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Nuclear Physics

editorial - SchNEWS,  29 April 2005

"On the 1 May, me and my parents went to the countryside, to have a nice day together in the sun and gather some dandelions. We walked around, ran in the fields, played, dined on the grass and collected a whole bag of flowers. Happy, tired and covered with dust, we came home. Next evening my father, who worked in the energy sector, came home pale-faced and brought something I've never seen before. He said it was a 'dosimeter' to measure radiation - a word known to me only from political propaganda of the so-called 'peace lessons' in school. He measured the flowers first, and the dosimeter beeped madly. We threw them away, as well as the trainers, clothes we'd been wearing that day. Only at that moment we started to realise what had really happened on 26 April at Chernobyl- the scale of disaster official propaganda was silent about. We hardly knew that it was only the beginning of an endless story, and that we'll remember the year 1986 forever."

Nearly 20 years on, the legacy of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster rarely captures headlines here. But the consequences of the 'peaceful atom' (as it was called in official Soviet propaganda) has, according to estimates, affected more than seven million people. Hundreds of people died from direct exposure to the high doses of radiation; many more continue to die from related diseases.

So what was learnt? Not much it seems. Nuclear is back on the agenda in many of the former Soviet territories still directly suffering from the accident fall-out - below is a roundup of the situation in three of them.


Up And Atom - Ukraine

Chernobyl is actually in Ukraine - so you'd think they'd think wice... but, overturning a previous resolution banning new nuclear development, in 1993 the moratorium was cancelled, and nuclear projects were renewed.

Despite environmentalists' protests, the government pressed on, focusing on the unfinished 2nd reactor unit at Khmelnitsky and 4th unit at Rivne nuclear power plants (K2/R4). Ignoring warnings about the danger of continuing with outdated technology, as well as the technical difficulties of 'crossbreeding' Soviet projects with Western ones. The government had only one concern; where to get the cash. Thus Chernobyl became a tool of shameless political bargaining. Western governments and international bodies, which insisted on the closure of Chernobyl, were told it would only be possible after receiving the funds needed for K2/R4. Initially the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) promised to cough up but then changed its mind, perhaps realising that nuclear energy is not the best option - especially in a country where a similar amount of energy could be saved by energy conservation programmes, which are practically non-existent. But the government were determined to complete the works, especially once the head of the state nuclear energy company "Energoatom", Serhiy Tulub, was appointed energy minister!

In spite of public opposition and international concern, K2 was launched in August, and R4 in October 2004. In July 2004 EBRD and Euroatom made an unprecedented decision - to provide Ukraine a loan of $125m on the security of K2/R4. The loan is over 18 years, with the payments coming ultimately from people's taxes. Unhappily, Ukrainian citizens have already paid for the new units due to a special governmental decree in which energy prices were raised to pay for the construction.

Regardless of the proclaimed 'independence' from Russian oil provided by nuclear power, Ukraine still imports nuclear fuel ... from Russia, and until recently sent back the nuclear waste. To reduce this dependency, two liquid nuclear waste storages were created. In Jan 2005 "Energoatom" announced that work on a new solid waste storage plant will be carried out by US company Holtec International.

The new Ukrainian government thinks seeking US cooperation in the construction of its own nuclear fuel-cell capabilities will finally eliminate the dependence from Russia and allow Ukraine to produce even more energy. Thing is, at present Ukraine has no need to produce more - already much of it's energy is exported to Central and Eastern-European neighbours (last year's rise was almost 17%). Nice cosy deal: Europe gets cheap energy, the Ukrainian government some cash, Western companies get contracts. The Ukrainian people have the loans and debts to repay, 15 nuclear power stations, three nuclear waste storages and the prospect of a fully complete nuclear industry in their disaster-ravaged country.


Russia Some of Russia's old reactors are of the same type as Chernobyl - RBMK - as well as outdated versions of Soviet-constructed VVER. But the disaster never seriously affected the powerful Russian nuclear lobby. Last December the lives of the oldest reactors were extended and the Russian nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, enthusiastically talks of building new nuclear power stations.

Meanwhile in 2001, the Russian parliament, under pressure from the Kremlin and in the face of public opposition, adopted a law allowing the importation of nuclear waste from other countries. Officials painted a picture of huge amounts of cash pouring into Russia's coffers but this didn't happen: frightened by the appalling environmental conditions and prospects of technological disaster, no major Western governmen has dealt with them. The only countries that export waste to Russia are Bulgaria and Ukraine. The former tries to use the cheapest option before getting EU membership with its stricter rules, and the latter is busy trying to build its own storage facilities.

Experts ironically point out that there is actually a shortage of storage for the waste produced by Russia's own nuke industry - let alone imports. However, Rosatom carries on with plans to import more. The waste from Bulgaria and Ukraine arrives by long-distance railway but, as revealed this year, the security and disaster prevention measures are either unknown to the local authorities, or labelled "top-secret".



Chernobyl is situated 7 km from the Ukrainian-Belarus border and so Belarus was hit hard by the disaster. About 23% of the whole territory has been officially recognised as radioactively contaminated. In 1996 MPs adopted a 10-year moratorium on nuclear power. While the moratorium expires next year, it's unlikely it will be renewed. Belarus' authoritarian president Aleksandr Lukashenka, started to talk about the prospect of a "Belarus nuclear power plant" a couple of years ago, and now this proposal is talked about openly. In early March, Minsk was visited by French company AREVA, to begin talks on modernising the existing industry; but they're also nuclear specialists.

While building nuclear is still met with mixed feelings by officials and citizens alike, politics moves on. This year it has been announced that many of the contaminated areas will be proclaimed 'clean'. At the same time, compensation will only be given to selected people - those designated "really harmed" by the disaster. While the impact of radioactivity on human health is still unclear, a government paper claims that the only indicator of harm is cancer of the thyroid gland.The strategy includes the idea that these 'clean' territories should now become economically 'self-sufficient', develop private business and compete on the global market. Such a change has been met enthusiastically not only by Belarus officials, but also international institutions: the World Bank agreed to provide money to the isolated regime to help implement the project.

So, the governments of all three affected states have managed to effectively silence or ignore anti-nuclear opposition and plan openly to revive the industry. Talking about political reasons and economic benefits, none of the interested parties managed to explain what they will ultimately do with the waste, how to avoid repeat disasters or cope if the railway is attacked? Eastern and Western nuclear lobbies, politicians and power companies are all looking to gain from the new dawn of nuclear energy in former USSR, but for the citizens it's a no-win situation.

- SchNEWS  (29th April 2005)

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revised 18 November 2005