire protection system, and instrumentation and control systems. Most importantly, these type of reactors lack a Western-style containment building, and are also susceptible to dangerous power instabilities. It was this extreme power excursion, combined with a series of operational errors that led to the Chernobyl accident in 1986. These type power plants are still operating in Russian Federation and in Ex-Soviet-Sites.

The other three worst nuclear power plants operating at Metzamor-Armenia, Kozloduy-  Bulgaria, and Kola-Russia are the VVER-440/230-270 type reactors developed as civilian power plants, similar to Western pressurized water reactors (PWR). It employs low-enriched uranium oxide fuel held in thin metal-clad rods that are cooled by pressurized light water. The pressurized water from the reactor is pumped through steam generators, where steam is produced by transfer of heat to the separate secondary coolant. The steam is then routed to the turbine generators to produce roughly 440 mega watts of electricity.

These reactors also don't meet Western standards, they have many design deficiencies including the lack of a containment building, inadequate fire protection systems, unreliable instrumentation and control systems, and deficient systems for cooling the reactor core in case of an emergency. In order to meet most Western standards, Russia has developed a third VVER generation design called VVER-1000 which is the largest reactor that can generate 1000 mega watts of electricity. However there are known shortcomings in the reactor fire protection and instrumentation and control systems of these new type of reactors as well..         

Despite massive international concern over nuclear safety in the former Soviet Union, and hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans to successor states, there has been an insignificant increase in safety, and only some of these high risk-worst reactors have been permanently closed. If one of these worst reactors operating around Turkey suffers from a moderate-sized loss-of-coolant accident, a direct release of radioactive materials into the surrounding environment is inevitable because, all these first generation  reactors lack containments. In the event, like what happened at the Chernobyl site twenty years ago, where the failure of a reactor vessel resulting in the upward ejection of the vessel and penetrating the protective dome would mean a major radiation release that recognizes no boundaries.  

There is no level of radiation low enough to be deemed safe

Although cancer is commonly perceived as a disease that strikes randomly and without warning, this misconception ignores the results of thousands of investigations on the causes of cancer. The conclusion emerging from these investigations is that most human cancers are caused by chemicals, viruses, heredity, and radiation.

Radiation-induced carcinogenesis resembles chemical carcinogenesis in its basic mode action in the living cells. Like most chemicals carcinogens, radiation is mutagenic and is therefore thought to initiate malignant transformation by causing DNA damage. Many years usually intervene between exposure to an initiating dose of radiation and the appearance of a malignancy, suggesting that subsequent exposure to promoting agents plays a role in stimulating radiation-damaged cells to divide and form tumors, and if it is not detected; leads to cancer.

There have been many studies indicating that low level radiation from reactor accident and bomb fallouts, and routine low level radioactive isotopes released from nuclear power plants, may have done more damage to humans and other living things than previously thought. Dr. Abram Petkau, a Canadian radiation biologist, experimentally proved that the longer the exposure, the smaller the dose needed to damage the blood cells of the immune system. He concluded that free radicals are created when macromolecules of the immune system are subject to lingering low levels of ionizing radiation. A free radical is a vigorous charged particle that attacks other molecules of living cells to neutralize itself by knocking off an electron from its target, during this process it destroys the chemical compositions of molecules necessary for daily life, including DNA molecules that make up the fundamental blocks of life.

It has been known for many years that molecular structure of the DNA chain is destroyed, if it is subject to any ionizing electromagnetic radiation beyond visible light, such as; ultra-violet, X-rays and gamma rays, which are generated in almost every type of radioactive decays. As a matter of fact, when a very low level of radiation is penetrated into DNA molecules (A-adenine, T- thymine, G-guanine, and C-cytosine ), the energy of this radiation is usually absorbed and transmuted into heat by nitrogenous base of the adenine, guanine, cytosine leaving DNA most of the time intact. But, it is quite harmful if the energy is absorbed by one thymine neighboring on another thymine in the DNA chain, in this case, before the absorbed energy has a chance to be transformed into heat, the two neighboring thymines enter into a chemical reaction forming a new chemical compound called a thymine photodimer. Damage has been inflicted on DNA, meaning that, in the place of two thymines, there has appeared an entirely new chemical compound that halts further progress of the enzymes working on DNA. After millions of years of evolutionary training to recognize only the letters A,T,G, and C, the enzymes will balk at this mysterious newcomer, and they will not be able to transcribe DNA's information and synthesize RNA-proteins, thus all life in the cell will come to a stand-still, and will perish.  

