Monday, April 19, 2010

Chernobyl Catastrophe: 24th Anniversary

With the 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster coming next week, a new book has been published by the New York Academy of Sciences which concludes that between 1986, when the accident happened, and 2004 some 985,000 people died, especially of cancer, as a result of the radioactivity that was emitted.

The 985,000 figure is based on health data, radiological reports and scientific studies—some 5,000 in all—especially from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus but from other affected nations as well.

It belies the assertion of the International Atomic Energy Agency that, as the IAEA still claims on its website, the “total number of deaths already attributable to Chernobyl or expected in the future…is estimated to be about 4,000.” That claim of the IAEA, which was set up in 1957 “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy,” has been widely reported as the toll from the disaster.

The new book, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, shows it to be an extreme minimization.

It is authored by three noted scientists: Dr. Alexey Yablokov of Russia, a biologist and former environmental advisor to the Russian president; Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, a biologist and ecologist in Belarus; and Dr.Vassili Nesterenko, a physicist, and at the time of the accident director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. The consulting editor is Dr. Janette D. Sherman, a Virginia-based physician and toxicologist who has long specialized on the impacts of radioactivity.

The work is comprehensive, indeed, the most encompassing study that has ever been done of the Chernobyl accident. It is anchored in strong evidence. And it is chilling.

The radioactive release from Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, starting with it exploding on April 26, 1986 and ending when it stopped burning in mid-May, “was many hundreds of millions of curies, a quantity hundreds of times larger than the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” notes the book.

The “winds around Chernobyl” kept changing, covering 360-degrees “so the radioactive emissions from the mix of radionuclides varied from day to day and covered an enormous territory.” The radioactive poisons included Cesium-137, Plutonium, Iodine-131 and Strontium-90, among others.

A country-by-country breakdown of where they fell out, with the detailed measurements taken and maps, follow. The list starts with Belarus—“Practically the entire country of Belarus was covered by the Chernobyl cloud”—and on to Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Sweden, United Kingdom and so on to Asia and North America, where “some 1% of all Chernobyl radionuclides…fell.”

The consequences on public health are exhaustively analyzed, first “General Morbidity, Impairment, and Disability.” Again, the grisly list starts with Belarus where, it is noted: “According to data from the Belarusian Ministry of Public Health, just before the catastrophe…90% of children were considered ‘practically healthy.’ By 2000, fewer than 20% were considered so.” Rises in nonmalignant diseases including blood and cardiovascular diseases are examined.

There is a focus on genetic impacts with records showing an increase in “chromosomal aberrations” cited. This will continue through the “children of irradiated parents for as many as seven generations.” Thus, “the genetic consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe will impact hundreds of millions of people.”

And then comes cancer—with records illuminated by charts showing the increases in various countries of childhood cancer, thyroid cancer, leukemia and other cancers. For Ukraine, for instance, “According to official data, the general [cancerl] mortality rate in the heavily contaminated territories was 18.3 per 1,000 in 1999, some 28% higher than the national average of 14.9 per 1,000.”

Considering health data of people in all nations impacted by the fallout, the “overall [cancer] mortality for the period from April 1986 to the end of 2004 from the Chernobyl catastrophe was estimated as 985,000 additional deaths.”

Moreover, “the concentrations” of some of the poisons, because they have radioactive half-lives ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 years, “will remain practically the same virtually forever.”So “the number of Chernobyl victims will continue to grow in the next several generations.”

The book investigates, too, the impact on flora, fauna and animals. It presents numerous studies, including those finding rapid genetic alterations, and, as to animals, notes “serious increases in morbidity and mortality that bear striking resemblance to changes in the public health of humans—increasing tumor rates, immunodeficiencies, decreasing life expectancy…”

The book concludes: “The Chernobyl catastrophe demonstrates that the nuclear industry’s willingness to risk the health of humanity and our environment with nuclear power plants will result, not only theoretically, but practically, in the same level of hazard as nuclear weapons.”

Dr. Sherman, speaking of her experience editing the book, commented: “Every single system that was studied—whether human or wolves or livestock or fish or trees or mushrooms or bacteria—all were changed, some of them irreversibly. The scope of the damage is stunning.”

