Chernobyl disaster, on its anniversary

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, I’m posting two pieces. Below is a talk I gave in Memphis, Tennessee, on the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, which I think speaks directly to today’s situation, especially in light of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Yesterday I posted a review of The Truth about Chernobyl.

Ten Years after Chernobyl:

Where Do We Go from Here?

by Franklin Dmitryev

May 10, 1996

Ten years ago, the name of a small town called Chernobyl was burned into the world’s memory. The name of this town in Ukraine, in what was at the time part of the USSR, became attached to one of the most devastating industrial accidents in history. In the dead of night on April 26, 1986, Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. Tons of deadly fallout blew out of that plant, estimated at from 200 to 1,000 times the radioactivity released by the bombing of Hiroshima. Some of that fallout entered the jet stream, so that radiation monitors went off from Europe to Japan to California to New England. Some of the isotopes involved will be around for ten times as long as human civilization has existed–1,000 times as long as there has been such a thing as the USA.

This year, many thousands of people gathered to observe the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, denouncing not only the death and destruction it caused, but the stark fact that so little has been done to halt the lethal danger of nuclear power to the world–so little that two of the unexploded reactors at the Chernobyl plant itself are still in operation.

The protests crossed the world, from the ground zero countries of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia to the atomic bomb ground zero of Japan, from Australia to the U.S., as well as in nearly every European country. Countless local observances were held, making it impossible to know how many people participated worldwide. In every country the demands included shutting down some local monstrosity, such as Japan’s Monju breeder reactor, which drew the world’s attention in recent months when it leaked dangerous radioactive sodium. All across East Europe and Russia, there were demands to close down Russian-designed nuclear plants, while the scores of local protests in Germany prepared the ground for this week’s action where 20,000 tried to stop the first shipment of nuclear waste going to the new Gorleben facility. You may have seen the film on the news of the German police aggressively attacking the militant young people and farmers. And here in Tennessee, protests were held at Watts Bar, the last U.S. reactor to come online. It was brought online earlier this year by Al Gore’s appointees on the TVA over fierce local opposition.

In Ukraine itself, the whole week of the anniversary the state mass media were forbidden to give out anti-nuclear information. Still, people from Ukraine, Belarus, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Holland, Romania, Slovakia, Britain, and the U.S. blockaded roads and railroad tracks at the border of the contaminated zone on April 26, in concert with actions held at nuclear plants in Belgium and Slovakia. In the capital, Kiev, despite the mayor’s ban on any public actions that week, Ukrainian, Russian, U.S., Dutch, and other environmentalists held non-violent direct actions on April 23, demanding the closing of all Ukrainian nuclear plants, and carrying banners with slogans such as, “The number of Chernobyl’s victims is growing.” Nineteen were arrested “with unreasonable violence,” according to a report on the Internet from Ecodefense. They were immediately put on trial without lawyers, medical experts, translators, or the right to speak, and several were jailed for three to five days. One of those released in time for another protest on the anniversary day declared, “They can’t kill the worldwide anti-nuclear movement, just as they can’t kill the memory of Chernobyl.”

Ten years after the catastrophe, we still only know the tip of the iceberg of its effects. Serious scientists who are not employed by the nuclear-industrial complex have given estimates of the number of deaths resulting ranging from 20,000 to an eventual 500,000. One estimated 40,000 people have died or will die prematurely in the U.S. alone. Thyroid cancer has risen tremendously in the area of greatest fallout in Belarus and Ukraine, while the same time period has also seen a rise in the U.S. The summer of 1986 saw a 13% rise in infant mortality in this country, and Europe probably experienced an even greater rise. Widespread immune deficiencies have been named “Chernobyl AIDS” by Ukrainian doctors. And as one activist noted, “There are a lot more diseases that haven’t been studied.”

Long-lasting radionuclides have heavily contaminated 46,000 square kilometers of Belarussian farmland–one fifth of the country’s land area–and 400,000 people were evacuated, most of them now living in poor conditions without much help. Millions more are living in areas that should have been evacuated.

