Title

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Chernobyl
Radioactive and Reclaimed by Nature
Tuesday, June 04, 2019

By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor
and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative

Disaster

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, during a safety test designed to simulate a power outage, a combination of operator error and inherent flaws in reactor design led to an explosion and fire at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station’s Reactor 4. The graphite fire burned uncontained for nine days, releasing radioactive particles over most of Europe, contaminating Ukraine and neighboring Belarus most severely.

It took nearly two full days for Soviet authorities to begin the evacuation of the approximately 50,000 residents of the nearby city of Pripyat, located just a mile away from the power station. A public admission of the accident only came on the evening of April 28 following diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin from the government of Sweden where, earlier that day, monitors at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant north of Stockholm had detected elevated radiation levels and suspected an accident in the Soviet Union. Given the secrecy of the Soviet system, the subjectivity of first-hand accounts, and the breakup of the Soviet Union, some of the why and how of what happened remain controversial.


This amusement park in Pripyat was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986, a few days before the disaster.

Less than six months after the disaster, construction began on nearby Slavutych, a city to replace Pripyat and house the displaced workers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and their families. Much work remained to be done to contain and assess the April disaster, not to mention run the remaining three reactors, the last of which ceased to operate only in December 2000. The formal decommissioning process of Reactors 1, 2, and 3 began in 2015 and will continue for decades.

To this day, many residents of Slavutych board a special train for the power station’s workers transiting Belarus to enter the Exclusion Zone for work at the plant and nearby storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel.

Consequences

Thirty-three years after that safety test at Reactor 4 went fatally wrong, the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station remains the worst in world history, superseding the 1979 partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania and eclipsing the meltdown of three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following damage sustained by a catastrophic tsunami in 2011. The accident at Three Mile Island remains the worst in the history of U.S. commercial atomic energy and ranked a 5 (accident with wider consequences) on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale of assessing nuclear and radiological events. Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only two disasters to ever be ranked as a 7 (major accident), the scale’s maximum.

Due to the differences in the half-lives of the specific contaminants, a full remediation and resettlement around Fukushima holds far greater promise than around Chernobyl. If radioactive leakage can be fully contained at Fukushima, there is a chance that the area could be declared completely safe for permanent human habitation in less than 100 years. By comparison, the first zone of exclusion immediately surrounding Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 is likely to remain unsafe for permanent habitation for thousands of years.

The total human, environmental, and financial cost of the disaster is fraught with obvious political sensitivities, but even in the scientific realm, significant disputes remain. The unprecedented magnitude of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster frustrates efforts to draw a definitive conclusion on the lingering effects of the explosion and fire of 1986. While there is wide agreement that somewhere between 30 and 50 people died in the immediate aftermath as a direct result of the accident, consensus breaks down over estimates of a longer-term assessment of deaths attributable to the radioactive fallout from the disaster.

Shortly after the disaster, a zone of approximately 1,000 square miles around Reactor 4 was established, evacuated, and condemned for permanent human habitation. This area—known as the Exclusion or Alienation Zone—has begun the long process of being reclaimed by nature.

The area is divided between Zone 1 and Zones 2 and 3. The first zone is the immediate vicinity around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and comprises roughly 15 percent of the total Exclusion Zone. It is also contaminated with transuranium elements that decay over a period of thousands of years, placing this area off-limits indefinitely. Zones 2 and 3 comprise the remaining territory and were largely contaminated with elements that decay much faster. Some of this shorter-term contamination is already gone and the rest could be gone in the coming decades.

The Exclusion Zone is as alive as it is hauntingly empty. Forests encroach on what were once fertile fields. Butterflies flutter above concrete cracked open by saplings. Wild horses roam by day and wolves by night, and entropy takes its toll on man-made construction. It almost seems that the flora and fauna suffered more from proximity to humans than they now do from lingering radiation in the contaminated soil—a phenomenon known as the ecological paradox.

Containment

In those first critical hours after the explosion, when firefighters heroically battled a radioactive blaze, efforts were made to erect temporary barriers around the damaged core of Reactor 4. Those emergency efforts continued once the fire was out, but the hasty construction allowed radiation to continue to escape the confines of the reactor and was structurally unsuitable for containing the deadly transuranium elements inside. In 2018, with the support of the international donor community, Ukraine completed construction on the New Safe Confinement facility designed to safely entomb Reactor 4 for as long as 100 years.


Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman inside the structure containing Reactor 4.

Support from the West, most notably the United States, is critical to safety. Currently, Western contractors are working with Ukrainian partners to complete the construction of a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from other reactors across the country. Construction is reportedly on, or slightly ahead of, schedule on this facility that is planned to eliminate Ukraine’s need to contract with Russia for its growing storage needs.

Protecting the public from the widely dispersed radioactive particulate found within the Exclusion Zone is the main reason for the establishment of the zone itself as well as the multiple checkpoints encountered when leaving the zone. The most immediate danger to further contamination of habitable areas beyond the Exclusion Zone are wildfires; their smoke disperses contaminated debris into the atmosphere and in the direction of prevailing winds. Ukrainian firefighters have trained regularly with firefighters from the American West as they execute what is not only a domestic priority, but an international responsibility.

Other regular challenges to the safe administration of the Exclusion Zone are trespassers pursuing adventure, souvenirs, or wild game. Risks include not only the obvious danger of radiation exposure, but also crumbling construction and poor communications should a rescue be needed. Trespassers also risk the safety of the broader public by inadvertently transporting radioactive materials outside the Exclusion Zone.

A final, and enduring, challenge to securing the Exclusion Zone lies with waning public interest and thus political pressure to devoting scarce financial resources to protect this beautiful but contaminated landscape for the long term.

The Future

Government authorities plan to use Exclusion Zone 1 for dangerous industrial activities such as storing spent nuclear fuel or developing massive solar panel farms designed to replace some of the electricity that was once generated by the power station’s four reactors. The remainder of the Exclusion Zone will serve as a buffer between habitable areas and Zone 1 as well as a unique nature preserve and massive open-air laboratory to study any lingering effects of the disaster.


Construction site of a future spent storage facility.

As the passage of time has made parts of the Exclusion Zone safer, more and more visitors come to learn about those tragic events of the spring of 1986. Locals are beginning to tap a developing market for nuclear tourism, fueled by politicians, scientists, and thrill-seekers.

When leaving the Exclusion Zone and passing through the last checkpoint, travelers are greeted by tour buses, flag-carrying guides, and a roadside kiosk selling cheap t-shirts. Increasing interest in Chernobyl tours, and particularly the photogenic abandoned town of Pripyat, ensure a steady stream of income. The city may no longer generate power, but it continues to generate interest.

