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Chernobyl, Risky Still, Thirty Years Later


Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident.

The effects of the disaster are still felt today.

On April 26, 1986, a reactor exploded at a nuclear power center in the town of Chernobyl, in what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine. The reactor caught fire, and it released huge amounts of radiation. Many emergency workers died. Soviet officials ordered 116,000 people living around the power plant to leave the area. Another 220,000 were forced to leave later as the “death zone” -- the nuclear contamination area -- expanded.

Chernobyl nuclear plant

Chernobyl nuclear plant

Recently, Associated Press reporters visited the edge of the contamination zone in Belarus. They found that milk from a dairy farm there contains radioactive isotopes. The isotopes give off radiation -- and can harm people and other living things.

Tests found that the milk contains radioactive isotope levels at least 10 times higher than the country’s food safety limits.

The farm was about 45 kilometers north of the former Chernobyl nuclear plant. The dairy farmer said his cows produce milk for a local factory, called Milkavita. It produces Parmesan cheese that is sold mostly in Russia.

Milkavita officials rejected the AP laboratory results as “impossible.” They said their own tests show that radioactive isotopes in their milk supply are well below safety limits.

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said Monday that cleaning up the radioactive fallout from the nuclear accident has been a “major and pressing task” for his country for 30 years.

Possible danger is nearby

Scientists are warning that it is possible a new disaster could be hiding in forests around the closed power plant.

Canadian scientist Timothy Mousseau is a leading expert on the Chernobyl disaster. He told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that forest fires could send clouds of toxic radioactive material up into the skies over Europe.

Mousseau said two acts of suspected arson caused “large fires” around Chernobyl over the past year. The fires burned a long time, but they “weren’t particularly hazardous in terms of radioactivity.”

He added that a third fire last year burned through part of the ‘red forest,’ which was the most contaminated part of the area. This fire was small, and contained quickly. But, he said, it is the kind that can “do serious harm if it had spread much more.”

Mousseau explained that the radioactivity in the woods would go back up into the atmosphere. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, and whether it was raining or not, it could land somewhere else.

His and other research into the Chernobyl accident suggests that the toxic cloud from a major fire could carry different kinds of radioactive materials across Europe.

At the time of the accident 30 years ago, he said, a huge cloud from the fire at Chernobyl rose into the atmosphere. This allowed radioactive material, in his words, “to be transported for thousands of miles.”

Now the risk has increased, partly because of rising temperatures on Earth’s surface. In addition, dead leaves from plants, fallen logs or dry grass could catch on fire.

"This dead organic matter on the surface of the soil is highly radioactive," Mousseau said. When it dries out, it becomes a possible fire threat, and provides the fuel for large and dangerous forest fires.

While it has been 30 years since the Chernobyl nuclear accident, it has been only five years since Japan’s deadly Fukushima-1 plant disaster.

Other nuclear disasters

The first big hit to nuclear power came at the end of March 1979. That is when a new reactor in the American state of Pennsylvania partially melted down.

There was no evidence of health issues tied to the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. But it started the debate about the safety of nuclear energy that continues around the world today. People ask whether splitting atoms to create energy is a safe, effective and economical way to get electricity to our cities.

There are about 400 reactors working in 31 countries. More than 60 are being built in 15 countries.

FILE - a worker, wearing protective suits and masks, takes notes in front of storage tanks for radioactive water at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture,

FILE - a worker, wearing protective suits and masks, takes notes in front of storage tanks for radioactive water at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture,

The Fukushima disaster will take a century to cleanup and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Nuclear power was not used in Japan for nearly two years, but two reactors were restarted there last year. The debate over nuclear power continues in the island nation. Japan depends on imports for about 90 percent of its main energy needs.

Those against nuclear power usually support the use of “green” power, like wind and solar power. But the supporters of nuclear power say it is safe, and more effective than wind or solar.

Adding to peoples’ concerns over nuclear power is the fact that experts still do not agree on how many people lost, or will lose, their lives because of the Chernobyl accident.

Fewer than 100 emergency workers died from the radiation. The World Health Organization warned years ago that Chernobyl would cause 4,000 additional deaths. But the environmental group Greenpeace ordered a study that shows, in the end, 93,000 people could die.

The town of Chernobyl still is home to about 3,000 people. They continue to work on decommissioning, or closing down, the plant. They are only permitted to stay in the area for 14 days to reduce their risk of radiation exposure.

Scientists say the nuclear exclusion zone will not be safe enough for humans to live there for another 20,000 years.

Yet in one part of the area, a few hundred people who were evacuated have come back to live. Many of the residents are older adults. Ukrainian officials quietly let them stay there.

The residents grow their own food, even with the warnings that food could be affected by the radioactive material. It appears some people who were sent away after the accident just wanted to be back home.

I’m Anne Ball.

Anne Ball adapted this story for Learning English based on reports from VOA’s Steve Herman, Henry Ridgwell, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Associated Press and the Reuters news service. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

contamination –n. made unfit for use by undesirable elements

radioactive isotopes –n. any one of different forms in which the atoms of a chemical element can occur—that have been exposed to radiation

fallout – n. the radioactive particles that are produced by a nuclear explosion and fall through the atmosphere

task – n. a job for someone to do

toxic – adj. containing poisonous substances

arson -n. when a person sets a fire to cause damage

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