The truth about Chernobyl: How to notice the Elephant’s foot?

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In the case of radiation from Chernobyl, there is also a second act – after the creation of the so-called sarcophagus, after the accident in April 1986, a new source of possible environmental radiation was discovered. But, this discovery happened eight months later, in December! If this was not noticed by anybody, although it is a large spill of metal compound (the so-called “Elephant’s foot”), it means that even in the cases where there is an enormous concentration of interest on a single object, we fail to notice the obvious and the big! In a metaphorical sense, even the “elephant” was not big enough after so many unpleasant experiences.

In the case of radiation from Chernobyl, there is also a second act – after the creation of the so-called sarcophagus, after the accident in April 1986, a new source of possible environmental radiation was discovered. But, this discovery happened eight months later, in December! If this was not noticed by anybody, although it is a large spill of metal compound (the so-called “Elephant’s foot”), it means that even in the cases where there is an enormous concentration of interest on a single object, we fail to notice the obvious and the big! In a metaphorical sense, even the “elephant” was not big enough after so many unpleasant experiences

 

Author: Ljubomir Kostovski  

 

“Chernobyl’s point is not that nuclear energy is dangerous, but that lies, arrogance and lack of criticism are dangerous,” noted the famous journalist Boris Dežulović, commenting the television series in six episodes that became the most watched series on the HBO channel. The series, also available to our public, moved many people, especially the young, not yet born part of the audience when this nuclear disaster occurred. Namely, Chernobyl radiation reached our country as well, and even today we have an increased presence of some elements (for example caesium).

Furthermore, this series poses several questions about information, the media, and their role in such mega catastrophic events connected to the development of human technology, which, for some, mark the beginning (Titanic) and the end (Chernobyl) of the XX century, that has gone by so fast.

 

GREAT DANGERS REQUIRE EYES WIDE OPEN

The series “Chernobyl” narrates the entire context of the existence of an ideological society, as a country giant with a clear and almost immobile bureaucratic structure, incapable of making quick decisions and of being self-critical. Simply, the conformist atmosphere causes a terrible catastrophe covered with parrot spoken lies, note the critics of the series.

It is a fact that in circumstances where the nuclear core of the fourth reactor in the nuclear power plant named “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” exploded, it would have been a positive thing to have free media that would react immediately and prevent the spread of misinformation, would press the authorities to engage with the real priorities and would have probably saved many lives before the radiation spread thousands of miles on three continents: Europe, Asia and North America. This event began on 26 April 1986 and was made public three days later through indications from the measurements of Swedish and British scientists, followed by satellite images that showed the fire. A report prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization stated that 56 people died in the accident itself and estimated that 9,000 died of cancer directly caused by the radiation within a few weeks. The number of deaths from cancer in the months that followed is estimated at 100,000.

Print screen HBO Scene from the series: Behind the glass – the patients were also dangerous for the environment

 

The media usually run away from well-protected news, such as the explosion at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, because they lack the resources and do not have trained and persisting personnel that would devote to high-risk research on many grounds, including health. The buildings were such accidents occur are locked and the circulation of information takes place in a closed circle. The truth about Chernobyl was first revealed by the world’s scientific public (first physicists and then doctors) and the politicians were made to acknowledge the situation. Only at the end the media arrived to perform their work!

But journalists must serve the public interest because that is how they do their jobs and accomplish their tasks! And to this day, many facts about this accident are unknown, although 33 years have passed since. This fact clearly shows that in such cases, journalists’ eyes are simply not wide open.

 

THE MEDIA MUST BE AWARE THAT THEY WILL BECOME “STATE ENEMIES”

Contacts with science community were certainly important for journalists at that moment. But even the scientists failed to notice the “elephant’s foot”, let alone the media!

Elephant’s foot – The radioactive mass that erupted from the sarcophagus looked like an elephant’s foot

The mass is largely homogeneous, although the depolymerized silicate glass contains occasional zirconium crystals. That “foot” showed up passing through the cracks of the concrete above, on top of the reactor, an operation that was supposed to create some kind of sarcophagus (the cause of the immediate deaths of the pilots, firefighters and the miners coming from Donbass). The radiation from the “elephant”- the mass formed during the accident – was discovered eight months later at the end of the year in which the disaster occurred! If this was not noticed by anybody, it means that even when there is an enormous concentration of interest on a single object, you fail to see the obvious and the big! In a metaphorical sense, even the “elephant” was not big enough after so many unpleasant experiences.

The key figure in the field of science in the Chernobyl case – the Academician Valery Legasov, shortly after the accident recorded a statement telling the truth about the event and committed suicide, knowing that he would not have the courage to ever disclose the truth himself.