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    WASHINGTON - A bipartisan 8-member Congressional delegation led by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), visited Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In Baku, Azerbaijan, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, headed the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from June 28-July 2 that successfully advanced priority security and human rights initiatives. Key among the U.S. initiatives was a resolution introduced by Chairman Ben Cardin condemning Russia’s violation of international commitments by annexing Crimea and directly supporting separatist conflict in Ukraine. Upon passage of the resolution by a 3 to 1 margin, Cardin stated: “Russia is a member of this organization, but is violating its core principles. We must speak up in the strongest possible way and hold Russia accountable for its destabilizing actions and that is what we did here.” Co-Chairman Smith received overwhelming support for his resolution on efforts to combat child sex trafficking. As the Assembly’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking, Smith’s initiative pressed for the formation of a notification system among countries regarding the travel of persons convicted of sex crimes against children, as well as increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies and with the travel industry to prevent child sex tourism. “This resolution provides a tool to mitigate the horrific abuse of children by sexual tourism,” said Smith. “These predators thrive on secrecy, and so the goal is advance notification of sex offender travel so that children can be protected.” In addition to Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Smith, the delegation included Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt(R-AL), Commissioner Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA). The U.S. delegation fielded two of the 18 resolutions considered at the annual session, as well as a total of 19 amendments to several of these resolutions. In an initiative related to Chairman Cardin’s Ukraine resolution, Senator Wicker introduced language adopted by the Assembly recognizing the importance of the OSCE’s military observation missions, including the inspections in Ukraine.  Senator Wicker also participated in a dialogue with fellow parliamentarians on OSCE engagement with partner country Afghanistan. Senator Tom Harkin successfully offered amendments calling for access and equal opportunity for persons with disabilities, including calling for the ratification and implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by all OSCE participating States. Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt achieved passage of language supporting the integration of Western Balkan countries into the EU and NATO, and, in a separate initiative, highlighted the plight of “disappeared” political prisoners in Turkmenistan and called on that government to finally come clean on the fate of these individuals, one of whom was a former OSCE ambassador. An initiative by Rep. David Schweikert encouraged increased outreach by the OSCE to Mediterranean Partner countries, while Rep. Phil Gingrey brokered an agreement calling for concrete steps to promote clean and affordable energy. Finally, Rep. Smith and Senator Cardin joined an initiative with the Canadian delegation to respond more vigorously to acts of anti-Semitism throughout the participating States. On July 2 the meeting concluded with the adoption of the Baku Declaration, containing broad policy recommendations for the OSCE and its 57 participating States in the fields of political affairs and military security, trade, the environment and human rights. While in Azerbaijan, the delegation also held bilateral meetings with the Government of Azerbaijan, including meeting with President Ilham Aliyev as well as representatives of civil society fighting for media freedom, rule of law and disability rights in Azerbaijan. Bilateral meetings in Georgia and Moldova In addition to attending the OSCE PA’s Annual Session in Azerbaijan, Chairman Cardin led the delegation to stops in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Chisinau, Moldova, for bilateral meetings to discuss expanded ties with the United States as well as regional security in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. In Georgia the delegation met with the President, Prime Minister, and the leadership of the United National Movement opposition party offering U.S. support and encouraging further democratic reforms, particularly in building a robust and independent judiciary free from corruption and untainted by politically-motivated prosecutions. In Moldova, the delegation met with the Prime Minister and key political leaders across the spectrum on the day the national parliament ratified an historic agreement with the European Union. The delegation also held consultations with the leadership of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, representatives of civil society, and the U.S. Embassy.

