From Fukushima to Chernobyl: Bringing the Past to Bear on the Future

Lisa Rumiel

Note: The author would like to thank Linda Richards for her helpful comments and suggestions in preparing this article.

When asked how the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Reactor Complex accident was going to affect the nuclear industry in the long-term, World Nuclear Association Spokesman, Ian Hore Lacey, replied,

short term obviously it’ll be negative, but I think long term, when people sit down and take a good look at things, it should be positive, hopefully, and no more than neutral…If as we have reason to hope there are no fatalities or serious radiation injuries and effects from this incident, then alongside the tens of thousands of people who have been killed by the tsunami, I think people will stand back and say, “what was all the fuss about.” Okay, you’ve written off three reactors, and there’s been plenty of drama in news coverage, but at the end of the day, who has been adversely affected in any real way? [1]

There are several problems with this statement, not the least of which is Hore Lacey’s use of the devastating effects of the tsunami on Japanese people, families, and entire communities as a way of minimizing the seriousness of the Fukushima accident. But his suggestion that no one will be “affected in any real way” is completely thoughtless and untrue, that is, if you allow yourself to think about actual people.

With approximately 77,000 Japanese residents currently evacuated from their homes and another 62,000 ordered to stay indoors and seal their windows for fear of developing radiation sickness, there is every reason to fear for the future of the region surrounding the Fukushima reactors on the northeastern coast of Japan. As of March 21, 2011, news sources report heightened levels of radioactive iodine in spinach, milk, canola, and chrysanthemum greens, iodine and cesium-137 in Tokyo tap water, radioactive rain and dust, and the evacuation of workers from Unit 3 (the most volatile of the 6 reactors, caused by the MOX fuel, which contains a cocktail of plutonium and uranium). And, if the warnings of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman, Gregory Jaczko, are ever heeded, the exclusion zone around the plant could be extended by as much as 60 kilometers, bringing the total kilometric radius to 80 kilometers and affecting the security of over 5 million people. Despite attempts by people like Hore Lacey to dismiss the similarities between Fukushima and the nuclear reactor accident at the Chernobyl Unit IV nuclear reactor on April 26, 1986, looking back on its public health and environmental effects are instructive for understanding some of the ways Fukushima will have permanently altered not only the Japanese landscape, but also the people of Japan’s relationship to the land, local food sources, their sense of home, and, quite possibly, several other regions of the world.

Twenty-five years later, an area extending thirty kilometres around the Chernobyl accident site remains uninhabited by the people who lived there in the years before the accident. There is now a barbed wire fence surrounding the town of Pripyat, which is located nearest to the reactor site, and travel in and out of this area is most strictly controlled. At the time of the accident the city’s population was close to 50,000, all of whom were evacuated a couple days after the meltdown – too late to prevent dangerous radiation exposures. They were told by the government to take three days worth of clothing and necessities with them; yet, they were never allowed to return. As knowledge about radiation contamination increased, the Soviet government eventually evacuated over 50,000 more people from their homes in the areas between Pripyat and the current location of the thirty kilometre checkpoints. In total, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone includes approximately 90 abandoned towns and villages, where unoccupied buildings, showing obvious signs of neglect and decay, are surrounded by overgrown trees, shrubs, and grass. Inside these abandoned buildings lies the detritus left over by previous occupants, much of which was destroyed by the looting that took place in the immediate aftermath of the accident. In one online photo journal created in 2006, pictures of abandoned schools and homes depict a depressing scene where empty desks, overturned furniture, discarded books, toys, student artwork, peeling wallpaper, water damage and two decades worth of accumulated dust, dirt, and debris remain. With the exception of the 300 or so elderly people who have returned to the region amidst feelings of “this is my home!”, people are not likely to re-inhabit the area any time in the next few hundred years.

The Third Chernobyl Forum Meeting, held in Vienna in 2005, estimated that “9,000 victims died or developed radiogenic cancers”[2] as a result of the Chernobyl accident, a number that will always be contested by those who seek to downplay the significance of the accident. And we are still learning about the long-term public health effects of Chernobyl. A complete picture of the problem will likely never be drawn due to the shroud of secrecy surrounding levels of radiation released from the reactor, incomplete examinations of the quantity of radionuclides absorbed by local flora, fauna, and the human inhabitants of the region in the days and years following the accident, and the overall complexity of tracking the relationship between chronic exposures to radiation and the health problems they cause. Dimitro M. Grodzinsky, a biologist at the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences and the Chairman of the Ukrainian National Commission on Radiation Protection, reports,

From year to year there has been an increase in nonmalignant diseases, which has raised the incidence of overall morbidity in children in areas affected by the catastrophe, and the percent of practically healthy children has continued to decrease. For example, in Kiev, Ukraine, where before the meltdown, up to 90% of children were considered healthy, the figure is now 20%. In some Ukrainian Poles’e territories, there are no healthy children, and morbidity has essentially increased for all age groups. The frequency of disease has increased several times since the accident at Chernobyl. Increased cardiovascular disease with increased frequency of heart attacks and ischemic disease are evident. Average life expectancy is accordingly reduced. Diseases of the central nervous system in both children and adults are cause for concern. The incidence of eye problems, particularly cataracts, has increased sharply. Causes for alarm are complications of pregnancy and the state of health of children born to so-called “liquidators” (Chernobyl’s cleanup workers) and evacuees from zones of high radionuclide contamination.[3]

His is not an exhaustive list of the increased health problems reported since the accident. In fact, just last week the National Cancer Institute released a study indicating that the population of children and teenagers from as far afield as 90 kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, who drank Iodine-131 contaminated cheese and milk in the days and weeks after the accident, continue to “suffer from an increased risk of thyroid cancer.”

