“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words….. Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” (Leopold, 377, 380).
As long as I can remember, for me cancer was always a threat, a fear, a drama. When I was just a seven-year-old child, one of my close relatives was diagnosed with cancer, and that was the first time I learned about its existence. At that time it was a rare disease and very little was known about its cause and treatment. Needless to say, my family was shocked, confused and horrified with her quick and untimely demise, and this feeling passed to me. Since then I lost my peace of mind, and I was convinced I got a cancer too. I was aware of all the symptoms of this killer. I lost my appetite, sleep, and I was emotionally dying until it became too obvious, and my parents learned what was going on with me. I got a lot of help and was relieved somehow, but I was never completely cured of my fear.
In view of my chosen profession, I spend a large amount of time in hospitals and I see many patients who are sick with cancer. Many of them are young people who could live long and productive lives had they not contracted this disease. As I work on the study of each patient, I have to wonder why one patient has cancer and another does not. Most everyone starts out as a healthy individual, but somewhere along the line, something goes wrong. Somehow this person’s life went wrong. Other people in their lives, a spouse or a child who lives in the same house did not get this cancer. Most of the people they work with at the office also did not get this disease. Does the blame for this occurrence of cancer fall upon the environment? Could it be that this person had a genetic weakness that allowed the cancer to “consume” them? Or is it simply a genetic predisposition to a certain disease, like the tendency towards Parkinson, Alzheimer’s or Arthritis? Yet, is it possible that the cause is a combination of the two – a simple genetic predisposition or mutation within one’s body, which is further aggravated by the environmental exposure to toxins, radiation or carcinogens?
So what is cancer? It is usually a slow progressive killer, which starts small and often unbeknownst to the person. Like a thug, cancer takes over a very small area in the body. As it grows and adds weight and enlarges its area of influence. If not stopped early in its development, it spreads to other parts of the body and takes over these sites as well. It invades from top to bottom and soon no organ is safe. The blood carries this killer to every part of the body and not even Lady Luck can save the affected individual anymore. At the end, so much of the body is under pressure from this mutation that the body just gives out as functions cease. Working with ultrasound, I have to deal with cancer every day, and see how cancer patients’ tissues fill with water and lose their function with time. I see peoples’ bodies degenerate, and I can’t help but wonder what causes all that suffering. These images make me ask myself if there is something we can do to change or stop it. It’s true that we can diagnose it better and we can treat it better, but that is not the major way to change it on a global scale. The answer that comes to me is always the same. Equilibrium! We have to change the way we relate to nature. We have to nurture nature and keep her in balance on our drive to improve and add to our lives as well as keep ourselves in balance with nature.
“All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature. We have theories of races and of functions, but scarcely a remote approach to the idea of creation. We are now so far from the road to truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other, and speculative men are esteemed, unsound and frivolous. But to a sound judgment, the most abstract truth is the most practical. Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is that it will explain all phenomena.” (Emerson 142)
Exposure to a wide variety of natural and man-made substances in the environment accounts for numerous cases of cancer in the United States. These environmental factors include lifestyle choices like cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse, quality of one’s diet, lack of exercise, excessive exposure to sunlight, and sexual behavior that increases exposure to certain viruses. Other factors include exposure to certain medical drugs, hormones, radiation, viruses, bacteria, and environmental chemicals that may be present in the air, food and water. The cancer risks associated with many environmental chemicals have been identified through studies of occupational groups that have higher exposures to these chemicals than the general population. (Goldberg 145-156)
There are many differing opinions on what are the primary and secondary causes of cancer, and then there are many theories of each individual cancer within the more global diagnosis. It is my belief that cancer is a complex disease and there is an interaction between gene and environment, and since the environment is much broader than just chemicals, the challenge becomes figuring out what is the role of the gene and how lifestyle and environment overlay that gene and lead to cancer. Cancer can manifest itself in different way and affect different parts of the body, and be caused by one or complex number of different factors. However, it is my belief that the biggest plague of the previous and current centuries is radiation and cancers caused by this odorless, invisible and otherwise impossible to detect by human senses phenomena, which may cause death just as easy as a poison gas. The results can manifest themselves a lot later, but they are no less tragic as they could have been prevented.
It can be a long while until the real causes of cancer become apparent. Meantime to reduce the potential risk of cancer, there is a lot that can be done on a personal level such as choosing the healthiest lifestyle, and on a global level such as protecting the environment. “Cancer cells can't know the full extent of the harm they're doing to the organism of which they are a part, whereas humans have the capacity for planetary awareness.” (McDougal 87).
Environmental protection and conservation must become a clear priority of the governments of all countries, as we only have one chance to make this world live and flourish. The human brain, unlike a cancer cell, must realize the necessity and magnitude of the destruction of human actions in further developing the planet while striving for power and control of the resources. All actions have reactions, and it just may be that cancer is the reaction of nature to human activity, which alters the equilibrium of the planet that has so generously welcomed our existence.
“Sleep, sleep, I croon, whether it is summer or winter, May or November. Sleep I sing – I, who am unmelodious and hear no music save rustic music when a dog barks, a bell tinkles, or wheels crunch upon the gravel. I sing my song by the fire like an old shell murmuring on the beach. Sleep, sleep, I say, warning off with my voice all who rattle milk-cans, fire at rooks, shoot rabbits, or in any way bring the shock of destruction near this wicker cradle, laden with soft limbs, curled under a pink coverlet.” (Woolf, 171)
Childhood is a wonderful place in our personal history, and leaves a significant impact upon our psyche, and helps shape our future. I was born in the Ural Mountains in Russia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. At least that’s what we were made to believe by the communist regime of the time. We were not aware that it was a region for experimentation with and production of atomic and biological weapons for military purposes. For this reason it was one of the most contaminated regions in the Soviet Union if not the world. I remember that in the late 70’s there was an epidemic of a disease that common folk called a “Siberian Ulcer.” People were getting sick and dying within 48 hours of the onset of the symptoms. The bodies were not released by the hospitals to the families for burial, but were quickly disposed of by a government owned agency. Life was beautiful on the outside, and to an unsuspecting child everything seemed in perfect order. There were never official statements of any kind with regard to the problem or what caused this epidemic. Behind everything was a web of unhealthy and hidden dangers which were never publicly discussed or even mentioned.
As time passed, this beautiful area with ancient natural forests, streams and lakes paid the price. In my country, it is the region with the highest cancer rate. People are paying the price of the government’s needs to equip its army and support its goal to be the World superpower in an atomic arms race. People living in the area always had a higher rate of health problems, but now with the modernization of health care, at least in large cities, people were finally diagnosed with cancer before they just succumbed to some unknown disease. With that came the realization that the price for the government’s needs is paid for by the people who work to support that government. This personal realization came as a dramatic revelation to many people with the fall of communism and the gained ability to do one’s own research on different subjects. The result is that today’s Ural region is a small example of the environmental payback for governmental carelessness toward its people and ecology.
My parents always considered the human relationship with nature as a unique and important life lesson, and as such they made sure I “inherited” this quality. I remember, every school vacation my parents and I either went camping in the Ural mountains, took many day trips and once when I was a little older, those camping trips turned into real expeditions into the wilderness of the Ural region of the former USSR. Those trips were achieved by carrying everything we needed for the duration in our backpacks. Many trips were only hikes in the woods, and on others we took our inflatable kayaks, and explored some of the virgin beauty of the smaller rivers that the Urals are so well known for. Those rivers are scarcely inhabited, and the riparian villages consisted mostly of local farmers and fishermen. Life was beautiful and the wilderness of that corner of the world provided my whole family with the ability to feel connected with nature and the amazing bliss of solitude and inner peace.
