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New Chernobyl fears in Russia

March 15, 2011

People in the Russian Far East are on alert to news of the Fukushima nuclear plant. Despite official statements saying the situation in Japan poses no threat, people are taking steps to protect themselves from radiation.

Aaerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear plant shows damage from an explosion and fire in reactor four on April 26, 1986 that sent large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
The Chernobyl disaster took place 25 years ago on April 26Image: AP

In much of the Russian Far East, people shuddered at the news of a potential nuclear disaster just across the sea in Japan. Barely a month before the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, they were well aware of the dangers of accidents like the one at the Fukushima power plant.

With little trust in the scant official reports saying they were not at risk, people in Vladivostok went shopping for whatever dosimeters, red wine and iodine they could find, apparently firmly believing that the right dose of alcohol is able to stave off any negative effects of excess radiation.

Red wine being poured into a glass
A stiff drink may cure concerns, if not radiation sicknessImage: DPA

The authorities have been closely monitoring the developments on the other side of the Japanese Sea ever since the first signs of trouble surfaced at the power plant last Friday. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin summoned the head of Russia's atomic agency Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko. Russian specialists with experience in fighting the Chernobyl disaster were sent to help the Japanese tackle the problems at Fukushima, but the offer was politely refused.

Officials reassure, people worry

Kiriyenko stressed that the accident may result in serious contamination of the area immediately surrounding the plant, but he said he was confident that the population in Russia's Far East was not in any danger.

"Even in the worst-case scenario, if for example strong winds blow in the direction of Russia carrying radioactive material for several days, even then there is no threat to the Russian Far East," he said. "But there are no grounds for such a scenario anyway, because the wind blows in the opposite direction."

Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom)
Kiriyenko says Russia is not threatened, 'even in the worst-case scenario'Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Officials in the Russian Emergency Ministry spoke similar reassuring words and said "not to expect" any nuclear contamination of Russian soil. Every two hours, the ministry provides fresh data on radiation levels in the Far East on its website, and local authorities in Vladivostok are doing the same. People remain worried, however, and many are calling up the authorities with questions about the levels shown on their newly-bought dosimeters.

The accident at Fukushima could potentially deal a severe blow to the Russian nuclear industry. Experts are already talking about a new "Chernobyl syndrome." In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, many nuclear power projects were frozen. In Russia alone, preparations for some twenty nuclear power stations were halted, and construction work on five others stopped.

Short-lived renaissance?

It took many years for nuclear energy to become accepted again after Chernobyl. Gradually, though, nuclear power even began to look like an attractive, reliable and clean alternative to burning fossil fuels, during a time of increased awareness of the contribution of these power sources to global warming. One Russian expert even spoke of "a nuclear renaissance." Russia dreamed of becoming a "nuclear energy superpower" which, in the words of Vladimir Putin, would eventually be able to take a 25 percent stake in the world market for building and maintaining nuclear power stations. All these dreams could now be shattered by the Fukushima disaster.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gestures a thumbs-up
Putin wants nuclear power to be a bigger part of Russia's energy exports portfolioImage: dapd

Russia's nuclear branch is doing all it can to minimize the damage. Government officials say nuclear export contracts are not in danger, and will be carried out as planned. Specialists at Rosatom are eager to point out that the Fukushima plant was built by Americans forty years ago.

"Today, nuclear reactors are built in a fundamentally different way," Rosatom representative Sergei Novikov told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. The deputy head of the organization also said in the Kommersant newspaper that "the development of nuclear energy is inevitable."

Environmentalists are not so sure. With just over a month to go before the commemoration of the Chernobyl disaster, they are determined to use the Fukushima accident as a new weapon in their struggle against nuclear energy.

They have high-profile support from Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who had just come to power in the Soviet Union when the Chernobyl accident shocked his country and the world.

"Chernobyl is a warning sign," Gorbachev wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists just prior to the problems at Fukushima, in a plea to the world to make the transition to clean, renewable energy.

Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp, Moscow / msh
Editor: Michael Lawton