The global effects of Chernobyl are still being studied. Scientific analyses revealed that varying levels of different radionuclides released during the accident travelled to parts of Austria, Bangladesh, the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Italy, Japan, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia and other nations of the former USSR, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia, and the U.S. Many of the nations that are not on this list are absent because radiation levels were not measured before, during, or after the accident. As a radioactive cloud, initially headed for Western Europe, diverted east towards Moscow, the Soviet military was instructed to seed the cloud over the region of Bryansk. The people still living in the region today continue to be cautioned against eating vegetables from their local gardens, fish from their lakes, or berries and mushrooms in the nearby forests, rituals that were central to the local food economy prior to Chernobyl. In Canada, increased levels of cesium-137 in the Arctic region’s caribou herds were cause for concern among the Northern Inuit people, who ate an average of 100-300 kilograms of caribou meat each year. The contamination of Norwegian and Swedish reindeer herds with cesium-137 was so severe (and the problem ongoing) that it necessitated a complete transformation of local diets. And, as of 2006, sheep from 374 farms in the United Kingdom were “still restricted from entering the food chain,” down from the 9000 farms that were crippled by increased cesium-137 levels in their sheep herds in the immediate aftermath of Chernobyl. I could go on and on and on, but a complete picture of the global environmental and public health impact of the Chernobyl disaster would still not be drawn.

Despite the fact that I am appalled by Ian Hore Lacey’s callous description of the long-term effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it is entirely possible his prediction that the accident will not affect the nuclear industry in the long term will prove true, particularly in nations that already rely heavily on nuclear power to meet their energy needs and those with “weak environmental movements and weak regulatory norms.” But it should. Hugh Gusterson nailed it when he recently argued that the four major nuclear reactor accidents in the past 54 years – the lesser known Windscale accident in 1957 Britain, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, each of which happened under “unique” and “impossible” circumstances – have taught us that the nuclear industry is not prepared to deal with the “unknowns.” We need to stop pretending that they can.

Lisa Rumiel is a SSHRC Post Doctoral Fellow at McMaster University. Her dissertation research examined the role of physicians and scientists in the American anti-nuclear movement during the final two decades of the Cold War. She is currently at work on a project about the role of University of Washington biologists and ecologists in the Pacific Proving Ground.

[1] Please note that this quote was transcribed by the author from the CBC radio news program, The Current. It is not a perfect transcript, with “ums” and “ahs” edited out, but it is representative of the substance of his response.

[2] Alexey V. Nesterenko, Vassily B. Nesterenko and Alexey V. Yablokov, “Introduction,” Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1181, November 2009, 1-3.

[3] Dimitro M. Grodzinsky, “Forward,” Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, vii-ix.

7 thoughts on “From Fukushima to Chernobyl: Bringing the Past to Bear on the Future

  1. James Aach

    FYI: You might find this useful for perspective:

    I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. The novel is free online at the moment at . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.

  2. Julia Lalande

    Very insightful, Lisa. I was in Europe when Chernobyl happened, and I have to say it had a huge impact on me. Once you buy asparagus with a Geiger counter your whole perspective on life changes. Sure, we no longer have to do that, and Chernobyl might be an area taken over by nature; but nature has certainly changed, and as you pointed we do not even know the real long-term effects yet.

    The problem is that nuclear energy and disasters/unforeseen circumstances do not go well together…and nobody is even talking about the long-term ramifications of disposing of nuclear waste. Humans don’t want to think about that, because in the face of global warming, nuclear energy is sold as a ‘clean energy’. I guess nobody in Tokyo who is hording mineral water right now considers it as quite that clean…

  3. Jacob Hamblin

    Thanks for sharing these insights, Lisa. It seems that most media outlets are interested in discussing the technical differences between Fukushima and the reactors designs in previous unplanned nuclear events. Instead, they might be better off exploring similarities: the public relations snafus, incorrect statements, the erosion of public trust, the use of tropes such as “irrational” and “emotional”, and the denial that it could ever happen with the latest and greatest designs. I shared my own thoughts (in a less nuanced way than you did) here:

  4. Lisa Rumiel

    Thanks, Jacob! I read your piece. It’s really great. I was thinking about your book when we first started hearing public statements, like, “be calm, people, the cloud is heading for the ocean!”

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