One of our yearly trips was a kayaking trip on the Techa River in the Southern Urals. It was a beautiful, narrow river with a multitude of streams coming out of it, and steep, hilly banks. Small villages lined up along the banks. Some days we took short trips into the villages to buy fresh eggs and milk from the farmers, in order to enjoy the simple country life of people who live far from major roads and the hustle and bustle of big cities. However, just as all things come to an end, so did my childhood, and with that came some realizations and new information concerning my beautiful country.
As it turned out, the first Soviet plant for weapon-grade plutonium production was located in the Southern Urals, and was chosen as the best place for the project because of its convenient and safe position in the middle of the country far from the borders of the USSR but close to necessary resources and communications lines. In the summer of 1945 seven military reactors were built on the shore of Lake Kyzyltash. It was an industrial complex, which is now known as "Mayak" Production Association. It was a secret area, prohibited from visitation by anyone without the appropriate clearances. The main purpose of the "Uranium Project" was the creation of Soviet nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. It had been producing plutonium for 39 years, and was finally shut down in 1987. In the 1950’s, nuclear technology was not yet well developed and there was not enough expertise in the world, and even less in the USSR, about the fate of radioactive wastes in natural ecosystems and the effects of radiation on humans. Thus, efforts to prevent radioactive discharges into the environment were insufficient, and territories in the vicinity of Mayak were severely contaminated. (Joint Norwegian-Russian Expert Group).
As a testimonial to the secrecy of the Soviet government’s agenda, a particular case that necessarily comes to mind is the accident that happened as a result of Mayak operation in 1957. In spite of military secrecy, the fact that a severe accident had occurred was known in the west as early as 1961. The general outlines of the Kyshtym explosion were deduced by American scientists about 1975. (Trabalka 206-210). But no details about the accident were known at that time. In 1990 the scientific research related to these accidents was declassified, and the first public articles appeared in Priroda. (Nikipelov February 1990).
According to one Russian study, the area of the Southern Urals is filled with the buried waste products of the nuclear industry. Lake Karachai is one of the largest open radioactive sources of nuclear waste in that region, exuding almost 2.5 times the amount of radiation coming from Chernobyl. (Komarova 1999). According to this study, until about 15 years ago, as a result of the heightened government sanctioned secrecy regarding all radioactive and military operations within Russia, the problem of life and survival of people among radioactive pollution was not openly discussed. Chernobyl was of a different caliber of problem simply because it was a major ecological disaster which affected many countries around the former USSR, specifically a large part of Europe. The past and present situation in the Southern Urals affects a large part of Russia but does not directly affect people living in nearby countries due to its remote location deep in Russian territory.
Nevertheless, this creates a potentially bigger issue, as non-disclosure politics played by the Soviet government led to serious local and global effects for the ecological system of many areas in the world. Lack of adequate and immediate clean up measures as well as inadequate evacuation measures and medical support for the victims of this and other nuclear disasters which happened in the Soviet era may have caused many illnesses such as the considerably elevated number of cancer cases that we see today. Unfortunately the non-disclosure politics played by the Soviets, is not completely “dead” yet. Today only the issues which are no longer impossible to hide are shared with the public, and even then, reports about the magnitude of the occurrences are not believed to be completely truthful by many Russians as well as those outside of Russia who know the political agenda of every Soviet and Russian government apparatus and the contempt those regimes had for ecology when it contradicted their political goals of being the nuclear superpower.
I wish I could just go back to my peaceful, blissful, ignorant childhood when I knew nothing of the disasters that occurred in my beautiful native land. I wish those cranes and the paradox of the explored vs. unexplored wilderness that Aldo Leopold wrote about was not a paradox to me again. Unfortunately for me the paradox is best described as explored vs. abused wilderness, as political agenda of the few corrupt individuals in power turn every resource from once unexplored into abused in a matter of minutes. However, was it really wilderness at the time when we were traveling and exploring that region of the Urals? According to Leopold’s philosophical argument, it ceased to be wilderness when it was explored and used. Since the contamination of the area was so massive, although it happened many miles away, was the area really a virgin beauty? To my family it always was, and although my recent discovery of this information saddens me, I still remember my childhood camping and kayaking trips, and appreciation the for “mother nature,” which my parents so fervently believed in. The memories are even more dear to me, as I now know that this appreciation was all in the midst of a major ecological disaster zone.
One of the ways scientists know that genes play an important role in the development of cancer is from studying certain families where family members over several generations develop similar cancers. The question is whether these families pass a mutated gene on to their children which affects their chances of developing cancer or, as we see from the Chernobyl disaster lesson, could these genes have been affected by some other unidentified environmental cause? From Chernobyl it became apparent that the rate of thyroid cancers has dramatically increased when compared to cases of the same cancer pre-disaster. Furthermore researchers have identified that the cause in each specific person is not necessarily exposure to the radiation itself, but may also come from a genetic mutation. The question researchers are still not completely sure about is whether the children who develop thyroid cancer get it from the parent who has been exposed to radiation via inherited genetic mutation, or is it by ingestion of radioactive materials in the form of milk, fruits and vegetables? Could it be that both are the cause? These issues are probably going to plague researchers for quiet some time, but the reality of Chernobyl and surrounding areas is a vast increase in the number of this type of cancer affecting the population of this zone as well as those people who left the Chernobyl area many years ago. Chernobyl’s legacy brought these issues to light via today’s research. However, one thing is clear, remove the incident and the exposure of people and their environment to the high doses of radiation and we would not be seeing such dramatic increases in thyroid cancer levels as well as other forms of cancer (lymphoma and leukemia). Regardless of whether environmental exposure caused the “bad genes” or just caused a “fertile environmental soil” for cancer to grow in – these types of cancer only occurred after the people’s environment was exposed to this deadly agent.
The importance of the environment can also be seen in the differences in cancer rates throughout the world and the change in cancer rates when groups of people move from one country to another. For example, when immigrants from the former USSR, countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and nearby parts of Russia came to the USA, thyroid cancer rates in parts of the USA such as New York State rose dramatically. This was puzzling to doctors and scientists, and the correlation was not found until the more recent discovery that exposure to radiation, such as the Chernobyl disaster, had caused much thyroid cancer. Most cases currently known have occurred in children exposed to radiation early in life or pre-birth through genetic mutation. However, in adults this affliction may not manifest itself until many years later. Current information suggests that many adults do not develop symptoms of thyroid cancer until 20 years after the initial exposure to the environmental hazard. Since the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986, many of those adults who immigrated to the USA after 1986 are only now being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
From personal reflections upon those first days after the explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, I vividly remember the public announcements the Soviet government allowed regarding the events of those days. For many years, and even today, the horror and magnitude of the accident was downplayed as though it was little more than an accident. When the rates of death, illness and birth defects of successive years came to light, people living in the surrounding areas were advised to follow a certain protocol of medical testing in order to avoid some of the potential health risks and hazards. However, Soviet medicine was not up to date, and medical professionals were not trained to deal with problems of such caliber and magnitude. To date, Ukrainian, Belarus and Russian doctors are unable to perform some surgeries to correct the birth defects which are a product of the Chernobyl disaster such as “hole in the heart” (Ventricular Septal Defect). The same surgeries are done daily by surgeons in the USA and many other countries. Although many countries have provided the affected population with medical help and equipment in order to help diagnose and prevent some of the potentially lethal complications of exposure to radiation, there is still very little help or support from the government of the affected countries themselves towards their own people.