The remnants of the exploded reactor itself were covered with a concrete shell, which is cracked and leaking radioactive waste, some of which has reached the Dnepr River, the supply of much of Ukraine’s drinking water. Recently the Ukrainian government has determined that the melted core is hot, highly radioactive, and moving, and could therefore explode again.

The heads of the G-7 countries–the U.S., Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Britain, and Italy–chose the anniversary month of April to meet together with Russian President Boris Yeltsin for their “Nuclear Safety and Security Summit” in Moscow. Far from advancing the cause of nuclear safety, they demonstrated instead, as they put it in their final declaration, their commitment “to measures which will enable nuclear power…to continue in the next century to play an important role….”

As the Natural Resources Defense Council put it in their report on the summit, “The Russians…almost succeeded in eliminating any reference to the Chernobyl accident from the…communique. All references to the agreed G-7 objective of closing Chernobyl by the year 2000 were eliminated from the ‘Nuclear Safety’ section….

The big winner at the Summit was the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (‘Minatom’). The Summit marked the formal end of efforts by the G-7 to push for the early shutdown of all 26 of the most dangerous Soviet-designed reactors. In its place is a modestly financed program to improve their safety and almost nothing on sustainable energy alternatives. In true Orwellian fashion, the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl accident did not mark the beginning of the end for its chief perpetrator, Minatom, but rather its embrace by Western governments as a full partner of their nuclear industries.”

Earlier in April, another conference was held, this one by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the European Community. It was attended by government officials and scientists who work for the nuclear industry, either directly or under government auspices. The IAEA is a UN agency whose dual purpose is to promote civilian uses of nuclear power and prevent the spread of its military uses. It has spent the last ten years trying to minimize Chernobyl’s effects. Most of the attendees stood by the official claim that 32 people died as a result of Chernobyl, although Ukraine’s Health Minister has estimated 125,000 deaths. The biggest report of the conference concluded that the health effects are mainly psychological. They didn’t mention that this was a lie pioneered by the Russian bureaucrats in the days just after the explosion–the same bureaucrats who deepened the disaster with their cover-ups and lies in the first place, which delayed evacuation, other health precuations, and effective action against the fire raging in the reactor core.

Most of the studies cited are deeply flawed. They ignore the impact of the fallout that wafted around the world. They ignore the seriousness of mutations and illness short of death. They ignore the diseases preying on people with weakened immune systems. They ignore the continuing impact of long-lasting radioactive isotopes once they enter the living environment. They ignore the long period cancer can take to develop. They ignore the thousands of people who were moved out of the vicinity of Chernobyl. They ignore the contaminated materials stripped from the area and sold on the black market, some to other countries, such as Turkey. And they hide behind the general decline in health in the former USSR over the past ten years. Science means searching for the truth, but these scientific methods are anti-scientific methods designed to avoid the truth. As Karl Marx wrote 150 years ago, “To have one basis for science and another for life is a priori a lie.”

After the IAEA conference, a group called the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal held its own hearings on Chernobyl. They condemned the IAEA conference and denounced these methods of hiding the truth as “one of the ways in which the victims were revictimized.”

Why are the rulers so desperate to downplay Chernobyl’s consequences? I’d say there are two reasons. The obvious reason is that they are very attached to nuclear power, not only as a source of energy, but as a way of legitimizing the whole nuclear weapons complex, not to mention that the nuclear complex is an economic power in its own right and viciously defends its interests.

But it is easier to lose sight of the second reason. The rulers surely have not forgotten the anti-nuclear passion they call the “Chernobyl syndrome,” which swept Russia and its satellites in the late 1980s. It was that passion that captured so large a part of the population that it virtually ended nuclear power plant construction in the USSR, just as the aversion aroused by the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) did here in the U.S. It also forced the closure of the nuclear weapons testing site in Kazakhstan. It was even a major impetus to the national independence movements in the various Republics, and helped bring about the collapse of Communism and the USSR.

