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Chernobyl Disaster Spurs Ecological Movements in Eastern Europe

Chernobyl Disaster Spurs Ecological Movements in Eastern Europe

Photograph

By: Sergei Supinsky

Date: December 13, 2005

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: Sergei Supinsky is a photojournalist who works primarily for the AFP news agency, a contributary to Getty Images. His work covers much of Eastern Europe and Russia, with an emphasis on military photos.

INTRODUCTION

The nuclear power accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, formerly part of the USSR, occurred between April 25th and 26th, 1986, and was documented as the worst incident of its kind in the world to date. The accident was a result of a failure to observe various safety procedures during the testing of one of the plant's four nuclear reactors. A chain reaction went out of control, leading to explosions and a fireball that forced the lid off of the reactor. More than thirty people died immediately, and an estimated 2,500 ultimately. 135,000 people were forced to evacuate from the area because of high radiation levels within a 20-mile (32-kilometer) radius. Following the accident, the region suffered from numerous consequences, including increased levels of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer; psychological repercussions, such as anxiety, depression, and other stress-induced mental disorders; a severe fall in income for the area due to numerous evacuations and the limiting of industry and agriculture; a decline in the birth rate; and a 12.8 billion dollar cost to the Soviet economy. The longer-reaching effects of the event included an increased awareness of the dangers inherent in nuclear power, and a strong activist movement in Eastern Europe to mitigate these dangers through increased security measures and limited use of nuclear energy, as well as conservation efforts to help restore and protect those areas of ecosystems most effected by the Chernobyl accident.

PRIMARY SOURCE

YOUNG ACTIVISTS OF UKRAINE'S GREEN PARTY

See primary source image.

SIGNIFICANCE

In the years following the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, a number of agencies and groups worked to study and counteract the long-term effects of the incident, as well as to help prevent future occurrences. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarded the accident as a turning point in their efforts to improve safety conditions at nuclear power plants, and spent more than a decade examining the various causes of the Chernobyl explosions, regarding both the condition of the reactor itself and the human error that led to the loss of control during the testing procedure. As a result, the Early Notification and Assistance Conventions were adopted, followed by the Convention on Nuclear Safety. These documents governed not only safety guidelines for nuclear power plants, but for those nations that housed nuclear weapons. Countries with nuclear reactors, particularly Russia and those in Eastern and Central Europe, paid particular attention to any structural weaknesses in their plants and to improving the safety of their reactor designs.

Beyond the attention the Chernobyl accident brought to nuclear safety, there was renewed concern regarding the affect of nuclear energy usage on the environment, particularly as pertained to those parts of Eastern Europe that experienced fallout from the accident itself. Belarus and Ukraine were most seriously affected by the incident, with radioactive contamination eliminating large portions of those countries' farming communities. In order to counteract the results of the radiation, the IAEA arranged for rapeseed plants to be planted over large areas of farmland. The plant absorbs radionuclides out of the soil, but while the radiation affects the plant's stalks and seed coats, the seeds themselves remain toxin-free, enabling them to be harvested for use in products such as cooking oil and cattle feed, and thereby allowing the land to be used to help restore the region's economy. Other areas were likewise affected to lesser extents, depending on their proximity to Chernobyl, with much of the northern hemisphere ultimately experiencing some consequences. Grazing livestock, such as sheep, cattle, and reindeer, were found to have radioactive caesium in their systems, and were therefore introduced to a chemical additive in their feed, known as Prussian Blue, which helped slow the absorption of the radioactive material into their tissue and reduced the potential for contamination levels in meat and milk products.

At the political level, the question as to whether nuclear power is safe has caused numerous debates, and ecology-minded groups such as the Green Party have pressed for more planet-friendly solutions to energy and waste concerns. When President Viktor Yushchenko suggested that the Ukraine might take advantage of the already damaged area of Chernobyl by offering to store other nations' radioactive waste in that region for a fee, the Green Party immediately protested, pointing out that it would be tantamount to turning their country into a nuclear dumping ground, hardly respectful to the citizens or the land. The Green Party has continued to honor the dead and mark the anniversaries of the Chernobyl accident, traditionally though annual efforts to cleanse chemical waste sites around Ukraine. The United Nations, likewise, provided workers and funds as emergency support, starting soon after the accident and continuing in an effort to help both the immediate and outlying areas return to normal, with a particular focus on teaching the inhabitants how to protect themselves from lingering radiation and contamination of animals and agriculture.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Mould, R.F. Chernobyl Record: The Definitive History of the Chernobyl Catastrophe. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2000.

Web sites

"Green Party Slams Idea to Store Foreign Nuclear Waste in Ukraine," Interfax, December 10, 2005. 〈http://www.interfax.com/〉 (accessed February 24, 2006; article no longer available).

International Atomic Energy Agency. "Chernobyl: Clarifying Consequences." International Atomic Energy Agency, April 16, 2004. 〈http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/News/2004/consequences.html〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).

"The United Nations and Chernobyl." The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 〈http://www.un.org/ha/chernobyl〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).

Visscher, Ross. "Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster." 〈http://www.chernobyl.co.uk〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).

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