  • Importance of Good Governance to Comprehensive Security

    Remarks to the 2014 OSCE Japan Conference on Sharing Experiences and Lessons Learned between the OSCE and Asian Partners for Cooperation in Order to Create a Safer, More Interconnected and Fairer World in the Face of Emerging Challenges Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for your kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here today. I’d also like to thank our Japanese hosts for their very gracious arrangements for this important conference. I am here on behalf of U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, the Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The Helsinki Commission is unique in that the U.S. is the only OSCE participating State to create a distinct governmental agency to monitor member state compliance with OSCE commitments. One of the key priorities for our Commission is promoting good governance and combatting corruption, and we were pleased to see the tremendous progress achieved in this area in 2012 with the adoption of the Declaration on Strengthening Good Governance and Combatting Corruption, Money-Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism at the Dublin Ministerial. The Good Governance Declaration is comprehensive, laying out a strategy for the OSCE to combat corruption, strengthen civil society development and enforce accountability measures in the public and private sectors.  The declaration has given some new tools to the Economic and Environmental Coordinator’s office, which plays a critical role in strengthening stability and security in the OSCE region. And last year, the OSCE worked to promote sustainable energy solutions, advocate transparency and accountability, and to build capacity at all levels of society – government, private sector, and its citizens.  These achievements represent a foundation for further enhancing the 2nd Dimension. The U.S. and the EU have recently enacted laws that address the problem of transparency and accountability in the resource sector. In the United States, these laws were authored by the Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Senator Ben Cardin. The laws require companies to publicly report payments they make to governments for oil, gas and mining extraction. The concept is that by injecting transparency into a traditionally opaque business environment, the ability of citizens to better understand the money flows allows them to then hold their governments accountable. The laws are meant to innovate the way business is done in this extremely important sector by breaking the cycle of instability and poverty in countries suffering from what is often called the “resource curse”. This innovation can help ensure that energy supplies are not disrupted, it gives citizens a tool to fight corruption, and it levels the playing field for companies. Now that the U.S. and the European Union are implementing these transparency rules, other markets with large resource extraction companies such as Australia and Canada are exploring similar requirements. And we expect that as these rules come online we will see other stock exchanges around the world follow suit. Corruption and lack of transparency in the extractive industries can fuel instability and even conflict, so it’s not hard to see why this type of transparency is catching on. The news is full of headlines on instability created by resource competition or corruption. And resource rich countries are consistently rated as some of the most difficult places to do business. In almost every case you can trace the root cause to the intractable corruption in that country. These transparency laws are the game changers that will help tilt the balance of power away from corrupt leaders. Transparency and accountability are going to make the job of extractive companies easier. They will work on a level playing field, they will work with more stable governments, and they will operate in more stable communities. And the OSCE has a role to play here as well. With the acknowledgment of the importance of combatting corruption in the Good Governance Declaration, the OSCE’s Economic and Environmental Dimension can serve as a valuable platform for increasing stability and security on energy related issues and, in particular, highlighting the link between security, energy, and the environment. As we look toward the Basel Ministerial and the Helsinki+40 process, we must build upon this work and examine how the 2nd Dimension can be further strengthened to advance solutions that build good governance. One of the ways that we can do this is to more actively engage civil society in the 2nd Dimension. We need to welcome multi-stakeholder groups, business groups and civil society leaders to the Economic and Environmental Forum and the Economic and Environmental Implementation meeting in order to generate greater awareness of good governance initiatives, develop new projects, and assess the effectiveness of participating States in implementing these commitments.    Let me close with a comment on Ukraine. I was there two weeks ago to observe the election. Despite the daily reports of violence, what we saw in the conduct of the election makes me hopeful that the newly elected government will be able to move the country forward. But what is painfully clear is that the corruption surrounding Ukraine’s energy sector was a key factor in fueling the protests that eventually led to the downfall of the government. Ukraine is not a big oil and gas producer itself, but it plays a major role as a transit country between Russia and Western Europe. Ukraine has started work on its candidacy for EITI but still has a long way to go so we are encouraging the new government to place a priority on getting that in place. The broader lesson from Ukraine is that secret deals lead to corruption. Corruption leads to economic stagnation.  Economic stagnation leads to political instability.  Political instability leads to violence and human rights abuses, and even opportunistic violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is why we need to innovate the way we do business. This is why we need to focus on transparency and good governance. And this is why we need to empower civil society and media to hold their governments accountable. These are all areas where the OSCE has expertise and where the Asian Partners can provide assistance and experience. Thank you.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON - Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: The Security, Economic and Human Rights Dimensions of US-Azerbaijan Relations Wednesday, June 11, 2014 10:00 am Russell Senate Office Building Room 432 The Republic of Azerbaijan has been an ally of the United States since its independence in 1991. It is a supplier of energy to Europe and has played an important role in assisting the U.S. and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan through the contribution of troops and as a conduit for the Northern Distribution Network. Azerbaijan is a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and in May it assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe (COE). Despite membership in both of Europe’s leading human rights institutions, Azerbaijan has been consistently criticized for its undemocratic elections and its use of the judicial system to punish political opponents. As the U.S. Helsinki Commission prepares to attend the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Baku at the end of June, this hearing will examine the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship and the impact of regional and domestic issues in Azerbaijan on that relationship. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Tom Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Department of State Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Department of State Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy Brenda Shaffer, Visiting Researcher, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University

  • Cardin Statement on Ukrainian Presidential Elections

    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Commission, issued the following statement on the May 25 early presidential elections in Ukraine. “Sunday’s vote was a day of destiny for Ukraine and a turning point in the nation’s effort to overcome Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s democratic development.   It also offers Ukraine a chance to turn a corner on a crippling legacy of corruption. The election also was important for the OSCE which is undertaking massive efforts in Ukraine aimed at fostering stability and encouraging democracy in Ukraine.  These elections present an historic opportunity to build and independent, prosperous state based on the rule of law. “I congratulate the Ukrainian people and the interim government on the conduct of yesterday’s free and fair vote.  Along with my colleague, Sen. Rob Portman, I was pleased at the opportunity to observe the elections first-hand and witness ordinary citizens who were clearly determined to freely make their choice and be stewards of their own destiny. “At the same time, I deplore the actions of those who have deprived Ukrainians in Russian occupied Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine their right to vote through violence, intimidation and fear. “Ukraine’s people have shown remarkable courage and perseverance over the last six months in the face of tremendous internal challenges and serious and ongoing external threats.  We will continue to stand by the people of Ukraine and their newly elected president as they work to overcome these challenges and forge a free, independent and democratic future.”

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