The fact that Chernobyl helped bring down Communism in Russia and East Europe, and yet that Chernobyl and similar reactors are still operating, tells a great deal about how unfinished the 1989-91 transformation was. Let’s look a bit more closely at that history. Why did Chernobyl have that kind of impact? It was only partly because it cut heavily into whatever trust and legitimacy there still was for the regime. Chernobyl raised questions about not only the regime but the very system. Not only this but many environmental nightmares were weighing more and more heavily on people’s minds, and they were more and more convinced that these were inevitable results of the system they lived under. This was certainly an element in kindling the movements that brought down Communism in East Europe in 1989, and then spurred a segment of the Communists in the USSR to abandon the Communist ideology in order to maintain their hold on power. In the process, the USSR broke apart.

And when it did, there was no country in the world that was more anti-nuke than the newly born country of Ukraine. Its rulers not only had to declare independence from Russia to consolidate power; they had to promise the people that they would totally eliminate nuclear power and nuclear weapons from the country. Over the past five years they have promised eight times to shut down Chernobyl. Seven times they changed their minds, claiming the economy could not do without its electricity. Don’t be surprised when they return to that position the eighth time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My point is this movement that brought down Communism wasn’t only about independence from Russia, and it wasn’t really about trading central planning or the “command economy” for the “free market.” Implicitly the people had formed a feeling that there was something terribly wrong with the relationship of science to life, just as many people in the U.S. did after TMI in 1979, or after the revelations in the late 1980s about the poisoning of people who lived near several nuclear weapons plants. It had become clear that science and technology did not exist solely for the well-being of humanity but served some other master, which was at best indifferent to our lives. In the service of capital, the products of science act as if they were themselves a hostile power, ready to destroy humanity through nuclear war, or pollution, or through job-killing automation.

This is the kind of relationship Marx was talking about when he attacked the division between the basis for science and human life. He analyzed how this division flowed out of what he called alienated labor and showed how under capitalism the products of labor become a hostile power dominating and opposing the living laborers. The fact that this same kind of relationship dominated life in the USSR reflects the fact that its so-called Communism was just another form of state-capitalism.

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of confusion on this point. Ever since Stalin, the rulers of Russia have tried to convince the world that they ran a system that was different from capitalism. This was not true, but a lot of people still believe it. So you get this problem of people saying socialism is no better than capitalism, and therefore we give up on socialism–first you start looking for a third alternative, then you end up embracing capitalism. This is like surrendering before the fight ever begins. And something like that happened in 1989-91.

When the time came that the Communists had become so weakened that it was possible to topple them, there was no one there projecting a vision of an emancipatory alternative–in other words, a totally different kind of society where people would be genuinely free. In the absence of a real alternative, people didn’t have any idea of where to go. Where the old collapses but the new is not prepared to take its place, the old returns in a new form. So most of East Europe turned to the “free market,” which was supposedly the alternative–the only alternative–to Communism. Thus we see what should have been a stepping stone to freedom degenerating into an open door for Western capitalism, neofascism, poverty, and deteriorating health.

In Yugoslavia it was even worse. The rulers found a way to hold onto power by fomenting narrow nationalism as if that were the alternative. It led to outright genocide in Bosnia.

In all this, the need to find a totally different way of relating science to life was never expressed. And the turn to the market and/or to nationalism meant abandoning that, and accepting the relationship of science to life as it is as a given, a permanent, unchangeable fact of nature.

That is why the tragedy of these unfinished revolutions is seen in one way in how nuclear power hellishly haunts the living despite the stake driven through its heart by TMI and Chernobyl. This, of course, has global ramifications.

In the wake of TMI, anti-nuclear movements have forced almost all of the Western countries to stop reactor construction–the U.S., Canada, and all of Western Europe but France. The accident at the Monju reactor and the subsequent revelations of design flaws in Monju seem to be leading to a similar result in Japan.

This is not the only crisis the nuclear industry faces. For one thing, there never has been and probably never will be a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, yet the power plants keep generating more of it every day. The only solution to this problem would be to shut them all down, and even that would not rid us of what’s already been produced. So the stuff is piling up at nukes around the country. The federal government keeps casting about for a way to convince people that they have a solution to this unsolvable problem, since they don’t want to have to shut down the nuclear complex.