“… human lives are more than just numbers. For each statistic there is a person paying the ultimate price. Anyone who doubts the dangers of nuclear power should visit the exhibition and see for themselves one of the reasons why we oppose nuclear power. Twenty years on, every nuclear power plant bears the legacy of the nuclear industry's victims; and every nuclear power plant represents the threat of becoming the next Chernobyl.”(www.greenpeace.org)
I will probably never forget a documentary I recently saw in the middle of the night regarding the devastating effects of the Chernobyl disaster. The documentary was trying to concentrate on the issue of heart and other birth defects in the children born after the accident. However they also included a lot of other issues, such as what is going to happen with these and other children born and raised in a country which continues to be affected by the pollution caused by the disaster. Chernobyl is still not dead, and continues to exude radiation. The temporary mechanism “the sarcophagus” to contain the initial destruction is now in jeopardy of collapse. The process of atomic decay that the sarcophagus was attempting to contain again may cause a very real disaster, capable of producing a global effect. Currently the sarcophagus is on the verge of collapse, and many environmental protection organizations all over the world are calling attention to and concern about the possibility of a much broader effect that Chernobyl may still be capable of producing. The most compelling reason of never forgetting the legacy of Chernobyl is to ensure that a nuclear disaster never happens again.
While visiting a friend for a dinner party a few weeks ago, I mentioned the topic of my research at the table, asking for suggestions on reading material regarding Chernobyl since everyone there was of Russian descent. To my surprise, one of invited guests was a Ukrainian police officer who worked in Chernobyl after the accident, guarding the nearby town of Pripyat and the road to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The name of this officer is Fedor Zakharenko, and he was in charge of the checkpoint leading to the Nuclear Power Station. I immediately asked to meet with him in order to get more in depth information on the Chernobyl station itself and the aftermath of the accident. We met a few days later, and here is the conversation.
Where and when did you start working in Chernobyl, how soon after the accident?
My unit and I were mobilized from Kiev, Ukraine a few days after the accident, and brought to first evacuate and then guard the town of Pripyat. Pripyat was a town located about half a kilometer from the power station, and was built specifically to house the workers and administrative personnel of the station.
Why is the town called Pripyat, not Chernobyl?
Chernobyl is the name of the district/region, and the station is actually located in the town of Pripyat, but both are located in the district of Chernobyl. In order to orient you in the local geography a little bit, it is worth mentioning that the power station is located on the bank of a small river also called Pripyat (the town being named after the river). On the bank is a man-made water reservoir used in the cooling system of the nuclear reactors of the power plant. The river Pripyat is the landmark that divides two countries Ukraine and Belarus (in 1986 both were republics of the USSR). As a result, it should be obvious to anyone that the impact of the accident had as much of an effect in Belarus’ population as it had on Ukraine’s.
Can you describe the events and attitudes of the people immediately after the accident?
I was not in Pripyat until about 2-3 days after the accident itself. I lived in Kiev at that time, and all I remember was a very short announcement on the evening news on the 27th of April (the next day after the accident). All it said was that there was an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, and that the authorities are opening an investigation and are treating the wounded. The whole announcement must have lasted only a few seconds, and was not supported by any pictures or any specific data. In Kiev, the military was mobilized only the day after the initial announcement, but it was all strictly secret information, and we were not allowed to share any details of our future jobs with anyone. When I got to Pripyat, some people were already evacuated, but there was still a large part of the population still in town and in the immediately areas surrounding both Ukraine and Belarus. There was a full blown evacuation in force, and the military was trying to oversee a calm and steady evacuation without the marauders destroying what people had to leave behind in a hurry. It was not total chaos, but there was no regard for people’s needs to remain with their families or to get any of their belongings. No one knew exactly what had happened or the extent of the disaster at that time. No one knew for how long they had to abandon their homes, and for simplicity the army was telling everyone that the evacuation was only going to be in effect for a few days. Many of the people that were being evacuated actually were teaching the military and police about radiation, and saw the whole picture in a lot grimmer view. On May 1st, although the radiation levels in Kiev and many surrounding cities rose to an unacceptable level, adults and school children had to attend a May Day Parade (the USSR’s version of the American Labor Day). Many scientists warned that this type of outdoor activity was not safe for human life, but the government insisted that all activities in Kiev and other cities of the USSR continued as planned in order to not create public panic or a demand for more information.
What measures were taken in order to evacuate people, and how extensive was the evacuation of the population of the surrounding areas?
The initial evacuation only extended to 15 kilometers surrounding the station, and in the next few days the area to be evacuated was expanded to 30 kilometers (roughly 18 miles). This perimeter had not been extended any further in the coming years, and remained the same. People were all evacuated by buses – regular public transportation buses were used and routed to the pick up evacuation sites. The military and police were charged with “cleaning out” the town and surrounding areas very quickly without concern for keeping families united. For the most part people were eager to leave, as most understood the danger of radiation. However, the story was very different in the little villages within the evacuation area, where less educated and very deeply rooted families lived for generations. They felt no need to abandon their homes and their lifestyles. They did not feel ill, and considered everything going on around them as some imaginary problem. They heard or knew about the explosion at the station, but thought that the worst was already over, as the fire had been contained, and was not spreading to their homes.
What measures were taken to protect the personnel – military and police during the ensuing days and years after the accident?
Each person working within the 30 km radius of the station was given a Geiger counter to measure the radiation level exposure of that individual. Every certain amount of days they were collected for analysis and to measure the amount of exposure of each person. The counter consisted of a metal or plastic top which encased a capsule which was recording the radiation level of the individual during a certain time period. Unfortunately, one of the officers had opened his Geiger counter suspecting that the government was not being honest when reporting exposure results. What he found was that his Geiger counter was missing the capsule, and as such was just a piece of plastic he was wearing hoping that it would protect him. After that no one really believed the information they were given about their exposure level, as everyone knew the government’s concern for their lives was just fiction. It was then generally accepted that we were all working at our own risk, but at that time no one could leave their posts, and there was no one to complain to. Out of 13 officers I worked with at that time, 11 lost their lives and never left Pripyat. So, I don’t believe anyone did anything to protect us – we were the working class thrown in to fix a problem the government wanted to be as silent about as possible.
Can you please clarify your statement about the death of 11 of the 13 officers in your command working on the liquidation of the Chernobyl disaster? Specifically, what was the cause of death, and was it related to the radiation?
To tell you the truth, I don’t know the actual causes of death of most of those men. Suffice it to say that they had all perished within a very short time of each other, and while still being very young men. None of them had any significant health issues prior to their mobilization into the Chernobyl zone. As a rule all soldiers were cleared by the medical team prior to any serious military activity. I know that some clearly had all the symptoms of radiation poisoning. A couple died of what probably was leukemia. The rest, G-d only knows what happened.
Was there no autopsy done after their deaths?
You would think that the causes of death of people working to save the rest of the population from this horror would be important in order to help save others. However, the Soviet government’s mentality did not want to allow the information to become public knowledge, and attempted to close all “escape routes” of the information to make sure it did not reach anyone outside of the country or even within it. In order to understand this mentality, you need to remember that the Soviet Regime was built upon a lack of knowledge and communication with anyone outside of the Soviet Union. Holding people in “the dark” was always the best method to insure they would not fight against the Regime, as they would not know that there are “greener pastures” outside. Those people who died at that time in Chernobyl were just taken away by the military medical team. The only thing we know is that they have been awarded medals for bravery for their work in Chernobyl, and that they have perished to save their mother land.
Currently there are a lot of rumors that the sarcophagus built around the reactor is on a verge of collapse. Can you comment on that?
Containment of the radiation inside the sarcophagus has been a problem since day one of it’s creation. The sarcophagus was built in a terrible hurry, and has many problems associated with the engineering and construction. First of all, it was built by military and voluntary workers who wanted to get their triple salary, the amount offered to anyone working in the affected area. There were almost no specialists in the field of engineering or construction involved. Also the sarcophagus was thought to be a temporary structure around the reactor, which would have been either replaced by a permanent structure or would ultimately be removed once the danger passed. Currently the sarcophagus has many holes in it, and the roof of the whole building is on the verge of collapse with every inch of rain that falls on it. It is a constant danger for this area, and very little is still being done to fix it.
