Beyond Nuclear International

Chernobyl: How bad was it?

A scholar’s book uncovers new material about the effects of the infamous nuclear meltdown

By Peter Dizikes⎮MIT News Office

Originally published by the MIT News Office.

Not long after midnight on April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear power accident began. Workers were conducting a test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine when their operations spun out of control. Unthinkably, the core of the plant’s reactor No. 4 exploded, first blowing off its giant concrete lid, then letting a massive stream of radiation into the air.

Notoriously, the Soviet Union kept news of the disaster quiet for a couple of days. By the time the outside world knew about it, 148 men who had been on the Chernobyl site — firefighters and other workers — were already being treated in the special radiation unit of a Moscow hospital. And that was just one sliver of the population that wound up seeking medical care after Chernobyl.

By the end of the summer of 1986, Moscow hospitals alone had treated about 15,000 people exposed to Chernobyl radiation. The Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus combined to treat about 40,000 patients in hospitals due to radiation exposure in the same period of time; in Belarus, about half were children.

And while 120,000 residents were hastily evacuated from the “Zone of Alienation” around Chernobyl, about 600,000 emergency workers eventually went into the area, trying to seal the reactor and make the area safe again. About 31,000 soldiers camped out near the reactor, where radioactivity reached about 1,000 times the normal levels within a week, and contaminated the drinking water.


Alexey Akindinov’s picture “Chernobyl. Last day of Pripyat”, oil on canvas. (Image: WikiCommons)

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Hard duty in the Chernobyl zone

Life as a liquidator after the 1986 nuclear disaster

Cathie Sullivan, a New Mexico activist, worked with Chernobyl liquidator, Natalia Manzurova, during three trips to the former Soviet Union in the early 2000s. Natalia was one of 750,000 Soviet citizens sent to deal with the Chernobyl catastrophe. Natalia is now in her early 60s and has long struggled with multiple health issues. She was treated last year for a brain tumor that was found to be cancerous. A second tumor has since been found and funds were recently raised among activists around the world to help with the costs of this latest treatment. Natalia and Cathie together authored a short book, “Hard Duty, A woman’s experience at Chernobyl” describing Natalia’s harrowing four and a half years as a Chernobyl liquidator. What follows is an excerpt from that book with some minor edits.

By Natalia Manzurova

When I tell people that I was at Chernobyl they often ask if I had to go. My training is in radiation biology and I was born in a city that was part of the secret Soviet nuclear weapons complex, much like Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first A-bomb was built. People from my city considered it a duty to go to Chernobyl, just as New York City firefighters went to the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Because of the radiation danger to women of child-bearing age, those under 30 did not go, but being 35 in 1987, I began my 4.5 years of work at Chernobyl. Chernobyl depressed me so much when I first arrived that for almost three days I either wept or tried hard not to. We were short-handed and had to work 12 hour shifts. Several workers shared one room in a hostel, each with a bunk where he or she slept during his/her shift period. During the next shift other people slept in the same bunks. Before leaving for a break we put our clothes into plastic bags and stored them.

Alcohol was forbidden and we were checked when we arrived or left the 18 mile exclusion zone around the plant. Liquor soon crossed the fence, however, and became like money. There were no groceries available and meals were served in a large mess hall. Cooks put our food on trays moving on a conveyer belt and the joke was that Chernobyl’s Liquidators and Soviet cattle got their food in the same way. 

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Put on your pearls and pummel ‘em!

Dr. Helen Caldicott: the anti-nuclear movement’s most fearless and indefatigable matriarch

By Linda Pentz Gunter

I have nothing against Birkenstock sandals. Well, not much anyway. Nor tie-dye really. Nor, do I think, does Dr. Helen Caldicott. But there was a time — and maybe there still is — when she would advise any woman anti-nuclear activist venturing into verbal combat with the other side to “wear pearls and pantyhose.”

This was not an anti-feminist stance. Far from it. It was the sign of a smart tactician. Leave the Birkenstocks and the peace sign jewelry at home. Don’t give them what they want. Don’t let them stereotype you. Put on those pearls and then pummel ‘em!

Caldicott, probably the world’s most famous anti-nuclear campaigner, has done her fair share of pummeling for the best part of close to six decades. She is 80 now and tired and she wants us to do it. Especially us women. Although she is as disappointed and frustrated as the rest of us that we still have to. We should have won by now, I am sure she would say. I do.

