Three decades and one year ago I was in the Greek Peloponnese. We were staying in a castle (Geranos) overlooking the sea, in the Mani. It was Good Friday and breaking news hinted at a nuclear explosion. Coming out of Gythion, we followed the coast road east driving towards the town of Stepps and the King’s stream, a tributary of the River Evrotas. It was midday; the sun was high and bright. We stopped to take a better look at a wave pounded hulk of a beached boat. The excited yells of our children revealed that they had spotted a dog and had lost all interest in the wreck. He was proudly erect in the sun, coat shining but sadly emaciated. We poured our water into a makeshift container and placed it as close as possible to the thirsty and hungry boxer.
Our new mission was to find food, which took us into the village of Elos. According to history its ancient inhabitants were enslaved by the Dorians coming on the wave of the Great Migrations. There were no scraps or leftovers for our boxer In the agricultural village. Its inhabitants were fasting before the Crucifixion of Christ. Several taverns lay dormant but Elos was buzzing with the news of Chernobyl. For some reason, one Greek’s wife was in Kiev. Kofi Annan expressed the sentiment that to forget Chernobyl could be good, but added it would be a great disservice to its victims, who will never forget, including those unnecessarily irradiated in the May Day Parade, Kiev, 1986. In Kiev it was marked also by a vacant official reviewing stand. An earlier Nobel peace prize winner said that man is short on imagination, while forgetting comes easy.
Back in Athens I conducted a workshop on Chernobyl. Some years later the National School of Public Health entered into a relationship with the Medical University of Kiev. A leak from a plutonium producing Plant in northern England contaminated grazing land and milk sales were suspended. It was one factor that dissuaded me against a career in nuclear reactor physics.
The tragedy of Chernobyl reentered our imagination in Wolves eat dogs a primordial memory of the domesticated dog’s betrayal of its own kind, the wild and free wolf. Detective Arcady finds a blood-stained Geiger counter in a dead man’s apartment. Switching it on, he discovers that he is surrounded by high levels of radioactivity. A second and related death occurs in Chernobyl’s dead zone. The advice to immediately evacuate the inhabitants of Chernobyl and to cancel the May Day Parade is ignored. It’s all about getting rich quick. Let’s not forget that the soviet nuclear arsenal was looted!
Chernobyl exploded one week before Greek Orthodox Easter (26/4/1986) during a routine safety test when its power surged. The engineers wanted to know how long the reactor’s generators could continue operating without steam should it suffer a power failure. The explosion punched a hole in the ceiling of a reactor through which ten tons or so of deadly radioactive gases and particulate matter were hurled more than a kilometer into the atmosphere.
A well designed reactor would have imploded even with fewer than 2% of its control rods working, which would have enabled much of the toxic materials to fall towards its center. The flawed reactor design, together with a mishandled test contributed to the implosion of the USSR. The new technology of Chernobyl was a Soviet emblem of prestige, not true for its consideration of technological safety. Five years later the USSR toppled, it imploded from within. Fall was driven by the arms race and political behaviors internal to the regime such as the bureaucratization of science and the liquidation of scientists; purges and the deaths of public health experts, archeologists etc., provided a basis for state cover-ups including an attempted cover-up of Chernobyl. The authorities assured the public that radiation levels were too low to elicit public health problems.
Earlier warnings in another exclusion zone in the Urals were don’t stop here, drive fast. Scattered radiation from Chernobyl contaminated millions and caused 4000 deaths and the deliberate precipitation of rain by seeding silver iodide crystals in the skies over Belarus. Even today many victims remain ignorant as to their condition. Those in the affected areas think negatively about their health and have an exaggerated sense of the dangers from radiation exposure. They believe that their life expectancy has been cut and they live with a sense of “paralysing fatality”. Lacking information implies a lack of understanding of their suffering on the part of the survivors.
We shall never know the cost of Chernobyl in terms of disrupted lives. numbers are placed and some statistics are collected on disasters while the abundant tears and sufferings in solitude fall through the cracks. Living through the catastrophe means leaving one order and coming out into a different world for ‘between the death of one social order and the birth of another much water will flow and a long night of desolation will pass’. Somehow social realities are darker and different than those described by political decision makers.
The largest of public health and social problems unleashed by Chernobyl are growing mental health problems and increasing poverty. Barring other nuclear disasters the greatest potential problem is the ecological future of the Black Sea, which in the time of Homer, was designated inhospitable. Disaster in Chernobyl has added to already overloaded waters from chemical residues and dumped toxic waste, with heavy metals and radioactive contaminates. Nuclear interests have a strong lobby sufficiently powerful to overwhelm the international community and restrict the inter-disciplinary efforts of public health. It seems obvious that given public health considerations nuclear activities have to be more tightly controlled. Nuclear deterrence and public health matters must be an issue within global health diplomacy. The goals of the WHO should be to exert pressure for well-regulated nuclear industrialization, with appropriate appropriation of technology and to encourage a commingling of disaster management and public health to reduce population vulnerability and to constrain humanitarian danger.