Can anything else be expected from the media? Let’s see what occurred not long ago when a similar accident took place in Croatia. In the discovery of this event, the newspapers (“Jutarnji List” from Zagreb and “Slobodna Dalmacija” from Split) play a huge role. They did a research on the causes of the accident in the thermal power plant Dubrovnik, where three employees lost their lives and the whole environment was exposed to extremely high temperatures (up to 260 degrees) and poisonous gasses! They were the head, not the tail of the investigation and were constantly demanding punishment for the perpetrators. Namely, the media followed and encouraged the investigation, which led to significant breakthroughs in the discovery of the errors in the restoration process of the facility (January this year) shortly before the accident. All of this ended up with the initial arrests of the perpetrators.

 

HOW TO BE USEFUL AND NOT JUST PANIC

Objectively speaking, the media in such catastrophes are positioned between the hammer and the anvil. One thing is to tell the truth, and another one is not to cause extra damage with it. What if the truth causes massive panic in some part of the territory of a country, or a region, where everyone starts looking for a way out on their own instead of this being done in an organized manner? What if this causes many victims, even much more than imagined?

Let us go back to Chernobyl. What is important here? First of all, the Soviet media were certainly known for being under the constraints of the authorities for what occurred. They had to remain silent even when the first 50,000 citizens from the little town Pripyat were evacuated. Even outside the borders of USSR there was not much drama, because during that period the so-called “instant news” did not exist. The insight about the radiation danger present in Yugoslavia arrived on Labor Day, 1 May, a week after the accident occurred, recalls the physicist Snežana Pavlović in an interview for the newspaper “Vecernje novosti”. What the author of the text can confirm is that people like Pavlović, being among the “top” physicians and doctors, created a team that constantly and scrupulously informed the public about everything important requiring to be published at the time.

For that purpose, the then Second Channel of the Yugoslav Radio Television created an editorial office in the Zagreb studio, where prominent figures constantly (24/7 – as would be said today) provided useful information and guidance. For example, such information were the levels of radiation at any time in a given region, the allowed dose, etc. This happened in circumstances in which a huge part of the population had no knowledge about this topic. Furthermore, useful information were obtained on how to be safe from radiation through clothes and everyday lifestyle (women wore scarves and men wore hats; everyone wore high boots although it was May). There were pieces of advice about the products the public should and shouldn’t consume (canned and carton food was the preferred choice, and fresh vegetables, fruits and milk were to be avoided), which areas were supposed to be considered as “hostile” (grassy surfaces), etc.

In such circumstances the media are the bearers of “enlightenment”. In doing so, they have to inform all the time about the positive and negative sides of the use of different energy sources and, if a need arises, some of them to be replaced in order to avoid accidents such as these.

It is important to mention the case of the US nuclear accident that occurred in March 1979 as an example of how a society guided by the media can change its way of thinking when faced with a challenge.

The incident on the Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania occurred when the nuclear power plant (under the same name – Three Mile Island) had a defect in the cooling system of the reactor’s core. The radiation (from 5 to 7 units out of possible 10) in a relatively short time threatened the small community of Middletown three kilometers away from the facility. The media raised their voice, and their influence over the public opinion was clear by the fact that the support for nuclear power plants as an energy source fell from 70% to 50%.

In the United States 129 new nuclear power plants were under construction, and all construction activities were immediately stopped after the accident. Later, the work continued only on 50 of them. President Jimmy Carter personally visited the plant in April 1979 to convince his fellow citizens that the situation is under control (Carter is alive and active, although he is 95 years old). This practice in similar situations in other countries with nuclear potential is not known!

The cleaning of the plant began in August 1979. Almost 100 tons of radioactive fuel was removed. It is expected the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant to be closed this year! This only shows that some newspapers and broadcasters showed sense for long-term observation of a problem of public importance.

No one remembers the effects of Chernobyl in our country. There are no analyses of the consequences of this event here, among us, because radiation is not a temporary hazard.

Let us mention the fact that the measured quantities of the dangerous element caesium 137 in neighbouring Serbia range from 80 to 110 nanosieverts per hour. Is this a dangerous number and what is the situation in our country regarding “this issue”? These quantities date from the Chernobyl radiation. This certainly is a topic for research.

 

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This article was created within the framework of the Project to increase the accountability of the politicians and political parties Truthmeter implemented by Metamorphosis. The article is made possible by the generous support of the US non-profit foundation National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The content is the responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, the National Endowment for Democracy or their partners.