Most observations of survivors of the tragedy as well as people who worked as “liquidators” during the first few years after the accident describe the deaths using only adjectives and verbs. The actual facts about what caused the multitude of deaths or death rates are not being mentioned at all. You just mentioned that people “perished”, can you describe what lead to this sort of description and what was the actual death rate of those times?
During the first year there were so many deaths associated with the work we had been doing down there, that it was very difficult to cope with all that grief. It was also incredibly difficult to live in an atmosphere of constantly being scared of eating, breathing and just doing everyday chores and working constantly knowing that you may walk into a “dirty zone” of significantly high radiation, and possibly die within days. The “dirty zones” often moved depending on the wind patterns, heat from fires, etc. The horror had eventually subsided, and gave way to just every day’s “seize the day” mentality, where everyone was drinking themselves into oblivion at the end of the work day, and cared little about what the next day was going to bring. Seeing death and being on the verge of it yourself was a constant part of everyday life, and most of those who were committed to Chernobyl and Pripyat for long periods of time, eventually just stopped being concerned about yet another death. We dealt with it by remembering those who departed with yet another bottle of vodka and silently drinking to their memory. We all assumed that people died of radiation, and at that time did not concern ourselves with what organ in the body gave way and stopped working. People were departing in caskets made of zinc, and I am not sure if anyone troubled themselves with an autopsy. People were “perishing” in this disaster, and there is little else you can say to describe it. Eventually I learned from the medical journals from Europe and USA that some deaths were of lymphoma and leukemia, and that those are a type of cancer. However, at that time we did not think of leukemia as cancer, and just thought that it was a radioactive poisoning. It is hard to say who died of what, but it is very well known that today a significant amount of children in Ukraine, Belarus and part of Russia are affected by thyroid cancers that were never before seen in such quantities. In mid 80’s however, we just remembered our perished friends and co-workers, and did not think twice about causes. We knew it was radiation.
A little earlier you said that your Geiger counters were empty plastic shells, which were never meant to protect anyone. Can you describe what methods you used in order to safeguard your own life against radiation exposure?
My unit and I were not involved in the worst jobs with what was then considered a high rate of exposure. We were guarding the road, and although there was a very high chance of exposure for many of us during the time we were working in the zone, there were other people, primarily boys 18-20 years old. These boys were regular soldiers from the latest draft, who had no special military training of any kind, and were used as “working meat.” They were almost like prisoners, as they had no rights of their own, and had to abide by every command of their superior officers. (Soviet Union had mandatory 2-3 year military service for all men ages 18-20).
Soldiers were given orders to throw graphite over the 4th blown up reactor before the sarcophagus was built in order to stop the radiation from escaping. At first this work was done by helicopters, but it was found to be more expensive and more difficult to have it done from the air than just throwing it off the roof of the damaged reactor. If you remember the first deaths of Chernobyl, it was those of the firefighters who were putting out the fire from the same roof. So, in order to cover the reactor with graphite, those young soldiers were given instructions to run out of the “safety bunker”, grab a shovel and throw graphite on the ground. During this time they were instructed to count 15 seconds, and then immediately return to the bunker. It was judged that 15 seconds was supposed to be within the safety limit of exposure. There was a journalist at that time trying to follow up on those boys and their health after such work. However, he was not even able to find out how many times a day they were doing those 15 second runs. Furthermore he was not even able to find any of those boys after they left the zone. He described his attempts as futile, and it seemed to him that these boys have just disappeared into thin air after leaving. I think many of those left in a zinc coffins, but there was no information either then or now about them. They just “perished.”
The thought of such a situation occurring anywhere else in the world is unimaginable. This along with any other information showing malfeasance and total disregard for human life on the part of the government or the station’s management is the common theme in totalitarian regimes. Those workers and soldiers were treated as working meat and were thrown into the cauldron of nuclear activity. Clearly the aftermath of this disaster has not been handled in the best possible manner. However, the question I keep asking myself after reading article upon article, is it just the failure of the government and management of the station that caused the original explosion or was there something else that contributed to the problem, such as faulty design of the reactor itself. My research has led me to believe that it wasn’t just human failure but faulty design of the reactor itself that played a major role in the initial explosion and subsequent release of radioactive contaminants.
Russian Academician Andrei Sakharov was a very prominent nuclear scientist who was working on developing of and safeguarding the nuclear power buildings in the USSR in the years immediately preceding and following the Chernobyl catastrophe. After the accident he visited Chernobyl and the nuclear power station, and was instrumental in developing a plan for cleaning up the results of the accident. One of his projects at that time was research involving the safety of building the nuclear power stations and controls necessary for their safe operation.
He contended that the only safe nuclear power plants can be those built underground as in case of any disaster they would just implode and create a sarcophagus on top of and around themselves permanently burying all nuclear wastes. Sakharov felt that no matter how safe the above ground structures are, they always have a greater potential of becoming a disaster zone due to an accident, such as in Chernobyl where the reactor blew up and exposed the nuclear material to open air. He also predicted the station may be a target of an accident from the outside as well as a military target from an enemy during a war.
Just recently I saw a documentary on TV about the nuclear power station at Indian Point in New York, which is located just above New York City on Hudson River. The station was considering the impact that an airplane flying into a reactor may cause New York City and surrounding areas. In view of Sept. 11th, the thought of someone causing a disaster in the US became a vivid possibility where different targets may cause devastation even during non-war time.
If Sakharov’s ideas become reality and the whole world started building their nuclear plants underground and into appropriate natural materials such as graphite, lead etc, then any explosion would act as a melting device, which would melt, seal and bury the problem on the spot. Such a building would also not be an easy target for a terrorist or a war enemy, as it would be that much more difficult to attack.
If I had all the money and power I needed, I would make it a law at the level of the UN that all power stations producing or using nuclear materials must be built only underground under the specifications stated by Sakharov or other leading scientists. I would also mandate and develop a plan for the complete shutdown of all current nuclear power plants that do not comply with this requirement after a certain period of time provided for building new underground facilities.
In view of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, do you feel that the new Ukrainian government is better equipped and willing to deal with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster?
Although the government and composition of the USSR have changed, there are almost no changes with respect to the handling of the Chernobyl site or the people affected by this disaster. There is little, if any, compassion for the displaced people, and financial support has recently been withdrawn. Furthermore, one would hope that a country with such a horrific past would remember the lesson it was taught. However, the current government is planning new sites to build new nuclear power plants in the Ukraine. All of the proposed sites that are being considered for this project are in the middle of heavily populated regions, which makes evacuation incredibly difficult, if not impossible. In addition, any accident may lead to another event which may be catastrophic now for the whole country as well as many surrounding countries and regions. The sizes of those projects are massive, and are much bigger than the original reactor involved in a Chernobyl disaster. The potential devastation may be the worst possible occurrence the world has known, and it is pretty horrifying to know that no one learned a lesson that Chernobyl should have taught us.
After my conversation with Mr. Zakharenko, I decided to follow up and review the genetic background of the cancer research and specifically effects of different environmental factors on development of cancer. There is a very controversial opinion amongst a minority of cancer researchers that cancer has very little to do with the environment. A majority of the researchers in the field claim that many cancers are caused only by environmental factors. Each side produces studies trying to prove its side of the argument, and prove their theory right. Unfortunately, the studies produced by these researchers often lead to results that can be interpreted both ways. They all forget that they are searching for a cure to a disease that has many ways of showing itself. Each researcher is looking at a small piece of the puzzle. It is similar to the proverbial seven blind men trying to describe an elephant. If the researchers could get together and find what causes the disease and the reason for its appearance, they most likely would not have to spend time finding the cure. If people lived and had no external contact with the outside world then we could say that all cancer was genetic. If we lived in an environment and were beings that had no genetics, then we could say that the entire cause of cancer was environment. The truth is that we are people, and we live in an environment in part created by us in the form of technological advances, nuclear power, and our personal lifestyles. People have helped create this environment. What we have to start looking for is the ways in which one’s individual genetics interplays with the environment around it. Like a person breathing chlorine instead of oxygen, we know he will not be able to survive for long. What about a cell that does not have the proper mix, a mix we have not found yet, of gas and liquid to keep it alive and vibrant. Maybe we need to add the considerations of stress or other psychological factors.
