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The News That Matters about the Nuclear Industry Fukushima Chernobyl Mayak Three Mile Island Atomic Testing Radiation Isotope

We should be alarmed about the ongoing consequences of nuclear leaks and the risk of new nuclear disasters

The Chernobyl SyndromeThe New York Review of Books  Sophie PinkhamAPRIL4, 2019

Manual for Survival: A Chernobyluie to the Futur

by Kate Brown
Norton, 420 pp., $27.95

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

by Adam Higginbotham
Simon and Schuster, 538 pp., $29.95

Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe

by Serhii Plokhy
Basic Books, 404 pp., $32.00
“……….. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was informed that there had been an explosion and fire at the plant but that the reactor itself had not been seriously damaged. No one wanted to be the bearer of catastrophic news. When the occasional official raised the question of whether to warn civilians and evacuate the city of Pripyat, which had been built to house workers from the Chernobyl plant, he was admonished to wait for higher-ups to make a decision and for a committee to be formed. Panic and embarrassment were of greater concern than public safety. The KGB cut Pripyat’s intercity telephone lines and prevented residents from leaving, as part of the effort to keep news of the disaster from spreading. Some locals were savvy enough to try to leave on their own. But with no public warning, many didn’t take even the minimal precaution of staying indoors with the windows shut. One man was happily sunbathing the next morning, pleased by the speed with which he was tanning. He was soon in the hospital.

Moscow officials eventually realized that the reactor had exploded, and that there was an imminent risk of another, much larger explosion. More than thirty-six hours after the initial meltdown, Pripyat was evacuated. Columns of Kiev city buses had been sent to wait for evacuees on the outskirts of the city, absorbing radiation while plans were debated. These radioactive buses deposited their radioactive passengers in villages chosen to house the refugees, then returned to their regular routes in Kiev. Over the next two weeks, another 75,000 people were resettled from the thirty-kilometer area around Pripyat, which was to become known as the “Exclusion Zone,” and which remains almost uninhabited to this day.

The Soviet system began to marshal its vast human resources to “liquidate” the disaster. Many efforts to stop the fire in the reactor only made matters worse by triggering new reactions or creating toxic smoke, but doing nothing was not an option. Pilots, soldiers, firefighters, and scientists volunteered, exposing themselves to huge doses of radiation. (Many others fled from the scene.) They were rewarded with cash bonuses, cars, and apartments, and some were made “Hero of the Soviet Union” or “Hero of Ukraine,” but many became invalids or didn’t live to see their new homes. The radiation levels were so high that they made the electronics in robots fail, so “biorobots”—people in makeshift lead protective gear—did the work of clearing the area.

On April 28, a radioactive cloud reached Scandinavia. After attempts at denial, the Soviet government conceded that there had been an accident. Western journalists soon began reporting alarming estimates of Chernobyl casualties. To maintain the illusion that the accident was already under control, Moscow ordered Ukrainians to continue with the planned May Day parade in Kiev, about eighty miles away, thus exposing huge numbers of people—including many children—to radioactive fallout.

Thanks to word of mouth and to their well-honed skill at reading between the lines of official declarations, however, Kiev residents were already fleeing. By early May, the exodus had grown so large that it became almost impossible to buy a plane, train, or bus ticket out of the city. Tens of thousands of residents left even before the official order to evacuate children was issued, far too late, on May 15. Thousands of people were treated for radiation exposure in Soviet hospitals by the end of the summer of 1986, but the Soviet press was allowed to report only on the hospitalizations of the Chernobyl firemen and plant operators.

A few decades later, it seemed to many that the world’s worst nuclear disaster had caused surprisingly little long-term damage. The official toll is now between thirty-one and fifty-four deaths from acute radiation poisoning (among plant workers and firefighters), doubled leukemia rates among those exposed to exceptionally high radiation levels during the disaster response, and several thousand cases of thyroid cancer—highly treatable, very rarely fatal—among children. Pripyat became a spooky tourist site. In the Exclusion Zone, one could soon see wolves, elk, lynx, brown bears, and birds of prey that had almost disappeared from the area before Chernobyl; some visitors described it as a kind of radioactive Eden, proof of nature’s resiliency. But striking differences in new books about Chernobyl by Kate Brown, Adam Higginbotham, and Serhii Plokhy show that there are still many ways to tell this story, and that the lessons of Chernobyl remain unresolved.

