MY EDUCATION FROM TWO NUCLEAR SCIENTISTS
Roland G. Simbulan
Till I met two nuclear scientists who completely changed my entire outlook about nuclear energy, I was not always what you might call a hardcore nuclear power-free advocate.
In the early 80s, during the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship, I had worked with the late Senator Lorenzo M. Tanada to oppose the construction and operation of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). The Marcos regime had almost kept the nuclear power plant project in Morong, Bataan a secret from the Filipino people, that information about it was only made available when construction was actually started and international publications published articles about the project. Our strong opposition was on grounds that because its construction had been wrought with wheeling and dealing, bribery and corruption, the product was a rotten lemon waiting for disaster. And of course because it was hastily designed and planned under highly anomalous circumstances, its location was even vulnerable to active volcanoes and earthquake faults.
But there were two nuclear scientists, one from the former Soviet Union, and the other, a Japanese, who shaped my almost die-hard outlook today regarding nuclear power. Both were respected nuclear scientists in their countries who had become the fiercest critics of the technology that they had once promoted.
Vladimir M. Chernousenko was suffering from acute radiation poisoning when I first met him in an international summit in Europe. Chernousenko had been the chief scientific nuclear coordinator of the clean-up of the world’s worst nuclear accident which occured in 1986 at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in what was then the Soviet Union. He was appointed by no less than then Soviet premier Mikhael Gorbachev. It was on two occasions that I met him: during the 1992 World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg Austria, and a week later, during the International Radiation Conference in Berlin, the Federal Republic of Germany, which I attended as National Chairperson of the Nuclear Free-Philippines Coalition (NFPC). On both occasions, we were speakers at the said conference. At the time that I met him in Europe, he was undergoing medical treatment for radiation illness in Germany. At 50, he was dying.
Along with hundreds of others involved in the emergency clean-up of Chernobyl, Chernousenko was exposed to the high level radioactive elements at Chernobyl, despite the special protective suit that they were all required to wear. And because he chose to write a book with the title, Chernobyl: Insight from the Inside, in 1991, he was expelled from the prestigious Ukrainian Academy of Sciences for revealing the truth on what really happened at Chernobyl.
Dr. Chernousenko’s book revealed the enormous health effects of the Chernobyl accident, demolishing the myths spread by the Soviet authorities and the international nuclear establishment which tried to downplay if not minimize the impact of Chernobyl. He estimates that between 7,000- 10,000 of his volunteers in the clean-up of Chernobyl eventually suffered from radiation sickness, and millions of people in the former Soviet Union were exposed to high radiation levels, their lives painfully and slowly cut short from having ingested food, milk and water contaminated by the nuclear accident and radioactive fallout. He estimates that Chernobyl emissions reached as far as the entire Eastern and Western Europe, contaminating vast farmlands, making them radioactive wastelands for decades. Large parts of the Ukraine became virtually ghost towns, according to Chernousenko, a no man’s land for almost a decade. All dairy products from these countries then had
to be recalled. And, come think of it, there was not even an earthquake or tsunami that triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, or that which earlier happened in 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
As I listen in today’s news of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, I recall my conversations with Dr. Chernousenko, whom I had the rare opportunity to meet then in Salzburg, Austria and later on in Berlin. He mentioned the unusually many –thousands and thousands of cases of leukemia, birth defects and hypothyroidism in his homeland affected by radioactive fallout. So many infant deaths, so many cases of thyroid gland illnesses, and deformities among children. This is because children are 10 to 20 times more sensitive to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults. He was so concerned of the isotopes such as strontium, cesium and plutonium, released at Chernobyl into air, water and soil, which will remain lethal for many hundreds or even thousands of years: on the shorter term, they accumulate at each step of the food chain and concentrate most highly in human beings.
I look back to my old files of Chernousenko’s speech in that Salzburg conference where he bewailed the existence of a “Nuclear Mafia” among the exclusive nuclear- powered countries which tries to downplay if not hide the truth about the health and safety implications of nuclear power. He revealed the truth about the impact of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl:
“According to our calculations, more than 35 million people on the territory of my country received this or another dosage of radiation. By “this or another dosage”, I mean more than 15 million people got an over-dose 3,500 to 4,000 times on their thyroid glands. It is clear that this will not go away without consequences for the children’s health who received this dosage. Imagine: 192 tons of uranium, imagine that at the moment of the catastrophe the rector produced 520 different dangerous radio nuclides, among them also radioactive iodine which affects the thyroid glands of the children in the most dangerous way– and you get an idea of the scale of damage especially to the territory of our country.”
Nearer home and now again, as I listen to the distressing news about Japan’s nuclear power problems in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, I cannot help but remember a good friend, the late Dr. Jinzaburo Takagi. “Jin” to his friends, was a short, thin but unassuming man who did not look like he was once regarded as one of the “elite” nuclear scientists of Japan. Except for the fact that he had lighter skin, his presence reminded me of my good friend and U.P. colleague Walden Bello. A Professor at the prestigious Tokyo University, Takagi was also previously involved with the nuclear industry in Japan. In fact, he was one of its top nuclear scientists.
When I first met him in the mid 90s, during the World Conference of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War or IPPNW held in Tokyo, Japan, he had just turned his back on the Japanese nuclear power industry in which he was regarded as one of its top nuclear scientists. In fact, he had surprised many of his colleagues when, in the mid-90s, he not only turned his back on the industry. He had actually found out that he too had been exposed to continuous amounts of low level radiation and was suffering from radiation poisoning. He was to become one of the fiercest critics of the Japanese nuclear industry. He co-founded and organized the Citizens Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) in Tokyo, Japan, which was to become a highly credible and prestigious think tank of Japan’s anti-nuclear movement and grassroots communities devoted to opposing nuclear power plants in Japan. In its website, the CNIC pledges “to create a nuclear-free
world.” Dr. Takagi passed away in October 8, 2000, also a victim of the very technology that he once promoted as a nuclear scientist and physicist. He left behind a legacy of scientific research and activism that inspired me and many others, especially the anti-nuclear movement in Japan and Asia.
Dr.Chernousenko and Dr. Takagi were two people I can never forget. They turned their backs on a lucrative career in their respective country’s nuclear industry. They both became very fierce critics of nuclear power and the big business of the nuclear industry. And they both became ill of radiation-related illnesses—victims of that very technology that some claim to be the “cleanest and safest energy source” that this planet had allegedly invented.
I share this story because it is what shaped my strong anti-nuclear advocacy even before the recent Fukushima nuclear power disaster happened in Japan. The profound message of Chernobyl and Fukushima should not be forgotten. We owe it to future generations, and the survival of the human species.