According to the National Cancer Institute, one in three people will get cancer in their lifetime. The likelihood of developing cancer is 45% for men and 38% for women. Approximately 563,700 cancer deaths were expected in the U.S. in 2004, and currently, one in four deaths in the U.S. is due to cancer. (Jemal 8–29). Lung, colon, and breast cancers account for 50% of the total number of cancer deaths among men and women. Some researchers believe that cancers are caused not just by environmental or genetic factors, but that it is primarily affected by the lifestyle that the individual chooses to lead. Certain cancers have been shown to be either directly caused or very highly correlated to certain individual human behaviors and choices. Several well done, large scale, long term studies have addressed the question of the association of stomach cancer with lifestyle and environmental issues. Research shows that gastric cancer has an environmental cause of which diet, alcohol, cigarettes and occupation appear to be the most important components. The major risk factors for stomach cancer are Bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) and diet, especially alcohol use, tobacco, and dietary choices. (Megraud 392-8). Stomach cancer is more common in countries where salted, smoked, pickled, and preserved foods form a large part of the diet. When refrigeration replaces salting and pickling as a way of preserving food, there is a major drop in the incidence of stomach cancer. Incidence of gastric cancer in the United States has decreased four-fold since 1930 to approximately 7 cases per 100,000 people and is continuing to decline. (Menaker 429-35). The major protective factors are a low fat diet, fresh fruits and vegetables, and food containing vitamins and other antioxidants. There is good evidence that eating fresh fruits and raw vegetables as well as a high intake of antioxidants markedly reduces the risk of gastric cancer. Conversely low levels of vitamin C and a low intake of fruit and vegetables are strongly associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer. (Hunt 86S-91S).
Nevertheless, another choice many people make has led to a significant increase in the risk of developing cancer and has been the cause of many deaths related to it. Smoking tobacco has led people all over the world to some new rituals, increased pleasure from everyday life and to a multi-billion dollar industry living off the human need to fulfill the created style and eventually the need “to feed” the physical addiction. Exposure to the carcinogens in tobacco products accounts for about one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States each year. Cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoking, chewing tobacco, snuff, and exposure to environmental tobacco smoke or second-hand smoke are all linked to increased cancer risks. Smoking has been associated with cancer of the lungs, mouth, bladder, colon, kidney, throat, nasal cavities, larynx, esophagus, lips, stomach, cervix, liver, and pancreas. Chewing tobacco has been linked to cancer of the mouth. Cigarette smoke contains more than 100 cancer-causing substances. The risk for cancer of the mouth, larynx, and esophagus is further increased amongst smokers who also have more than two alcoholic drinks a day. (Ellen 859-863).
However, aside from the lifestyle choices, pollution and exposure to hazardous chemicals may have a significant risk on human health. It is not known what percentage of all lung cancer cases is due to occupational exposure. This uncertainty is due to the fact that information about workers' exposure is often incomplete or inaccurate. In addition, there is no histological basis for distinguishing between lung cancers that are caused by occupational factors versus other factors. Yet, in spite of these limitations, some experts calculate that about 15% of lung cancer in men and 5% of lung cancer in women can be attributed to occupational exposure. Others estimate that occupation contributes 1–5% of lung cancer in men and women of industrialized nations. (Mirvish 2170).
So what of the genetics vs. environmental causes of cancer? Cirrhosis leads to liver cancer. Drinking leads to cirrhosis. Why is it that not all drinkers get liver cancer? What protects some people and not others? Some people believe that there is indeed a genetic mutation that protects some people and causes others to “contract” the illness. Researchers are working hard to understand more about how genes work inside the body and how cancer appears and evolves within the human body. Recently, cancer research has focused on understanding how a normal cell, through a series of genetic changes, turns into a cancerous cell. A number of genes have been identified that play a part in the development of some cancers. If a person is born with a mutation in his or her genes, this makes that individual more likely to develop cancer and we say that they have inherited a cancer-causing gene. This mutation may then also be passed on to their children.
In my opinion the specific causes and relationships of what has the biggest effect on cancer causation still has an “unknown” factor. However, it appears that many cancer patients have another problem to deal with besides the disease itself. Until recently the medical profession has been attempting to pass the blame of getting cancer onto the patients and their lifestyles choices. Blaming the victim is a very old tactic when there is no known answer as to the cause and reason for something. Doctors often blame their patients for bad choices and habits in the absence of a clear cut answer as to what exactly has happened that caused their patients to develop cancer.
In Illness As Metaphor, Susan Sontag, a cancer patient herself, argues against the whole notion of using metaphors in describing cancer or the fight associated with it. She points out that an illness becomes metaphorical because its cause is unknown. In the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was considered a disease of sensitive, poetic, soul-sick people, and tuberculosis seemed to represent the mental state and lifestyle of those afflicted, until it was discovered that the cause of tuberculosis was in bacteria. Sontag ridicules the medical opinion of causes of tuberculosis widely held in 1881, “hereditary disposition, unfavorable climate, sedentary indoor life, defective ventilation, deficiency of light, and depressing emotions.” (Sontag 54)
Today, cancer is used as a metaphor in much the same way. The cause of cancer, in all its different varieties, remains unknown, and as such people use metaphor as a way of dealing with this “unknown” factor. Before the cause of tuberculosis was discovered, it was commonly accepted that there was a “tubercular personality” - pale, washed-out and poetic. In contrast, the typical cancer patient was thought to have a common “cancer personality”- uptight, negative about everything, passively accepting life as it comes. It was commonly accepted that someone who does not express anger, or grief, or love, or who has “lifestyle” problems, such as being isolated, not eating the right foods, drinking too much, not exercising enough, not being creative enough is more likely than others to develop some unknown disease such as cancer. Not having an adequate remedy or an explanation of what actually causes cancer and how to treat it effectively gave rise to a whole gamut of pseudo scientists and emotional healers who tried to “sell” their idea of how to prevent or treat cancer. Most of those studies blamed the patient for their inappropriate or defective lifestyles, which in turn caused their disease. The treatment almost invariably suggested some form of psychological therapy or meditation in order to investigate what one did to cause their cancer. Sontag felt that adding this to dealing daily with cancer is unfair to the patient, as it is blaming the victim and furthers the stigma instead of finding the actual reason for the disease. To follow this logic, only the nasty, greedy people would be afflicted with this disease, and the kind people leading healthy lives would not. However, this theory is simply not true. Many nasty people are enjoying a cancer-free life, while some of the kindest, most courageous people are stricken.
Now consider the children in Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Urals as well as many other places, who were exposed to radiation or other carcinogens. Many of those children are sick with or died of cancer. How can having a “cancer personality” or a bad lifestyle be the cause of a child’s getting or dying from cancer? Nevertheless, the pathology of cancer is a good candidate for a metaphor in our time. Today, we see development as the necessary fabric of our everyday life. No one would argue that development is bad for our world, but many see today’s striving to achieve economic or scientific development as lacking the process to control the results. Unchecked growth fed by human greed causes many failures. Semashko, one of Russia’s well known scientist, called this gigantism, post-industrial capitalism, or totalitarianism (the Soviet Union left a terribly abused environment). He felt that whatever name we pin on it, it is driven by a boundless thirst. (Semashko 545–567). More is better. Bigger is better.