Chernobyl is today a radioactive waste dump albeit smothered in a sarcophagus, a mass of concrete will still be a threat for millennia to come. The futile attempt at cover-up permitted three weeks to pass before the accident was acknowledged, by which time incredible numbers of people had been unnecessarily irradiated. Cover-up came quickly with proclamations and self praise for the political system, its conscientious leaders, the achievements of Soviet technology and the efficiency of its organizational response. It even proclaimed “victory” over the 4th reactor which flew the red flag, which was immediately, replaced when it shriveling from heat and radiation. There were comparisons with references to Three Mile Island’s mismanagement, which was designed with implosion technology.
Most of the strontium and plutonium isotopes were deposited within 100 kilometres of the damaged reactor and the deaths occurred in the Ukraine and Belarus. Radioactive iodine, was the greatest concern after the accident. Strontium and Caesium 137, with a longer half lives will remain a concern for decades to come. Although Plutonium isotopes and Americium 241 will persist perhaps for thousands of years, their contribution to human exposure is low. Of related interest is the significant increase in Hashimoto disease in Greece attributed to Chernobyl. In my workshop 31 years ago I hazarded a guess that Greece was one of the worst hit countries in Europe and that cancer precipitated from Chernobyl would show up as a difficult to interpret blip on epidemiological data and would be restricted mainly to the thyroid in children.
Our world has a colossal armory of nuclear weaponry, enough to wipe itself out; 15,000 nuclear war heads most of them in the armories of the USA and Russia, up to 50 stolen warheads in the hands of illegal organizations and a wide distribution of nuclear materials in health care facilities in easy reach of a would be terrorist. The world has also 11,000 nuclear reactor years of operational experience. Chernobyl (1986) takes up only 2 years and 40 years plus to decommission it, while Fukushima (2011) took up 40 years of operation and will take 40 years to be decommissioned.
Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) and Three Mile Island came before and Fukushima came after Chernobyl. They all stand as stark warnings to the consequence of man’s exposure to radioactivity. They are all grave warnings suggesting that the world itself can become an exclusion zone on a global scale. Hiroshima: a blast of light brighter than a thousand suns with a wall of fire, enough intense to melt skin, followed by a black rain; chaos absolute, and unbelievable carnage. She was a distinguished actress with the Cherry Blossom Group, incredibly beautiful, an icon less than one kilometer from the epicenter. When she regained her senses after the flash she made it to the river went in and floated for awhile before being pulled out by soldiers. Her one thought was to reach Tokyo to inform the Emperor. Two weeks later her skin was gone, corroded; she had no hair; nothing remained of her youth and beauty.
Toxic events recently occurring in Syria and sometime ago in the former Yugoslavia with depleted uranium, as well as elevated tensions between America and Russia can only bring a nuclear holocaust closer. The persistence of Korea to launch missiles and the threat that they carry nuclear warheads is the great aggravator. If nuclear night descends, it is predicted that winter will register super low earth temperatures and it could fragment into several asteroids. The public health challenges of a nuclear energy appears self-evident; a need to have evacuation procedures and comprehensive policy a need to be prepared; a need to reduce population vulnerability and to reshape hazards.
On the way back to our temporary castle 31 years ago we did not find the boxer. We were in the grip of Chernobyl. Looking back, it is painfully easy to see a future apocalypse with humanity hurled back into the Stone Age, covered in an eternity of radioactive contamination.
Neal Acherson, The Black Sea
Martin Cruz Smith, Wolves eat dogs
Jeffrey Levett, Radiological scenarios
Svetlana Alexievich, Paris Review
Robert Jungk, Children of the Ashes
Petryna Adriana, Life exposed biological citizens after Chernobyl, 2002
Frederick M. Burkle, Nuclear war in the Middle East, 2011
Jeffrey Levett, Public health’s curiosity cabinet: the swallows of Fukushima Galtung, J., Health as a Bridge for Peace in the Context of Humanitarian Action in Complex Emergency Situations. Prepared for the Division of Emergency and Humanitarian Action, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 1997
Wikipedia: long term monitoring of caesium and strontium radionuclides to assess human exposure and food contamination and to analyse the impacts of remedial actions and radiation-reduction countermeasures.