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Japan's swift evacuation takes lessons from Chernobyl


A second explosion went off at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Monday, after the cooling system failed.

The Japanese government says no dangerous radiation has been released and that the reactor core remains intact - but the urgent evacuation of the area shows that the authorities are doing everything possible to prevent a Chernobyl-type catastrophe.

Spare no effort in getting the job done. This typical motto for construction projects in the Soviet Union also applied to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant when construction kicked off in the 1970s. It was intended to be a dream project for Soviet Ukraine.

“The average birth rate in the Chernobyl area was higher than in the rest of Ukraine. People were given homes and the demand for workers in Chernobyl was huge. So everyone lived, worked and liked it here,” says Vitaly Leonenko, doctor at Pripyat hospital (1980-1986).

But this happy existence came to an abrupt end on April the 26th 1986 - with the explosion of a reactor at the power station.

The very same motto used for building the plant - spare no effort - was now to be used in the clear-up of one of the world’s worst-ever man-made disasters. The blazing reactor was bombarded with sand and lead - measures which at first seemed panic-driven, but which were later deemed highly effective by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This action helped to contain the radiation and enable construction of the sarcophagus - a structure built around the reactor to seal it off several months after the catastrophe. The lessons of Chernobyl have been learned by experts world-wide since that catastrophe - and will have been of assistance to those battling the latest serious nuclear accident threatening contamination, with large numbers of people being evacuated because of the radiation threat.

Alexander often goes to the 30-kilometer Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine, but every visit evokes sad emotions. 25 years ago what is now the ghost town of Pripyat was his home - before the Chernobyl Fallout changed everything.

“You know, I don’t come here just to take photos. It still feels like home. I spent my best childhood years here, I liked it here. And even those who’ve never been here before come and feel the calm so they want to come back here,” says Alexander Sirota, former pripyat resident.

Alexander is one of hundreds of thousands, whose address changed after April 26, 1986.

The Troieschyna is one of Kiev’s youngest districts. In the 1980’s houses sprung up here literally overnight. Many of those who had to leave their homes in the Chernobyl area found their home here. A total of three hundred thousand people had to be re-settled from the contaminated land.

This new life came at a high price. For some reason, the soviet authorities meddled with the evacuation from the contaminated zone. 50 thousand Pripyat residents - the town just three kilometers from the exploded reactor - were subjected to a great deal of radiation.

The town’s former deputy mayor says this dreadful mistake was caused by a mass confusion which followed the blast.

“Those who ask the question don’t quite understand what it takes to evacuate as many as 50,000 people. You simply can’t do it in one hour, or in two hours. We brought 1300 buses here from Kiev, we had to inform people, bring them together, and in the first place we had to understand why do we actually needed the evacuation. Even specialists in the first stages didn’t know whether the reactor was destroyed,” explains Alexander Esaulov, deputy mayor of Pripyat (1980-1986).

Quarter of a century since the disaster, the 30-kilometer area around the plant is a nuclear wasteland. The fallout period for radioactive particles is believed to last several thousand years, so this land would hardly ever be inhabited again.
However, some people were not put off by the radioactive threat and decided to return after the Soviet Union collapsed.

As the news of a nuclear incident at the Fukushima plant in Japan broke out, the first thing the authorities did was to evacuate residents within 20 kilometers of the facility. 25 years ago, people of the affected area were less fortunate. The reaction of the Japanese government suggests that the lessons of Chernobyl have, decades later, been learned.


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