–SACE High Risk Energy Program Director Sara Barczak assisted with this post.
Today, April 26, marks 25 years since the beginning of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union, when reactor Unit 4 exploded and spewed massive amounts of radiation across Europe. Even after a quarter of a century, hundreds of square miles of land remain uninhabitable, the core of the disabled reactor is still radioactively “hot” and Natalia Manzurova is touring the United States to ensure that no one forgets. She is one of hundreds of thousands of “liquidators” who were called in by the Soviet government to clean up the catastrophic consequences of the Chernobyl accident and the only living member out of fourteen in her team. I had the pleasure of meeting her in Washington, D.C. earlier this month at the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s DC Days.
At the event, Natalia received an award for the international work she has done to raise awareness about the health effects of radiation and to advocate for victims and survivors of radiation exposure. During her acceptance speech, she became emotional discussing her deceased team members and expressed her deep concern for the Japanese workers and rescue teams that have been sacrificing their lives and health to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex since the March 11 quake and tsunami. She said she felt as though she were experiencing it all over again.
I purchased Natalia’s book about her experience cleaning up Chernobyl, Hard Duty: A Woman’s Experience at Chernobyl, co-authored by her friend and fellow activist, Cathie Sullivan. As a radiation biologist, the government called upon Natalia to serve her government and she considered it an “unquestioned duty” to do so. In her book, she describes the difficult working conditions and the depressing nature of working in the 1,000 square mile exclusion zone, where evacuees had to leave everything but necessities behind. Most of the contaminated villages surrounding Chernobyl were bulldozed into trenches.
Natalia was charged with the work of determining which crops would take in the least contamination and to establish guidelines for food preparation to minimize the amount of radiation ingested. She also assumed the responsibility of mapping out the radiation in work areas, going further than permitted by marking highly radioactive spots with broken flower pots and chalk so workers would know which areas to avoid. Since most of the equipment worn by workers was inadequate and requests for new equipment and survey maps were denied, her defiance undoubtedly saved lives. She paid for it all with her own health, bearing the “Chernobyl necklace” scar, from having her thyroid removed.
The number of deaths attributed to this disaster is a hot point of contention, with official figures ranging from 4,000 cancer deaths (Chernobyl Forum) to 985,000 (New York Academy of Sciences). The same is unfortunately likely to happen when studies are released about the health impacts of the Fukushima disaster. The reality is that it is hard to track radiation to all the places it settles across the globe in the air and the water, who comes into contact with which radioactive particles and how much of each radioactive isotope they are exposed to. When someone develops a tumor, there is no label or marking crediting the source. It typically takes years and decades after exposure for cancers to manifest. To me, with all of the risks and all of the uncertainties, it is beyond time to move to safer, cleaner energy sources.
For more information, here are some resources I found useful:
- An extended interview with Natalia Manzurova;
- An updated Chernobyl factsheet from SACE;
- Various resources from the International Atomic Energy Agency;
- A short program interviewing experts on the long term health impacts, Chernobyl: A Million Deaths;
- A look at health impacts from Nuclear Information Resource Service, and;
- A compilation of resources from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
An excerpt from Natalia’s book:
Illness dominated my life for the next seven years. I stayed in my apartment, often in bed, and my daughter, just 14 years old when I became ill, took care of me. Once while a friend of mine, Natalia Melnikova, was visiting she asked me straight out: “How many more years of life do you think God is giving you? One year, ten years? Are you going to spend all that time lying in bed like a vegetable? Stand up – one should meet death standing!” Her words were just the wake up call I needed, they became my motto and the prod that re-engaged me with life.
To obtain a copy of “Hard Duty,” please e-mail [email protected]. The cost is $7, including postage. The proceeds go to Natalia Manzurova’s Chernobyl Survivor group that she leads in her hometown Ozersk.
Please stay tuned to an upcoming blog on my time at the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s “DC Days.”