“…not real geography, but stereotypes of national character. My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” (Sontag 3)
Cancer is often described using different words such as: killer, death sentence, punishment from above, plague, etc, etc, etc. This causes much grief to those who are afflicted with the disease, and this way of thinking about it in the view of a nurse who cared for many patients dying of cancer, “it is a two-edged sword”, suggesting that, while metaphors are fundamental to individual and collective expression, they are also capable of creating negative forces, such as confusion, stereotype, and stigma within society. (Czechmeister 1226-1233).
Personally, I see no wrong with using a metaphor on a global scale in order to compare human activity on earth and that activity’s causing a major risk for the environment. However, using the same metaphor to describe an affliction of an individual and implying that their personality or lifestyle caused the disease is rightfully seen by many patients as offensive and improper. Some feel that the personification of cancer and use of metaphor with regard to it, constitutes a lack of compassion, and is caused by only one thing – complete lack of understanding of the causes for the disease itself. The only solution I can offer in this case is to continue searching for the reason and cause of the disease in order to once and for all end the “unknown” factor governing so many lives affected by cancer. Until then, cancer continues to be a plague of our time, and as such it will continue to bring on more metaphors.
The minority view is that the primary cause of cancer is genetic. There are two types of genetic mutations, germline, which are passed down from generation to generation, and somatic mutations, which happen during one’s lifetime and are not passed on to the next generation. Germline mutations are inherited at the moment of conception. Since all the cells of one’s body develop from this one cell, all the cells will contain the genetic change. If either parent has a genetic change that increases their risk of getting cancer, one has a 50:50 chance of inheriting that gene.
The other type of genetic mutation, somatic gene changes, only happen later on in life. Scientists are not sure what causes these genetic changes, but most of the research shows that factors such as radiation or exposure to dangerous chemicals can play a major role. Some tumors show genetic changes which help doctors choose the best treatment for a particular cancer. These genetic changes are usually somatic and are usually not passed on to the next generation. A number of different genes act together to instruct each cell how to copy its genes properly and how to divide and grow in a controlled and orderly manner. Different organs and tissues in the body have different growth control genes at work and the growth control genes that are active in the cells of breast tissue may be different from growth control genes that are active in the cells of the bowel. Cancer occurs when cells in the body become abnormal and grow out of control. Using the bloodstream, these cells invade other parts of the body. The cancer then continues to grow and renews the attack as a result of uncontrolled cell division.
Thus, once again we are brought back to the issue of causation of cancer, and now it is apparent that some mutations are also caused by exposure to certain environmental factors. I see this as the most likely and the most correct answer to this dilemma - although some cancer is shown to be caused by simple genetic mutations, it is my opinion that a majority of the causes of cancer are environmental, and as such are caused by either the environment the individual is exposed to or by a personal lifestyle choice one made.
Cancer and environment are interconnected in ways that we have not discovered yet. Most of the cancer researchers and epidemiologists agree that environmental factors contributing to cancer risks are as high as eighty or ninety percent and only a small percentage is due to genetic factors. Furthermore, according to National Cancer Institute studies of migrant workers, it was found that people who migrate from areas of high cancer risk to areas of low cancer risk take on the cancer rates of the area to which they moved, and the opposite is also true. (Jemal 8–29). Since the gene pool changes only after many generations, this means that these changes in the risk of getting cancer are due to environmental factors and not genetic factors. As we can see the numbers are frightening, even alarming.
What are the environmental factors? It can be everything around us. Environmental factors include certain medical drugs, hormones, radiation, viruses, bacteria, and chemicals that may be present in the air, water, food, and workplace. By studying people who work with all kinds of chemicals, researchers have been able to determine how exposure to those chemicals affects a person over the years. Those affected are then compared to a control group, and health changes are compared. With regard to the effects of radiation exposure on human health, a very explicit example is provided in the chapter on Cancer-Causing Radiation of the Cancer- the Outlaw Cell. “….x-rays can kill human egg cells, which are needed for normal growth of ovarian cells that supply steroid hormones. Such hormones travel through the body to the pituitary gland where they help slow secretion of hormones called growth stimulatory hormones (GSH). Without such slowdown signals, extra GSH moves through the body and reaches the x-ray damaged ovaries, stimulating the growth of certain primitive cells that might be involved in tumor development. Thus, radiation can execute the primary damage to the organ and can also disturb hormonal balances that further aid tumor growth” (Ullrich 1978). As such, with respect to radiation, cancer can be triggered by environmental exposure and then further exacerbated by genetic predispositions as well as other causes such as viruses.
It may seem that my research has lead me to deduce that all technological development is necessarily bad for human health, and causes one form of cancer or another. However, that is far from truth, and in particular one very simple and common household item that we commonly use, has actually led to a significant reduction of stomach cancer. Lack of refrigeration, which was not available until recently, necessitated food such as meat to be preserved by the pickling or smoking processes. Although we rarely associate salted or smoked foods with an environmental or lifestyle issue that may lead to cancer, as it turns out they are one of the major causes of this specific type of cancer.
While so much development of natural resources and progress has been a positive factor in improving and creating the lifestyle we know today, there is a lot of harm that this development has caused the environment and ecology. In my opinion cancer and its significant increase in the last couple of centuries is in direct correlation with the development of natural resources and the need of governments to become superpowers – be it in military, scientific or agricultural development.
Then there is the growth of humanity, destroying habitat and causing the extinction of trees, animals and many species of birds. Destroying the very environment we live in and breathe in at the expense of our future. How can someone who contributes to the destruction of that habitat then be allowed to blame the patients’ lifestyle for their disease? At a recent conference on cancer and the environment, Dr. Warren Hern, presented a slide show of aerial and satellite views of urban centers. He noted that the slides “bore a striking similarity to images of cancerous tissue (particularly melanoma) invading the healthy surrounding tissue.” “The human species has become a malignancy, an ‘eco-tumor’ that is growing out of control.” (Hern 768-773). Whether as metaphor or hypothesis, the proposition that humans have been acting like malignant cancer cells must be taken seriously. The proposition provides a valuable perspective on human impact, as well as a revealing historic comparison of human behavior with “carcinogenic” tendency back to the earliest times.
When the wheel stops spinning, the finger points to our abuse of the environment we live in, rarely mentioned either to the cancer patient or in the media. In a new book, Living Downstream (Vintage, 1998), Sandra Steingraber examines the growing effects of pesticides and industrial pollutants on environment and especially children. Very few of the pesticides that we have invented have been tested. We are waiting for “proof” - as cancers develop in the future, we will consider doing something. It is like we are waiting to see what other problems will develop before taking responsibility to research a remedy before we harm the environment. So it seems that cancer is a disease whose nature is unknown growth and which destroys its host. This would be a valid metaphor for our time and situation, rather than passing the blame on to the personality type or lifestyle of the afflicted individual. To change the metaphorical use of cancer to reflect this reality, we must take responsibility.
As research proceeds, fundamental changes are needed in both the public and private sectors regarding exposure to radiation and the production, use and disposal of chemicals found to increase the risk of several types of cancer or suspected of doing so. Considerable resources continue to be spent on encouraging people to make changes in their personal lives that might reduce their risk of developing cancer. But many factors that contribute to the disease lie far beyond an individual’s personal control and can only be addressed by government policy and private sector changes. Any form of cancer is not just a personal tragedy; it is a public health crisis that requires political will to change the status quo, to return our natural environment to the equilibrium which has been so hastily and unwittingly destroyed.
We ignore at our own peril evidence that radiation and chemicals are contributing to the growing human and economic cost of cancer. Halting the scourge of this disease requires that we take action based on existing evidence to protect the health of people and the planet. Claims that there is not enough evidence with regard to direct causation of the different environmental factors have on human risk for cancer development is imprudent in light of the knowledge on the issue already available. Waiting for absolute proof brings more needless suffering and loss of precious lives. Although it is difficult to love the ecology per se, we as people living in the harshness of today’s reality need to awaken from our slumber and start taking action in preserving our environment and maintaining the equilibrium that nature has created so many years before we ever arrived on this planet. It is in our power to change the course we are on, and it is time to act on the evidence. The cost for ignoring the facts and evidence is far too great for humanity.