Both Plokhy and Higginbotham devote their first sections to dramatic reconstructions of the disaster at the plant.  Sketches of loving family life or youthful ambition introduce the central figures, making us queasy with dread. The two authors’ minute-by-minute descriptions of the reactor meltdown and its aftermath are as gripping as any thriller and employ similar techniques: the moments of horrified realization, the heroic races against time. The prescient 1979 film The China Syndrome, about a barely averted disaster at a nuclear plant and its cover-up, is mentioned in both books. The movie’s title comes from a former Manhattan Project scientist’s hypothetical discussion of a reactor meltdown in North America causing fuel to burn its way through the globe to China. Though that specific scenario was clearly impossible, “China syndrome” became shorthand for anxieties about nuclear material burning through the foundations of the Chernobyl plant and entering the water table, the Dnieper River Basin, and then the Black Sea.

Plokhy, a historian of Ukraine, provides a masterful account of how the USSR’s bureaucratic dysfunction, censorship, and impossible economic targets produced the disaster and hindered the response to it.  Though the Soviets held a show trial to pin responsibility on three plant employees, Plokhy makes plain the absurdity of holding individuals accountable for what was clearly a systemic failure…….

For Plokhy, the greatest lesson of Chernobyl is the danger of authoritarianism. The secretive Soviet Union’s need to look invincible led it to conceal the many nuclear accidents that preceded Chernobyl, instead of using studies of them to improve safety.  …. Once the reactor exploded, Soviet censorship kept citizens in the dark about the disaster, preventing them from taking measures to protect themselves.

But cover-ups and bureaucratic buck-passing don’t happen only in authoritarian governments. ………

we should be alarmed about the ongoing consequences of nuclear leaks and the risk of new nuclear disasters. Higginbotham points out that the United States now operates a hundred nuclear power reactors, including the one at Three Mile Island that suffered a serious accident in 1979, just twelve days after the release of The China Syndrome. France generates 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and China operates thirty-nine nuclear power plants and is building twenty more. Some people see nuclear power plants, which do not emit any carbon dioxide, as the most feasible way of limiting climate change, and new reactor models promise to be safer, more efficient, and less poisonous. But what if something goes wrong?

And what about nuclear waste? There are hundreds of nuclear waste sites in the US alone. In February the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the excavation of a landfill near St. Louis containing nuclear waste, dumped illegally, that dated back to the Manhattan Project. For years, an underground fire has been burning a few thousand feet from the dump. It took the federal government twenty-seven years to reach a decision about how to deal with this nuclear waste dump near a major metropolitan area, yet we fault the Soviet government for its inadequate response to a nuclear meltdown that unfolded in a matter of minutes. US failure to adequately address longstanding hazards—not to mention the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change—is yet another indication that poor disaster response is hardly unique to authoritarian regimes.

Then there is the renewed threat of nuclear war. One of Gorbachev’s biggest achievements was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated US and Soviet land-based intermediate nuclear weapon systems. This February the US withdrew from the treaty, with President Trump citing Russian noncompliance. His administration recently called for the expansion of the US “low-yield” nuclear force, which includes weapons the size of those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Analysts have pointed out that a greater diversity of nuclear weapons makes it harder for a target to know whether it is facing a limited or existential threat—and therefore  raises the risk that the target will overreact…………https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/04/04/chernobyl-syndrome/?fbclid=IwAR3t_0OOHrEx58i85ELla1otEQ8_vIOTpxhDaI0Lw7iWIpfP-4mT5aVLKtU

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April 11, 2019 - Posted by | Russia, safety

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