Nuclear fallout

Europe’s anti-nuclear demonstrations, traditionally held at Easter, were boosted this year by the coincidence of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the heightened awareness of nuclear accidents caused by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear drama. [The anniversary is today. Read also on chinadialogue: “Atomic risks beyond radiation” by Chen Jiliang; “Forget Chernobyl at our peril” by John Vidal; and “Chernobyl – a poisoned landscape” by Robin McKie].

Nearly 145,000 German demonstrators took part in protests at 12 sites in Germany and France, staging “die-ins” (where protestors simulate being dead)on bridges in both countries and on the Franco-German border and commemorating the victims of past nuclear accidents.

Demonstrators demanded that France, which boasts the world’s most nuclearised energy sector, close its ageing plants, targeting in particular France’s oldest plant, at Fessenheim, near the borders of Germany and Switzerland which has been in service since 1977.

The Fukushima disaster has reactivated Germany’s anti-nuclear movement, Europe’s largest and politically most significant, boosting the Green Party in recent elections and weakening the position of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. Following the disaster, the French government ordered the country’s Nuclear Safety Authority to carry out a security audit at France’s 58 active atomic reactors. The results of the audit are expected by the end of the year.

In Austria, the chancellor Werner Faymann addressed a protest of around 1,000 people who were calling for an end to nuclear power. In his speech, he warned against a “cynical” nuclear energy lobby that, he said, wants the public to forget accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The victims of Chernobyl were also remembered in a ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow yesterday, when survivors of the rescue and clean up operation were awarded medals. Many of the survivors, however, complained that they were unaware of the risks they were running in their frantic efforts to stem the course of the disaster. Six of the emergency team and 22 staff at the plant died of radiation exposure in the months after the disaster. Despite the medals they received, many of the survivors complained of poor treatment of the workers, their families, and in many cases, their widows in the years after the disaster. 

In his speech to the meeting, the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev  said that the main lesson of both disasters was that governments must tell their people the truth in such emergencies. At the time of the Chernobyl disaster, the then Soviet government said nothing for three days. It was only after a Swedish nuclear plant reported unusually high radiation that the official Soviet news agency TASS acknowledged the accident. Even then, the government tried to hide the seriousness of the situation, burying the first reports in the government newspaper Pravda in a small paragraph on the back page.

 “The state did not immediately have the courage to acknowledge the consequences of what happened,” said president Medvedev, adding that, “any attempts to hide the truth, to gloss over a situation, to make it more optimistic, will end with tragedy and cost the lives of people.”  

Secrecy was also a feature in the recent accident at Fukushima, where the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electrical Power Co. (TEPCO) has been criticised for failing to disclose full information and for a history of dubious decisions over the construction of the plant and failure to admit to safety breaches.