I was deeply concerned about the future of humanity and the environment we live in after all of the previously stated personal experiences as well as the research on radiation and cancer. I thus decided to find out what the future outlook of what current world renowned scientists are working on with respect to making the nuclear energy safer. In my attempt to find the answers to a couple of questions that still plagued my research, I decided to ask a few leading nuclear scientists. I contacted 11 researchers at MIT via e-mail asking their opinions and guidance, and received response from two top scientists leading the current nuclear research in the USA. Below is the correspondence.
“Dear Dr. :
I am a student at NYU studying Ultrasound Technology. As part of the requirements for the course of study, one writing course requires that we attempt to interview knowledgeable people in a Discipline based upon the request of the professor.
I am a Russian immigrant who was born and raised in the Urals. I am writing a paper about the Chernobyl disaster and the impact of nuclear technology on human health. In one paper, I mentioned that Dr. Sakharov of the former USSR, felt that the only safe design of nuclear power plants was one where they were built underground. His feelings were that in the case of a nuclear accident, like at Chernobyl, the reactor would melt down and bury itself.
My question is, if you are familiar with this concept. What are your feelings about this? To your knowledge, does it exist (has one been built yet)? If not, will it be possible to build one in the future? What, in your opinion, would be the safest possible design for a “safe” nuclear power plant?
I would greatly appreciate your taking the time to respond to this missive in the very near future. It is a topic that is very important to me and my studies at NYU.
Below is the response from Dr. Pavel Hejzlar, Principal Research Scientist; Director, Advanced Reactor Technology Program, Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES)
I have heard about this concept and there were also other experts that proposed to built reactors underground. However, I do not agree that such reactors would be the only safe designs. One needs to bear in mind that reactors need to be operated and maintained and personnel who would be under ground performing these activities would be affected by an accident. So the accident would not be without consequences on human life. Even more importantly, radioactivity could get into underground water and affect people above the ground as well. Also, reactor underground would be significantly more expensive than above ground.
In my opinion, it is more important to design a reactor and operate it to maximum safety standards with barriers that prevent dispersion of radioactive isotopes even if accident occurs. Chernobyl is not the best example to compare because
(1) it was faulty design that had positive coolant void coefficient of reactivity in some regimes (heating of the core and its coolant increased fission reaction). Light water reactors are required to have negative coefficient of reactivity to provide negative feedback. Moreover, control rods, which were supposed to shutdown the reactor actually increased reactivity, i.e. speeded up the reaction in certain regimes of operation.
(2) it did not have containment that most of the reactors in the world have. This is an additional barrier that prevents release of radioactivity to the environment if core is damaged and fission products are released.
For example, reactor at Three Mile Island, who had negative coolant temperature reactivity coefficient and a containment also experienced core melting , but no release of radioactivity to the environment and no fatalities. So it is more important to pay more attention to the design and to training of personnel to handle accidents than burying the reactor underground. You may be familiar with the actions of operators and people responsible for tests at Chernobyl and how they violated a number of procedures.
Also, I would say there is nothing absolutely safe in human activities. There is always a risk in what we do and the goal is to minimize this risk. There is several orders of magnitude larger risk that we will die in a car accident on the road than from a nuclear power plant accident. It is interesting to note that nuclear power has the smallest number of fatalities per generated KW among electricity generating stations, even including Chernobyl.
Regarding the safest possible design, many people think that it is pebble bed has cooled reactor, which can shut itself down and cool itself by natural phenomena with the fuel intact.
This will have to be proven, however, since it has not yet been built.
With best regards,
Below is the response from Andrew C. Kadak, Professor of the Practice, Nuclear Engineering, formerly vice president of the American Nuclear Society.
(on issue of building reactor underground)
This is might help some but not as much as people think. First Chernobyl type reactors were not well designed. Second, the operators at Chernobyl violated many safety procedures. When you combine these two - you have the accident that occurred. Had the operators followed their procedures and understood what they were doing, the accident would never have happened and it is likely that the RBMK reactors would still be operating in the former
Soviet Union today.
Now to your question about burying the reactors underground and the health impacts. On the health impact question, there are a lot of books, articles on health effects many of which are not technically or medically based. The best study which is considered as reputable is the one produced about three years ago by the World Health Organization. You should find that and use that as your primary reference. If you have trouble finding that let me know.
Building reactors underground - Most reactors are built well into the ground on bedrock on a thick concrete foundation. The reactor vessels and the core are typically below grade. Most reactors also have a containment building of 3 to 4 foot reinforced concrete that is designed to keep all the radioactive materials inside in the event of an accident (like at Three Mile Island where releases were controlled). Building a reactor in the ground would not be any better than a reactor with a containment since the containment would still be necessary underground to prevent the leakage from coming into the environment. The energetic releases which may be created by the a meltdown scenario if released into the ground would likely find its way into the environment as well. If you design a reactor that has a credible meltdown scenario, you have designed the wrong reactor in my opinion.
The safest reactors are those that do not have a meltdown potential such as
the pebble bed reactor - check that out.
I was impressed and grateful to both scientists for their support of my research, and decided to follow up on the articles and answers they provided me with. With regard to the first link to article provided by Dr. Hejzlar, The politically correct nuke: MIT Students help design a nuclear power plant that they hope will revive the industry, I found it provided the information on the newest technology with emphasis on the design of the new generation of the nuclear power plants. (Whole Earth, 2001). It provided basic information on this new type of the nuclear reactors, with drawing specific differences on how this reactor would function and why it is an improvement in safety and expenses associated with its ability to produce energy in comparison with past and present generations of nuclear power stations. Most of the active stations today are called “light water” stations. They consist of the uranium particles stacked into metal rods, which are then lowered into water in the reactor core. The weakness of this type of reactor is that if water escapes, the reactor core melts along with the uranium. In power stations all over the world (Chernobyl excepted) the reactors are isolated and there are mechanisms that automatically shut off the reactor, and if meltdown occurs there is a containment system in place to prevent radioactivity from entering the environment.
In the new Pebble Bed Reactor there is no need for containment systems, as the design of the reactor is such that it does not include the possibility of a meltdown. “The main safety feature is the fuel itself. Each pebble consists of roughly 10,000 “microspheres” of uranium dioxide the size of a pencil point. Each is in turn coated with several layers of graphite, and a silicon carbide outer shell. While fission heats the pebbles to as much as 1,100 [degrees] C, the coatings trap all radioactivity inside. Once the fuel is spent, the coatings isolate radioactive decay particles for a million years--four times longer than it takes them to completely decay. Of course, they still a need for a permanent burial place.” (Whole Earth, 2001).
In comparison to the “light water” reactors, pebble bed reactors do not have the possibility of meltdown at all. This, of course, prevents any chance of faulty containment systems and also protects against a huge financial as well as environmental impact in the case of a meltdown. In Chernobyl there was a double fault which contributed to the disaster – a bad design without containment, as well as non-compliance with the safety protocol. However, in the best case scenario, if there is a possibility of an escape of radioactive materials, every safety system can fail along with the original malfunction, thereby creating another disaster. The safety system has worked in the Three Mile Island power station, where the meltdown did not cause any radioactive materials to escape in view of the containment system. However, there is always a chance that safety mechanisms will fail. As Dr. Kadak suggested in his interview above, the best possible nuclear reactor is one where meltdown is not possible due to the design of the project itself. Pebbles can never get too hot, as there is no such temperature possible in the reactor.
