Ch­er­nobyl’s un­learnt lessons

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - The writer is a Rus­sian colum­nist based in Ber­lin. Leonid Ber­shid­sky

THE pres­i­dents of Ukraine and Be­larus, the two coun­tries most af­fected by the Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear dis­as­ter, used the melt­down’s 30- year an­niver­sary to make political state­ments. It looks like nei­ther of them — nor Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin — has drawn the right con­clu­sions from the tragedy, which prob­a­bly has­tened the Soviet Union’s demise. Unit 4 of the Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear power plant blew up on April 26, 1986, as its op­er­a­tors were test­ing a new gen­er­a­tor. The ex­plo­sion it­self only killed one per­son, but its con­se­quences were mo­men­tous: 116,000 peo­ple had to be re­set­tled, 49 peo­ple died try­ing to mop up the fall­out and the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion es­ti­mated the num­ber of pre­ma­ture deaths at 4,000.

The fall­out made huge swaths of land in Be­larus, Ukraine and Rus­sia un­suit­able for agri­cul­ture and ren­dered bod­ies of water too dan­ger­ous for swim­ming. Ra­di­a­tion lev­els are still higher than nor­mal in many of these places, chil­dren are still born with de­for­mi­ties and can­cer in­ci­dence is higher than in neigh­bour­ing re­gions. An area within a 30- km ra­dius from the plant is still cor­doned off in Ukraine, and only a few hun­dred peo­ple live in it at their own risk.

I vis­ited in 2012 and found an eerie, gloomy land in which trees and wild an­i­mals had taken over a thor­oughly Soviet realm aban­doned by its in­hab­i­tants. There was also a thriv­ing il­licit scrap- me­tal busi­ness, which pro­vided an un­of­fi­cial in­come to many of the peo­ple work­ing in the “zone,” as it is lo­cally known. Judg­ing by more re­cent re­ports, noth­ing much has changed since the Ukrainian rev­o­lu­tion of 2014. That didn’t stop Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko from us­ing the oc­ca­sion to speak on his favourite sub­ject: How Ukraine is a vic­tim of Rus­sia that needs help from the rest of the world. The Ch­er­nobyl re­ac­tor, af­ter all, was de­signed in Moscow.

“On the his­tor­i­cal path the Ukrainian peo­ple are trav­el­ling, the Ch­er­nobyl tragedy lies about half­way be­tween the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion and the Rus­sian ag­gres­sion,” he said in a speech at the nu­clear plant Tuesday. “At a time when colos­sal re­sources are still needed to over­come the con­se­quences of the Ch­er­nobyl catastrophe, when a lot of fund­ing is needed for the vic­tims’ so­cial sup­port, we must spend al­most a fifth of our bud­get on de­fence and se­cu­rity.”

Alexan­der Lukashenko, who has been pres­i­dent of neigh­bour­ing Be­larus since 1994, also com­plained of a lack of fund­ing. The dis­as­ter has cost his coun­try’s econ­omy $ 235 bil­lion, he said with­out ex­plain­ing how this astro­nom­i­cal amount was cal­cu­lated. “The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s aid has al­ways been and re­mains quite in­signif­i­cant,” Lukashenko said. “It’s dis­ap­point­ing, of course, that the West pressured us with sanc­tions for many years in­stead of help­ing us in any sig­nif­i­cant way. That would have been in the spirit of the hu­man­is­tic val­ues that it claims to de­fend so fer­vently, es­pe­cially since Be­larus­sians are hostages to a catastrophe that was not their fault.” Putin re­frained from ap­por­tion­ing blame and com­plain­ing about money. He com­mem­o­rated the dis­as­ter by sign­ing a mes­sage to sur­vivors that called the ac­ci­dent “a se­ri­ous les­son for all hu­man­ity.” It’s hard to say ex­actly what les­son he meant. Nu­clear power can be dan­ger­ous, and Ch­er­nobyl drew at­ten­tion to that. Many gov­ern­ments are wary of nu­clear plants close to their bor­ders. Just last week, Ger­many and Lux­em­bourg asked Bel­gium to shut two re­ac­tors that had been re­opened af­ter a hia­tus be­cause they couldn’t in­de­pen­dently con­firm their safety. Yet it was Japan’s Fukushima dis­as­ter in 2011, not Ch­er­nobyl, that made Ger­many re­solve to shut down its nu­clear power pro­gramme. And Rus­sia never learned that par­tic­u­lar les­son: Its plants are still run­ning, and nu­clear fuel and tech­nol­ogy are among the coun­try’s big­gest ex­ports.

Per­haps the most im­por­tant les­son of the dis­as­ter wasn’t for the rest of the world but for the for­mer Soviet Union. The Soviet lead­er­ship un­der Mikhail Gor­bachev ac­knowl­edged the catastrophe two days af­ter it took place un­der in­ter­na­tional pres­sure to come clean. The of­fi­cial state­ment was the 21st item on the evening news broad­cast on state television. Com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties in Ukraine and Be­larus were no bet­ter than their Moscow bosses: They took part in a cover- up, too. Gor­bachev didn’t ad­dress the na­tion about Ch­er­nobyl un­til May 14. He later ex­plained that Soviet sci­en­tists and bu­reau­crats didn’t un­der­stand right away how bad the ac­ci­dent had been.

Be that as it may, the Soviet au­thor­i­ties’ slow­ness in ad­mit­ting what had hap­pened dra­mat­i­cally un­der­mined peo­ple’s faith in the gov­ern­ment. Peo­ple had been al­lowed to hold May Day cel­e­bra­tions nearby as winds car­ried ra­dioac­tive clouds over them; when that be­came clear, peo­ple found that hard to coun­te­nance. The Ch­er­nobyl cover- up was a ma­jor charge against the Com­mu­nists as cit­i­zens dis­man­tled the Soviet em­pire in 1990 and 1991.

Post- Soviet gov­ern­ments have ig­nored this Ch­er­nobyl les­son. Lukashenko’s Be­larus was the first of the three af­fected coun­tries to get rid of its free press. Ukraine still has one, but it also has a record of not re­port­ing mil­i­tary de­feats un­til they are im­pos­si­ble to con­ceal. Putin has grad­u­ally ac­quired con­trol over his coun­try’s me­dia, and his pro­pa­ganda ma­chine has dropped any pre­tence of try­ing to re­port the truth.

“The re­ac­tion to the catastrophe demon­strated, on the one hand, hu­man sol­i­dar­ity and self­less­ness, and on the other, the men­da­cious and in­hu­man essence of the state,” lib­eral Rus­sian politi­cian Grig­ory Yavlin­sky wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “Thirty years af­ter those events, our coun­try is quickly and de­ci­sively re­turn­ing to the same stan­dards: So­ci­ety is be­ing con­sis­tently de­prived of free me­dia and the truth about events.”

The pres­i­dents should have as­sured their na­tions that another coverup would be im­pos­si­ble. But I’m not cer­tain they could have done it con­vinc­ingly. Even now, an ac­ci­dent on the scale of Ch­er­nobyl might not be im­me­di­ately re­ported in any of the three coun­tries — or at least, the cov­er­age might not be ini­ti­ated by the gov­ern­ments. Or­di­nary peo­ple’s in­ter­ests are still not the pri­mary con­cern of post- Soviet rulers. The first re­ac­tion to un­pleas­ant­ness or dan­ger is to sup­press in­for­ma­tion, not to con­front prob­lems openly. — Cour­tesy: The Japan Times

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