In the light of these crucial findings, it is worth mentioning the following studies conducted by Dr. Ernest J. Strenglass, Professor of Emeritus of Radiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, and Dr. Jay Gould, a well known statistician and former member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The state of South Carolina houses the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant that has been in operation for 30 years, and is one of the most radioactive places on earth. Almost one billion curies of high-level nuclear waste are stored in this complex representing more than half of the U.S government's inventory. Dr. Strenglass and Gould analysis of state medical records showed that during a 15 year period, 1968-83, the death rate from infant diseases in South Carolina increased 13 percent, and infant mortality from birth defects showed a more startling increase, rising 25 percent faster than in the U.S average. During this period, South Carolina also experienced a three-fold increase in excess lung cancer, and readings of stonium-90 in the bones of young children rose by 45 percent.

After the Three Miles Island (TMI) accident of March 28, 1979, some 2.500 lawsuits have been filed against the Metropolitan Edison Company, the owner-operator of TMI, by plaintiffs who were living close to the power plant. They claim to suffer from a host of radiation-induced illnesses such as: birth defects, spontaneous abortions, sterility, cancers, and leukemia. Indeed, official 1979-1980 Pennsylvania vital static's showed that the infant mortality rate for Dauphin County was 37 percent higher than the rate of the previous two years. While during the same period, the U.S infant mortality rate dropped by 8 percent. In fact, Dr. Gloud's analysis also showed that infant mortality from birth defects in the ten-county area surrounding TMI rose over 20 percent faster than in the U.S.

Swiss health authorities published a set of annual mortality data covering the period since World War II. It should be noted that all five nuclear reactors built in Switzerland since 1968, have released significant amounts of radioactive isotopes into the environment, and are located in the Swiss plateau where the most part of the six million Swiss population reside. Statistical analysis of Swiss data by Dr. Strenglass and Gloud has revealed the following facts: Swiss mortality rate, death per 1000 people, for leukemia and non-epithelial cancer was 0.16 in 1945, which increased to 0.32 in 1983. There was a sharp rise of breast cancer at the rate of 5.5 percent a year from 1980 to 1983. The percentage of total deaths accounted for by those aged 25 to 44, due to infectious diseases rose from 0.66 in 1983 to 1.14 in 1989, a gain of 72 percent. 

Finally an analysis of the extreme detailed Oregon State vital statistics published by the Oregon State Department of Human Resources indicated that deaths due to leukemia increased 70 percent in Portland between 1980 and 1988, where the Trojan nuclear power plant has been in operation since 1975. For Oregon as a whole the leukemia mortality rate rose 32 percent while it declined 2.7 percent for the entire U.S. during this period. The link to the radioactive releases from the Trojan plant is strengthened by a similar rise in leukemia incidence around the Pilgrim nuclear plant as reported by the Massachusetts State Department of Health.  Both plants had comparable releases of radioactive iodine and bone-seeking fission products into the air and water since 1976, in both cases, the leukemia rates decreased with distance away from the power plant.

Today, 20 years of following Chernobyl, 27 years after Three Miles Island, and more than 50 years after the launch of the Atom for Peace program, nuclear power continues to be a failed technology. There remains no solution of the problem of mounting huge piles of lethal radioactive waste, nuclear power still the most expensive way to provide electricity, and continued operation of atomic reactors poses unacceptable and unpredictable safety, public health and weapon proliferation risks around the World.

These are some of the facts of so called nuclear age-life that we have to live with. As a primary physician and witness of  Chernobyl accident, Dr. Shcerbak has stated in his article published in the April, 1996 issue of the Scientific American, that   ''the disaster illustrates the great responsibility that falls on the solders of Scientists and other experts who give advice to politicians on technical matters... Humankind lost a sort of innocence on April 26, 1986. We have embarked on a new, post-Chernobyl era, and we have yet to comprehend all the consequences".

Credits for images
Chemicals linked to illnesses that come from the air!
Chemistry Department, Loreto College, Coleraine
by Emma O'Donnell

--The Saga of Nuclear Power Plant
Page 1
-- Page II

- A Brief Profile of Prof. Hayrettin Kiliç>

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