In his foreword, Dr. Dimitro Grodzinsky, chairman of the Ukranian National Commission on Radiation Protection, writes about how “apologists of nuclear power” sought to hide the real impacts of the Chernobyl disaster from the time when the accident occurred. The book “provides the largest and most complete collection of data concerning the negative consequences of Chernobyl on the health of people and the environment...The main conclusion of the book is that it is impossible and wrong ‘to forget Chernobyl.’”

The claim that “only” 4,000 people will die as a result of the Chernobyl catastrophe is among the biggest lies of modern times.

The Chernobyl disaster should not only be remembered but must not be allowed to be repeated—which will happen regularly if the forces behind nuclear power get their way in their effort to “revive” nuclear power and build more nuclear plants.

Those in operation now need to be shut down and no more built—and a rapid transition made to clean, safe energy technologies available today, led by solar and wind power, which don’t kill people and other forms of life.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Offshore Oil Drillilng Stupidity

Larry Penny, the director of natural resources here in East Hampton Town on Long Island, tells of being out in a small boat having taken friends to the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, California when a blow-out on an offshore oil rig resulted in a massive oil spill in 1969.

The oil on the Pacific Ocean through which his boat needed to travel was “about a foot thick,” he recouns. He only barely made it through the “black mess” and got back. “It sure choked up the motor.” The next day he went up in a small plane and saw the devastation from the air. The “wind had been blowing from the west” and the shoreline was coated with oil.

Penny was a fisherman, ran an aquarium and was a teacher in Santa Barbara at the time. The spill was a pivotal event for him—and many others. It resulted in the organization Get Oil Out (GOO) demanding an end to the drilling—and today the waters from Santa Barbara to north of San Francisco have been declared marine sanctuaries and no longer is there offshore oil drilling there.
Thus the announcement last week by President Obama that he is moving to open up large sections of offshore waters to oil drilling—including the Atlantic from Delaware to Florida, a stretch also barred to drilling for decades—is seen as an outrage by Penny.

The waters off Long Island are not—now—part of what Obama wants opened to drilling. But Penny notes that spilled oil travels far and Delaware and Maryland are not that distant—especially considering frequent southerly winds and the Gulf Stream off our coast, both of which would send black goo north. Moreover, those rigs would go up right in hurricane alley.

And the East Coast stands to be far more damaged by an oil spill than the West Coast, notes Penny, considering that it is lined with wetlands, the feeding and breeding grounds of sea life. “Once oil gets in the marshes, that’s it.”

“This is completely unnecessary,” protests Penny. The technologies for clean, renewable energy are here today waiting to be fully implemented. “In this day and age this is ridiculous.”

It would be a huge threat to marine life, the fishing industry and the recreational industry which serves as an economic base for much of the East Coast. As New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg said last week, Obama’s gift to “Big Oil” is a “kill baby kill policy. It threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars.”

It was exactly 40 years ago, in 1970, that as a reporter for the daily Long Island Press
that I broke the story of the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic. I got a tip from a fisherman in Montauk who said he had seen in the ocean east of Montauk the same sort of vessel as the boats he observed searching for oil when he was a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico.

I spent the day telephoning oil companies. PR people for each said their companies were not involved in searching for oil in the Atlantic. But at day’s end, as I was walking out of the office, there was a call from a PR guy at Gulf saying, yes, Gulf was involved in exploring for oil in the Atlantic—as part of a “consortium” of 32 oil companies. These included the companies which all day issued denials. It was a first lesson in oil industry honesty, an oxymoron.

I traveled widely on the issue including in 1971 visiting the first drilling rig set up in the Atlantic, off Nova Scotia. The process was fraught with danger. A rescue boat went round and round the rig as the man from Shell Canada explained: “We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster.” An oil well blow-out, a gusher, is one thing on land and another entirely on water. The Shell Canada official acknowledged that curtains, booms and other devices the oil industry still claims clean up spills “just don’t work in over five foot-foot seas.”

In 1974, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality stated that a major spill along the Atlantic Coast “could devastate the areas affected…the Atlantic [is a] hostile environment for oil and gas operations. Storm and seismic conditions may be more severe than in the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico.” There were strong Congressional, state and local challenges and the Atlantic was closed to offshore oil drilling.

The Republican presidential slate, John McCain and Sarah Palin, advocated offshore oil drilling. Obama, as a candidate, opposed it. As president, Obama has—as he earlier did on nuclear power—done a complete reversal. “This is stupid,” said Penny. It sure is and needs to be stopped with citizen action and Congressional, state and local opposition.