The article further discussed the future of nuclear energy in the USA, political lobbying activity with regard to the nuclear industry, as well as other leading research and similar projects worldwide. However, I found this article to be a little outdated as it made predictions into the next 5 years, which would go only as far as 2006. I then searched more in depth to find out if the predictions and hopes of this article have been realized, and found more history with regard to this new type of nuclear reactor. I found a multitude of articles by Chinese, Japanese, and some European scientists, but the name that continually stood out throughout my inquiry was Dr. Andrew Kadak, who was one of the MIT scientists I interviewed. The latest study Dr. Kadak has a little more insight into the modern history of the new technology developed by his department. (Kadak, 2007). Currently there are two prototype projects of this new type of reactor. One in China and one in South Africa, and these projects are hoped to be expanded later on to the USA. The development in this area has been hampered dramatically by the events of 9-11-01, but currently there is a lot of demand for new easier, cheaper and safer power, to which this new nuclear pebble plant may be the answer.
I further found the research Dr. Kadak referred me to performed by the World Health Organization on the health impact of those affected by the Chernobyl disaster. (U.N. WHO 2005). To my surprise the data that this study was relying on came from official statistics kept and provided by the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Belarus and Russia). Unfortunately, relying on such data is not necessarily going to produce correct and true results in view of the tactics used by the USSR. From day one of the disaster attempts were made to hide the information and the scope of the disaster from the local and international public, and all inquiries were either not allowed or severely limited at best. There is a lot of criticism of the studies done by the UN and its organizations on the impact of the Chernobyl disaster on the population, as the data they use is unverified, and it only negatively touches on the cultural aspects of the population living in the affected area. The description was that the people are poor and that leads to psychological and mental issues. “Alongside radiation-induced deaths and diseases, the report labels the mental health impact of Chernobyl as “the largest public health problem created by the accident” and partially attributes the damaging psychological impact to a lack of accurate information. These problems manifest themselves as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.” Apparently the WHO agrees that data is not readily available and is not reliable, but yet it manages to make decisions based on the same data, which is very puzzling to say the least. However, the study did conclude that this in fact was a major disaster and steps must be taken in order to continue the cleaning measures to save the population living there.
In view of the above, currently it is more important to consider how to make the nuclear power safer rather than continue looking into the effects of the Chernobyl disaster in making the world a safer place. Both Dr. Kadak and Dr. Hejzlar agree that the Pebble Bed Reactor will revamp the nuclear power technology of the future. They both feel that this technology, albeit not resolving all health issues of today, will significantly decrease the chance of a radioactive disaster affecting so many lives as happened with Chernobyl.
There are also other alternatives to the clean and safe energy sources. Discussed below are the most debated energy resources, which are already used today to produce energy, unlike the proposed Pebble Bed reactor above.
Geothermal Energy stations use heat from the earth, which can be used as an energy source in many ways, from large and complex power stations to small and relatively simple pumping systems. This heat energy, known as geothermal energy, can be found almost anywhere—as far away as remote deep wells in Indonesia and as close as the dirt in our backyards. Tapping geothermal energy is an affordable and sustainable solution to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and the global warming and public health risks that result from their use. (Union of Concerned Scientists 2006) http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/renewable_energy_basics/offmen-how-geothermal-energy-works.html. Under the Earth's crust, there is a layer of hot and molten rock called magma. Heat is continually produced there, mostly from the decay of naturally radioactive materials such as uranium and potassium. The amount of heat within 10,000 meters (about 33,000 feet) of Earth’s surface contains 50,000 times more energy than all the oil and natural gas resources in the world. (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006).
However, there are some issues that are associated with geothermal energy.Energy production at geothermal power plants may gradually decline over time, through the loss of water/steam or declining water temperatures. As water or steam is removed from an underground reservoir, the land above the reservoir may slowly start to sink. Municipalities can inject their treated waste water into the underground reservoir to replenish the hot water supply and avoid land subsidence. I don’t believe there are any studies on how viable or expensive this reintroduction of water back into the underground system will be, or whether it would resolve successfully the sinking problem. Furthermore, it is yet unclear how fast the water would reheat itself, as if the cool water will be injected back into the hot water, the resulting mix may not be of the required temperature to sustain the process. Furthermore, areas with good geothermal resources are almost always seismically active, and developing a geothermal resource can cause additional earthquakes.Moreover, geothermal plant construction is loud, but must remain below federal noise pollution limits. Once in operation, geothermal plants are quieter than fossil fuel generation plants. Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI, 2006).
Other power producing sources are Solar, Solar Thermal and Wind Energy stations. We have always used the energy of the sun as far back as humans have existed on this planet. Wind energy has also a very long, but slightly shorter history, and was primarily used in the form of windmills in Holland, Germany and a few other European cultures in the last century. Examples of working Solar Thermal and Wind power plants in the USA can be currently found primarily in California. In California's Mojave desert, there are huge rows of solar mirrors arranged in what's called "solar thermal power plants" that use this idea to make electricity for more than 350,000 homes. The problem with solar energy is that it works only when the sun is shining. So, on cloudy days and at night, the power plants can't create energy. Some solar plants, are a "hybrid" technology. During the daytime they use the sun. At night and on cloudy days they burn natural gas to boil the water so they can continue to make electricity. (http://www.energyquest.ca.)
In order for wind energy to work efficiently, wind speeds usually must be above 12 to 14 miles per hour. Wind has to be at this speed in order to turn the turbines fast enough to generate electricity. The turbines usually produce about 50 to 300 kilowatts of electricity each. A kilowatt is 1,000 watts (kilo means 1,000). You can light ten 100 watt light bulbs with 1,000 watts. So, a 300 kilowatt (300,000 watts) wind turbine could light up 3,000 light bulbs that use 100 watts. (http://www.energyquest.ca.gov). Thus, this method requires constant winds, large geographical space in order to position the turbines, and ultimately may not work in areas with low winds or very expensive real estate, as the cost of this type of energy may just be prohibitively expensive in order to produce economically.
There are a few other methods of energy production such as hydraulic systems using the force of water flow There are a few plants around the world using this technology. However, each of these methods may or may not be realistic for each individual geographical and demographic area. Each has its own advantages as well as limitations. At this time however Pebble Bed nuclear reactor plants do not have the limitation of requiring large geographical areas or specific climate conditions. Furthermore, the alternative of solar, wind, hydraulic, geothermal powers provide net power output that is severely limited in comparison with a nuclear power plant. In today’s reality, most of those plants even combined may not produce enough energy resources to accommodate the energy required. Thus, at present, it may be a valuable decision to keep all of these types (including the nuclear power plants based on pebble bed technology) in order to produce energy sufficient to withstand necessity/use, while not hurting the environment and people using it. Only time will be able to tell if the pebble bed reactor or another type is truly safe for our environment and life. Every possible way of obtaining energy to support our daily needs comes at a price whether it be environmental, health or monetary. Unfortunately corruption at the government level will always be a major part of which reactors or plants are used to create the energy, as well as those that will control those stations, and develop and monitor their safety. I truly hope that the world’s experience with the Chernobyl disaster caused by corruption, carelessness, recklessness and political ambitions of a few, will prove to be a valuable, memorable and worthy lesson. Millions of people are still suffering the effects, but the governments continue to thrive, and nuclear power plants continue being built in the countries of the former USSR. In New York we all live incredibly close to the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station, which is now a source of my constant worry for my own and my family’s future life and well-being. It is also probably worth considering the effects of terrorist actions with respect to such a nuclear plant, and at this time I understand that there is little that can be done in order to truly prevent disastrous effects if such a situation arose. I do not know if that station is really safe or if the corruption and recklessness of a few in power also jeopardize our future for their personal gains or political ambitions. In the spirit of a utopian solution, I would hope that there would be plenty of power (like amount of water in the oceans) in order to satisfy all our daily needs.
Living as an innocent child through one disaster of international magnitude then growing up exposed to another in a similar area and finally living downstream from an active reactor has made me very nervous about their safety and the future of our children.
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