In my now 21 years in the anti-nuclear movement I have come across countless people, mostly women, who have told me, “I got onto this movement because of Helen Caldicott. She inspired me.” Usually it took just one encounter, a single speech. Helen had a way of rattling people’s conscience. After listening to her, you couldn’t not join the anti-nuclear movement (against both nuclear power and nuclear weapons.) The alternative was to walk away, remove the mirrors from your walls, and sleep badly the rest of your life.

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Chernobyl children in a Havana hospital

One academic’s emotional journey of awakening is told in the new film, Un Traductor

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Sitting crammed on a transatlantic flight, drinking weak coffee and picking at a lamentable apology for pasta is not where one would expect to find oneself watching a remarkable film about Chernobyl. But that is what happened recently.

Un Traductor (A Translator), released this year, tells the true story of a Cuban professor of Russian literature who, in 1989, abruptly finds his lessons canceled and a note on the university door directing him to the local hospital in Havana. There, he is told he must serve as a translator. But for whom? “The patients from Chernobyl” replies an emotionless senior nurse.

Malin (we never learn his last name until the credits) finds himself serving as interpreter at night on a children’s ward filled with victims from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. At first, his only task is to inform parents that their child is fundamentally terminal. Devastated, he immediately wants out and to return to his comfortable home life with his wife and his own young son. “You chose to be a nurse!” he rails at Gladys, the matter-of-fact night nurse with whom he works and who has escaped the juntas of her native Argentina to work in Cuban’s renowned medical field. “I didn’t choose any of this,” he insists.

“These kids didn’t choose either,” she retorts.

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Small modular reactors are dead on non-arrival

Despite heavy promotion, SMRs are too expensive and there are no buyers

By Jim Green

With near-zero prospects for new large power reactors in many countries, the nuclear industry is heavily promoting the idea of building small modular reactors (SMRs). These reactors would have a capacity of under 300 megawatts (MW), whereas large reactors typically have a capacity of 1,000 MW.

Construction at reactor sites would be replaced with standardised factory production of reactor components then installation at the reactor site, thereby driving down costs and improving quality control.

The emphasis in this article is on the questionable economics of SMRs, but a couple of striking features of the SMR universe should be mentioned (for details see the March issue of Nuclear Monitor).

Fossil fuels and militarism

First, the enthusiasm for SMRs has little to do with climate-friendly environmentalism. About half of the SMRs under construction (Russia’s floating power plant, Russia’s RITM-200 icebreaker ships, and China’s ACPR50S demonstration reactor) are designed to facilitate access to fossil fuel resources in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Another example comes from Canada, where one application of SMRs under consideration is providing power and heat for the extraction of hydrocarbons from oil sands.

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Small modular reactors want to make headlines

Instead, they are already in the obituary column

Beyond Nuclear has produced a step-by-step handout on key arguments against pursuing SMRs.

By Linda Pentz Gunter

So now the IAEA is on the act. Although actually, promoting nuclear power IS the IAEA’s act. From October 7-11, the IAEA will hold the “International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power” in its hometown of Vienna, Austria. In its breathy and enthusiastic introduction to the conference, the agency describes its “statutory objective” as being “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world.

Peace, health and prosperity? Nuclear power has arguably never contributed any one of these. In the current economic climate it never will. It’s brazen hubris of course, but it comes from a place of desperation. Climate change is finally in the headlines. The nuclear power industry wants to be, too. Instead, it’s in the obituary column.

That’s where Dr. Jim Green of Friends of the Earth Australia, decided to assign the SMR in his excellent article which we reproduce this week. He called it an obituary, but arguably, SMRs have not yet even been born, so we called them “dead on non-arrival” in our headline.

Among the presentations at the IAEA conference, will most certainly be a flurry of enthusiastic expositions on the golden future of the so-called Small Modular Reactor. Again, it’s the fancy footwork with words that makes this notion sound palatable. Small? Good. Modular? Sounds simple to assemble. Good again. Like Lego, an image Dr. M.V. Ramana even used in a recent slide presentation on the fallacies of the SMR. The word “nuclear” is carefully omitted from the name. Why? Because we’ve been here before and it didn’t work out so well then, either.

SMR fact sheet excerpt

An excerpt from Beyond Nuclear’s new fact sheet on Small Modular Reactors.

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