Chernobyl – In the aftermath of the anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in history, Ukrainian authorities have pledged not to abandon those still in need of assistance. But many of the country’s policies may be increasing the risk of a new catastrophe.
In April 1986 an explosion at reactor four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 100km north of the capital Kiev, lead to the release of massive amounts of radiation, causing at least 4,000 deaths and the evacuation of up to 400,000 people.
The release of radiation only stopped after several months, when the damaged reactor was finally covered by a concrete structure known as the sarcophagus.
“Chernobyl is still one of the most dangerous nuclear facilities in the world,” Arthur Denisnko, energy expert at the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine told IPS. “The existing confinement is unstable and was built 25 years ago in a rush. If the structure collapses, radioactive dust would be released.”
Authorities are proceeding with the construction of a new sarcophagus that will cover the previous structure, a 1.5 billion euro project for which only one billion has been collected.
“The sarcophagous is welcome, but officials who say that this will solve the problem are not telling the truth: It will remain dangerous as long as there are 185 tons of nuclear fuel in it, fuel that is not contained in rods but is melted and spread out,” says Denisenko.
“Today there is no technology to remove it, but this fuel can reach the underground water and eventually Ukraine’s main rivers,” he says.
In spite of the catastrophic consequences of Chernobyl, Ukraine’s Energy Strategy, which runs until 2030, foresees a significant boost in the country’s nuclear power production, with the construction of 22 new units.
“Not only is this an extremely unrealistic project, but it is one of the most ambitious in the world,” Denisenko told IPS.
Ukraine already has 15 functioning reactors which produce 47 percent of its electricity, a percentage which in Europe is only surpassed by France.
The new energy capacity will exceed domestic demand, whereas export opportunities are poor. Moreover, Ukraine will not achieve its much vaunted goal of energy independence from Russia, as the Eastern neighbour remains by far the main provider of fresh nuclear and equipment supplies.
No comparable investment is being made into increasing energy efficiency. Ukraine is still two to three times more energy-intensive than most of Europe, partly explaining the country’s high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
The cheaper possibility of upgrading existing thermo and hydro power plants, and what Denisenko claims is a “big potential in renewable energies like wind, biofuel and small hydroelectric energy” is being largely ignored by authorities.
Ukrainian authorities may even be increasing risks to the Chernobyl region itself by planning the construction of a central nuclear waste storage facility there.
The location is justified by the virtual absence of population in the area, but it runs counter to plans to revitalise the region, and ignores the risks involved in locating the facility in the proximity of the Dnipro river, which supplies water to 70 percent of Ukrainians.
About 150 tons of spent nuclear fuel are annually produced in Ukraine and, while several experts claim this fuel has potential for re-usage in new generation reactors, the construction of such reactors is yet unheard of worldwide.
For radioactive waste, which is accumulating in almost all Ukrainian nuclear power plants, there is also no solution in sight, a problem that is not unique to Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, 65 percent of Ukrainians believe their nuclear reactors are not safe, and many share the opinion Ukraine does not have the economic capacity for ambitious nuclear plans.
Moreover, the state still suffers from enormous Chernobyl-related expenses that cripple its budget. It is estimated that around seven million people worldwide benefit from Chernobyl-related welfare provisions.
The exact number of Chernobyl victims is still disputed, as official numbers ignore other health effects related to the disaster, such as mental disorders, strokes, heart attacks, liver disease and brain damage to foetuses.
Less controversial are the numbers related to thyroid cancer and leukemia. During the 1990s, cases of thyroid cancer among children in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were up by 200 percent compared to the previous decade.
The least conservative estimates calculate around 400,000 expected deaths related to Chernobyl worldwide, on the basis of increases in health complications in the aftermath of the disaster.
The explosion at Chernobyl also released large levels of caesium-137, a radioactive isotope that poses the most pressing health threat as it can be found in vegetables, fruits and mushrooms growing in the areas surrounding Chernobyl.
Ingestion of large quantities of this substance can lead to severe health complications, including thyroid cancer.
Greenpeace recently took samples of milk, berries and potatoes available in regions that had been under the direct path of the radiation cloud released in 1986, finding unacceptably high levels of caesium-137.
In spite of food restrictions and controls by Ukrainian authorities and their likely persistence for decades to come, the country is still plagued by the existence of poorly supervised markets throughout its territory.