25th Anniversary of Chernobyl Observed as World Watches Fukushima

The devastation caused 25 years ago Tuesday by the explosion at the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl is still apparent in parts of the former Soviet Union. Today, Japan is confronting similar disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, damaged in March by a record tsunami and earthquake.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano, speaking at an international conference at the quarter-century-old disaster site in Ukraine last week, emphasized progressive lessons on nuclear safety as the chief comparison between the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.

“More than ever before, our watchword must now be ‘Safety First,'” Amano said. “This latest accident demonstrates that, despite the great progress made in the last 25 years, more needs to be done to ensure that a ‘Safety First’ approach becomes fully entrenched among nuclear power plant operators, governments and regulators.”

Both nuclear failures are rated at seven, the highest level on the scale used to evaluate the severity of nuclear incidents.

An internal system failure caused the entire nuclear core to explode at Chernobyl, where there was no containment vessel, releasing 10 times the amount of radioactive material that has so far escaped from the Fukushima plant. In Japan, despite potential damage to containment vessels caused by the twin natural disasters, reactor cores remain intact.

About 50 of the 600,00 liquidators, people involved in the cleanup of the disaster at Chernobyl, died from acute radiation sickness (ARS), 28 in 1986, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of the nearly 250 response workers in Japan who were similarly exposed, many are suffering from illnesses, including ARS, but none have died. The long-term impacts on their lives remain to be seen, though, according to NPR and the Guardian.

Contaminating 9,320 square miles (150,000 square kilometers) in Ukraine, Belarus, and other parts of the Soviet Union, fallout from Chernobyl spread as far as 310 miles (500 kilometers) north of the plant. About 200,000 people were eventually relocated, 50,000 within the first 36 hours from the town of Pripyat, located about two miles (three kilometers) from the disaster site.

WHO reported that the threat of radiation from the Fukushima plant was exclusive to Japan and affirmed that there is little public health risk outside the 12 mile (20 kilometre) evacuation zone. Over 13,000 individuals living there have been evacuated, and on Thursday the government declared a no-entry zone, threatening to arrest any defying the mandate.

The 19 mile (30 kilometres) Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl plant is essentially uninhabited today. While it is technically illegal for anyone to occupy the region long-term, a few hundred former residents, mainly elderly people without alternatives, have returned while authorizes turn a blind eye, according to the IAEA.

High levels of radioactive iodine released from the Chernobyl plant spread to dairy cow pastures, subsequently contaminating, among other food sources, the milk those cows produced. This accounts for the aberrant 1,800 cases of thyroid cancer that developed in individuals who were under 14 years old at the time of the accident. The thyroid gland in children is especially susceptible to the uptake of radioactive iodine.

Food monitoring results in Japan indicate concentrations of radioactive iodine in milk and other food products. Radioactive cesium has also been detected. Authorities in the Fukushima prefecture have warned residents to avoid these foods and have barred their sale and distribution.

Integrating the lessons learned from the preceding catastrophe at Chernobyl mitigated the impact of the disaster at Fukushima; Amano urged that lessons likewise be learned from the accident at Japan’s steadily stabilizing plant to improve forthcoming nuclear operating safety, response, and regulation.

“I repeat: ‘Safety First’ is the watchword that must underpin all of our work in the future, even more than in the past,” he said.