But how serious the industry’s crisis is is illustrated by something seemingly unrelated. You may recall how, about 2.5 years ago, the Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, made a big show of revealing information about hundreds of radiation tests done on unsuspecting people in the U.S. from the 1940s to the 1970s. Some of those were even done here, as I understand it, at John Gaston Hospital, as well as at Vanderbilt U. and Oak Ridge, also in Tennessee. O’Leary was praised to the skies for her “openness” in telling all. But I still stand by what I wrote at the time (“Radiation experiments and today’s nuclear agenda,” Jan.-Feb. 1994 News & Letters), especially since O’Leary as good as admitted it herself: the point of the whole exercise was PR–to gain legitimacy for the DOE, which had earned the mistrust of the whole country through its various dangerous and secret misdeeds against numerous groups of people. The need for legitimacy was dictated by the need to drag the nuclear industry, which O’Leary served before being appointed Secretary of Energy, out of its crisis, chiefly by overcoming opposition to opening “permanent” nuclear waste storage sites. As she said in 1993, the “solution to the storage may be held captive by the people who oppose nuclear power.”

This crisis also explains the West’s changing attitude to the nuclear plants in Russia and its former satellites. The line used to be that these plants were inherently unsafe due to faulty design and should be eliminated. But when it became clear that the Russian nuclear industry was disintegrating from the USSR’s collapse, the Western industry could smell the opportunity for business. Quickly the Western governments changed their tune and started insisting that the world’s most dangerous reactors needed not to be shut down but to be refurbished.

Now this is not meant to imply that Western reactors are safe. They are not. It is only to say that many of the reactors of the East are relatively more dangerous. All nuclear reactors are dangerous, not only in accidents but in everyday operation. First, they all leak–the government doesn’t say they never do. It only claims that the amount they leak is not harmful to the public. These claims have been refuted scientifically. They are based on the same kind of biased science that is used to minimize Chernobyl’s toll. Second, the reactors depend on a whole chain of industries, from uranium mining to fuel production to nuclear waste disposal, all of which involve special hazards.

The dirty secret the anti-nuke movement has pointed out is that the nuclear industry established in the U.S. and West Europe has targeted East Europe and Asia as the markets needed to keep the industry afloat. The money expected from hugely expensive programs to refurbish or complete reactors in East Europe is essential for these companies’ survival.

Most of this money will come from international aid programs. If this sounds like an odd way to use the word “aid,” just remember that international aid programs as we know them are normally crafted primarily to aid the powers that be in the donor country. They are secondarily for the powers that be in the receiving country, and only after that come the people of the receiving country, who are often harmed by these aid programs.

So it is that the Western powers have rushed in to take the place of the Russian Communists in driving Russia and East Europe down the path of environmental destruction. Ukraine has been pressured by the West and by its own nuclear industry lobby to resume building two unfinished, unsafe reactors, rather than pursue energy efficiency and wind power, which could furnish power at a fraction of the cost. Several reactors in Eastern Europe could never be finished, if not for the infusion of “aid” from the West.

That is one reason anti-nuclear citizens’ groups held their own “Nuclear Summit Watch” in Moscow. While the rulers were meeting in Moscow, one of the activists, Alexandr Nikitin, was spending his 11th week in a KGB jail, charged with high treason through espionage–punishable by death. His crime was co-writing a report on the dangers of Russia’s deteriorating nuclear submarines. Nikitin’s group, Bellona–especially his co-author, Igor Kudrik–have been targeted for repression. An international campaign is underway to protect Nikitin. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Norway in March, 5,000 protesters in Oslo demanded Nikitin’s release.

Ten years after Chernobyl, the deadly danger is with us still, and our struggle against it continues, from Moscow to Memphis. Let’s keep up the fight, and not deprive ourselves of the vital weapon, a vision of a new society with a totally different relationship of science to life, which can only come through getting rid of this racist, sexist, exploitative capitalist society.

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