Chernobyl revisited

Chernobyl in Ukraine on 26 April 1986, 36 years ago, was the site of a major nuclear disaster. All that came to mind once more when the Russian and Byelorussian forces invaded Ukrainian territory over two months ago.

The invading forces took over the Chernobyl nuclear power station site. Troops were observed excavating trenches around the site where the nuclear accident happened 36 years ago. It was only this week that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that the radiation levels at Chernobyl, after being tested, have been certified as being within safe limits; but it is definitely not safe for a picnic!

The nuclear clean-up at Chernobyl is ongoing. Starting immediately in 1986, it is scheduled to last at least until the year 2065. Possibly much beyond that!

36 years on, Chernobyl is still of concern not just to those living in its vicinity, but to all of Europe.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster had brought many to their senses as to the dangers of nuclear energy, notwithstanding the sophisticated technology utilised in the industry. This was further reinforced by the Fukushima disaster, much closer in time on 11 March 2011. In the aftermath of Fukushima various countries opted for a phase-out of their dependence on nuclear energy. Germany led the way, our Italian neighbours to the North opting for a nuclear free future through a referendum in June 2011.

All this had a particular significance for Malta as it meant that plans for the construction of a nuclear power station at Palma di Montechiaro along the southern Sicilian coast, less than 100 kilometres to the North of Gozo, were mothballed. Southern Sicily as we know is an earthquake prone zone.

Occasionally there are rumblings of a renewed interest in the use of nuclear energy. The French government has for years been acting as a nuclear salesman all around the Mediterranean. It is known that agreements to set-up and operate various nuclear plants exist relative to various North African countries. Nicholas Sarkozy had even arrived at an agreement with Gaddafi just weeks before he was ousted.

Within the EU the debate is ongoing, at times spearheaded by the fact that the generation of nuclear energy emits relatively little carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of electricity generated. Nuclear energy does however cause significant environmental negative impacts through the waste streams which it generates, namely spent nuclear fuel, rock waste at uranium mines and mills and the release of large amounts of uncontrolled radioactive emissions whenever accidents occur. The Chernobyl, Fukushima and the Three-Mile Island nuclear accidents are irrefutable testimony that the environmental damage resulting from nuclear accidents is not just enormous but also at times difficult to control.

The IAEA reports that as of 2022 there are 493 nuclear power reactors in operation in 32 different countries.  We tend to be aware of the major nuclear accidents at Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011), and possibly that at Three-Mile Island in the US (1979). Countless other “minor” accidents have however occurred over the years. In some cases, the accidents were under control just in time, avoiding their development into a major accident.

Our neighbours rejected nuclear energy twice in two different referenda, one in 1987 after Chernobyl, the other in 2011 after Fukushima. In 2011 the Italian government was planning to construct 10 nuclear reactors. These plans were only thwarted as a result of the 2011 referendum.

It is a responsibility of the Maltese government to be on the alert as these plans could be reactivated in the near future.  This would be a danger developing on our doorstep.

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday : 1st May 2022

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