News of disasters like the 2011 nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant reminds us not only of the negative consequences accompanying uses of nuclear energy but also the potentially grave environmental problems that may negatively affect peoples’ way of life. The negative consequences are exemplified by the numerous health problems experienced during and in the aftermath of the nuclear explosion in April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclearReactor including acute radiation syndrome, among others (Petryna 30). More so are the long-term adverse effects on the environment as a result of the release and deposition of radionuclides into urban areas, agricultural land the forests as well as aquatic areas. This paper discusses adverse effects on the environment as a result of the release and deposition of radionuclides into urban areas, agricultural land the forests as well as aquatic areas occasioned by Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor incident. The adverse effects on the environment and its reach into people’s lives require a multipronged approach that includes organizational measures as well as specific long term remediation measures and countermeasures for greater effectiveness in preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery from like disasters.
Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor
The environmental effects of explosions at the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor which released various radioactive gases especially cesium and plutonium, and large amounts of fuel particles as well as condensed aerosols, among others. Petryna (30) indicates that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster set off alarms at a nuclear facility in Sweden, which is indicative of the aerosol disposal of harmful radiation gasses over a large geographical area. This is affirmed in the 2006 Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group ‘Environment’ (CFEGE) (2) regarding environmental impacts and remediation efforts taken to address the Chernobyl disaster. The report indicates that ‘an area of more than 200 000 km2 in Europe was contaminated with radiocaesium mostly in the Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine. Streets, lawns, parks, squares roofs and walls as well as squares symbolizing the urban environment alongside forests and water systems were also highly contaminated transported through rain water. In agriculture, the radiation contamination was spread through milk after animals consumed and which, through the food chain, to consumption of the milk in Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation led to thyroid doses (CFEGE 3). However, this happened during the first months after the disaster due to the short physical half-life of radioiodine even though crops also did not escape the contamination despite the doses being at the non-lethal low level.
Still concerns of radioactive contamination remain especially where meat and milk absorbed through crops by animals with soil types and farming practices highlighted as exacerbating absorption of radioactive particles. Forest contamination is highlighted by contaminated forest products by radiocaesium, plants like berries and mushrooms as well as game which adds the number of people affected by radioactive particles as they consumer varied forest products. The study by Evangeliou et al. (346-8) reports on the disaster’s secondary effects involving environmental contamination of forests. The authors identify this situation as a ‘disaster about to happen’ due to wildfires of radiation-contaminated deadwood and the associated risks to the population and the environment. This highlights the long term effects of the man-made-caused Chernobyl nuclear disaster, decades after it happened, as the remnants are bound to spread seemingly-dormant radioactive contaminants. Contaminated lakes and other aquatic systems led to contamination of fish and other aquatic products in a great geographical space due to flowing rivers with lower levels in seas far away from ground zero. Schmid (19) is of the opinion that ‘scientists…have begun to better understand the health and environmental impacts of Chernobyl; and ‘despite these findings, there remains much to be investigated, clarified, and even publicized’; underscoring highly adverse long-term consequences. Featherstone (59-1) identifies the spraying of water around the site to restrict radioactive dust from blowing around, as one of the present remediation initiatives taken to avoid potential contamination at the site.
The speedy evacuation of people is also highlighted as allowing avoidance of greater impact on human health while rain and wind, as well as varied human activities like street washing and traffic further reduced potential impacts (CFEGE 2-3). This is despite concerns of secondary contamination of sewage systems whose potential impact can be extrapolated roughly by the effect that illnesses like cholera among other contamination diseases have on the populace. The report indicates that radioactive contamination of air has reduced back to normal as per earlier standards before the disaster even though undisturbed soils around parks and gardens remain contaminated. Settlement decontamination in urban areas was the primary measure taken to reduce potential contamination based on an assessment of cost-benefit-based remediation leading to reduced secondary contamination. In agriculture, countermeasures are identified as partially effective in the reduction of radioiodine contamination of milk even though offset by exclusion of contaminated feeds as well as radiation monitoring of farmland and feeds while some farmlands remain uncultivated. Present measures which augment those carried out years after the disaster include ‘radical improvement of meadows, pre-slaughter clean feeding, the application of caesium binders and soil treatment and cultivation’ well-developed, tested and implemented on a large-scale. Forest countermeasures implemented after the incident were largely management-based like logging restrictions and of other forest activities while more concerted efforts were directed towards aquatic contamination prevention even though expensive and ineffective (CFEGE 8).
The need for better aquatic countermeasures are highlighted especially because measures already implemented are not cost-effective and are especially difficult to implement. The implication is that new and better countermeasures should be launched so as to augment efforts in reduction of potential contamination but with greater emphasis on cost-effectiveness. Bogdevitch (83) advocates that effective countermeasures in agriculture ‘have to lead to the profitable or self-sufficient production of extra yield with low radionuclide contamination’ with special targeting focused on private farmers whose milk is still affected by radiation particles. Rizzo, Tomarchio and Vella (2434-5) recommend environmental monitoring of natural as well as artificial radioactivity in the environment as a foundational element that establishes what efforts will be implemented as well as the how, based on identification of specific contaminants. The 2006 CFEGE (8) report advocates for institution of long term remediation measures and countermeasures especially in areas with poor soils as well as private firms while adopting varied remediation measures that complement the long term countermeasures. Schmid’s (19) assertion that the Chernobyl incident ‘occurred despite ongoing efforts to improve technical design, operator training, and inter-organizational communication’ highlights failure at effective response. This is also supported by the 2006 CFEGE report while echoing recommendations by Gorbachev (79) that future solutions must include ‘full transparency and public oversight and regulation of the nuclear power industry’ as well as effective ‘emergency preparedness and response mechanisms’.
In conclusion, it is evident how adversely nuclear incidents affect the environment we live in, posing not only direct dangers but also more long term and indirect ones through our interaction with our environment, specifically the consumption of plants and animals. Even though usually depicted as a gross failure in emergency management, the response at Chernobyl as presented in the 2006 CFEGE report highlight hallmarks of an effective response plan even though mired by other factors especially political in nature, in establishing its efficacy. This explains why recommended future solutions for such a disaster, as can be identified of the recent Fukushima disaster, requires integration of full transparency, public oversight, environmental monitoring and effective emergency preparedness and response mechanisms alongside others more direct ones as advocated in the 2006 CFEGE report. As such, it is incumbent upon all of us not only to aid in the implementation of such efforts but also to be aware of the dangers posed in response to such incidents despite the toll they effect on our environment and our lives.
- Bogdevitch, I. “Remediation Strategy and Practice on Agricultural Land Contaminated with 137Cs and 90Sr in Belarus.” EUROSAFE-Environment and Radioprotection, (2003), 83-96.
- Chernobyl Forum Expert Group ‘Environment’. Environmental consequences of the Chernobyl accident and their remediation: Twenty years of experience. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2006.
- Evangeliou, Nikolaos, et al. “Wildfires In Chernobyl-Contaminated Forests And Risks To The Population And The Environment: A New Nuclear Disaster About To Happen?.” Environment International 73.(2014): 346-358. GreenFILE. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
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- Rizzo, Salvatore, Elio Tomarchio and Giuseppe Vella. “Environmental radioactivity measurements in the Mediterranean area.” Fresenius Environmental Bulletin 19.10b (2010), 2433-43.
- Schmid, Sonja D. “When Safe Enough Is Not Good Enough: Organizing Safety At Chernobyl.” Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists 67.2 (2011): 19-29. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.