Text by Marilyn Smith / Photos by Nigel Dickinson
It is impossible to mark the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl without acknowledging the devastating losses and the ongoing challenges associated with elevated levels of ionizing radiation.
|The remains of Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Power Plant are now contained within a massive structure commonly known as ‘the sarcophagus’.|
At the same time, we would act amiss if we did not also take this opportunity to recognize achievements and share the knowledge gained. Chernobyl created new challenges in every area of the TC mandate; challenges that evolved as time passed and needs changed.
Generally, the international community recognizes three distinct phases in the response to Chernobyl. From 1986 to 1991, the primary focus was on disaster management and the IAEA was heavily involved in a number of ways. TC began to take on various roles the following year, when the emphasis shifted to radiation protection, rehabilitation and remediation, with special attention devoted to human health and environmental consequences. In 2006, there is broad consensus that although it is vitally important to carry forward ongoing efforts, the time has come to concentrate on the largest outstanding issue: social and economic recovery.
Since 1992, TC has carried out 12 national and regional projects in the Chernobyl area, which now comprises the independent nations of Belarus, Ukraine and a portion of the Russian Federation. It is important to note that even in responding to the disaster, TC has remained true to its strategy of building capacity (through equipment delivery, training and expert advice) to meet high-priority needs identified in government development goals. In many instances, the IAEA investments (a total of $13.5 M over 15 years) attracted contributions from other organizations, spawning broader aid and development projects. In addition, the TC approach has again demonstrated that once the equipment and expertise are in place (e.g., a new radiological laboratory opens), the facility becomes an important resource for government and industry alike.
TC commends the many staff and country counterparts who have worked – and continue to work – diligently to identify and address specific needs in each phase of the post-disaster period. The knowledge acquired through these efforts serves to strengthen the global safety. It also demonstrates the increasingly broad reach of nuclear technologies across sectors that directly contribute to social and economic development.
Enhancing radiation protection
A great deal of TC effort has been concentrated on strengthening radiation protection measures within the affected area – particularly in relation to public exposure, environmental contamination and emergency preparedness and response. One reality, which still exists, was that the entire area became a radioactive wasteland, dangerous to local citizens and a potential target for individuals seeking radiation sources for illicit trafficking.
|Hundreds of pieces of equipment, including fire trucks, tractors and helicopters, used to fight the fire remain radioactive and under careful surveillance in the Chernobyl ‘graveyard’.|
There was also a pressing need to establish better mechanisms to ensure the health and safety of workers exposed to ionizing radiation, including those who continue to work at the nuclear power plant, as well as patients undergoing radiation-based diagnosis or treatment procedures.
Equally important, although far less obvious, was the need to help affected countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union establish legislation and regulatory frameworks for the radiation sources already located within their national boundaries.
Environmental remediation and medical care
Chernobyl created an urgent need to take immediate action on very practical matters. The widespread release of radionuclides transformed the systems that support life (air, soil and water) and the daily activities of the average person into serious health risks. The challenge of addressing these issues was heightened by the fact that there was relatively little radiation expertise in the area.
|In the area surrounding Chernobyl, particularly inside the Exclusion Zone, radionuclides continue to migrate through soil and water systems, and could potentially be re-released into the air.|
TC applied its full range of resources to build scientific capacity in vital areas such as environmental assessment and remediation, agriculture, and health care. TC recognized that most local residents had a basic understanding of radiation risk, but did not grasp the link between dairy cattle grazing in open fields and young children developing thyroid cancer. Thus, many TC efforts were directed toward building safeguards into production processes: providing tools and technologies for radiation analysis; identifying crops and plants that accelerate soil remediation; and devising methods to protect the public while optimizing use of raw materials such as milk, meat, and forest products.
|Monitoring individual radiation levels remains an important aspect of health care in the affected regions.|
TC also knew immediately that one of the most serious outcomes of the disaster would be increased incidence of various cancers and other radiation-related diseases. At the time, most hospitals in the region were operating with antiquated equipment, poor exposure control protocols, and few records of individual doses. Again, TC sought to identify specific needs in terms of expertise and equipment, and to build that capacity at the national and regional level.
Phase 3: Social and economic recovery
Various TC activities relating to Chernobyl are already contributing to social and economic development at the local, national and regional levels. For example, thanks to equipment delivered by TC, a Belarus butter and dairy factory on the fringe of the exclusion zone recently expanded its product line and diversified into milling flour, thereby creating some 65 new jobs.
|The Khoniki butter and dairy factory recently expanded its line to include cheese – a sign that better availability of clean, raw milk can support the production of more ‘luxury’ items and that the local population can once again afford them.|
TC is keenly aware of the need to apply limited resources in the most effective manner. Thus, it has used knowledge acquired from past initiatives – particularly new information on the behaviour of radionuclides and the long-term effectiveness of countermeasures – to develop a computer modelling tool that will help decision makers plan for the future.
The Remediation Strategies after the Chernobyl Accident (ReSCA) software contains generic data accumulated in relation to several remediation actions: radical improvement (intense efforts such as ploughing and fertilizer application to remediate soil); ferrocyn application to cows; clean feed for pigs; mineral fertilizer for potato fields; information campaigns; and removal of contaminated soil. ReSCA includes data on the costs of these remediation efforts and their effectiveness, as well as the “degree of acceptability” demonstrated by decision-makers and local communities.
ReSCA end-users (government officials, district councils, etc.) can input local data on these parameters to model different scenarios that would arise from proposed activities. For example, in communities used to develop the software, it was found that radical improvement measures and removal of contaminated soil have similar outcomes in terms of reducing radiation. However, people strongly opposed soil removal (the “degree of acceptability” was close to 1/10th that of radical improvement). In contrast, ferrocyn application to cows is inexpensive compared to radical improvement (10% of the cost), has a high radiation reduction factor, and is widely accepted by people.
By measuring all of these factors, ReSCA makes it possible to analyse the most effective overall strategy within the constraints of local remediation budgets, the context of the social and economic development goals, and the preferences of local people. This last factor is more vital than outside observers might expect: if locals do not ‘buy in’ to remediation efforts, it can seriously undermine the ability of the countermeasures to reduce radiation or address social and economic goals.
In May 2006, TC delivered 55 computers with ReSCA software installed and began providing training in communities where contamination levels remain a top concern. Such broad distribution reflects another lesson learned through Chernobyl related projects. While many problems are very local, developing capacity across the region enhances the ability to optimize overall outcomes.
Past successes prove the need to “stay the course”
To provide insight into recent efforts related to Chernobyl, TC sent the reporting team of Marilyn Smith (journalist) and Nigel Dickinson (photojournalist) into the field with Programme Management Officer Andrei Chupov and Technical Officer Mikhail Balanov. Use the following links to access additional feature articles that demonstrate how long-term commitment from TC is paying off in Chernobyl-affected areas:
- Ecological reservation in Belarus fosters new approaches to soil remediation
- Medical centre enhances treatment through research and innovation
- Mobile radiation units help fight food contamination
Chernobyl will continue to influence the lives of local people for many years to come. As new issues emerge, TC will continue to seek out practical means of lessening the impact and helping governments, private industry and individual citizens realize a fuller recovery on all fronts.