Chernobyl: 25 years on
A quarter of a century has elapsed since a powerful explosion destroyed a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 claiming the lives and health of thousands. The count is still on.
The blast hit seven seconds after an operating crew launched a planned experiment to check the back-up power supply system. Local residents were not evacuated from the contaminated area for another 24 hours.
Four days later, Izvestia daily (not the official newspaper Pravda) published a short statement saying there had been an accident that damaged a reactor and relief work was underway. After a few more days, MN criticized the outraged European media for describing an accident that killed two people as a global disaster.
The explosion indeed killed two engineers. One of the bodies was never recovered from the debris of two 130-ton steam separators. Thirty more plant personnel and firefighters died within months of radiation exposure.
Anatoly Dyatlov, the Chernobyl executive held responsible for the unfortunate experiment that provoked the greatest environmental disaster in history, died of radiation nine years after the tragedy.
The UN 2005 report put the death toll at 50 and said at least 4,000 more would die of radiation. Greenpeace published a pessimistic forecast in 2006, expecting 270,000 Chernobyl-related cases of cancer, 93,000 of them lethal.
There have been piles of reports over the past 25 years. Several feature films and documentaries were made, monuments erected and a symphony composed. The Soviet Union introduced benefits for the relief workers, although in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko abolished them. Pripyat, the dead city, has become an attraction for extreme tourists and lovers of gloomy post-industrial landscapes.
In fact, 25 years is not that long; it is much shorter than the half lives of cesium-137 or plutonium-239. But it was enough for Chernobyl to become history, a personal tragedy for half a million affected families or a page in history textbooks.
But there will be no memorial projects this year. The world is following another developing nuclear tragedy, at Fukushima in Japan.
Tokyo Electric Power Company has received even more criticism than the Soviet government did in 1986 for keeping the news from the public. On April 24, a company source said a concrete fragment from Fukushima was emanating radiation exceeding the acceptable dose by millions of times.
Fukushima, also rated a level 7 nuclear accident, is often compared with Chernobyl, although there was no blast – “only” melted nuclear fuel that is still contaminating water and air.
The two accidents differ in one important way. Japan immediately focused on disaster relief, while the Soviet government was too busy appointing heroes and sending “anti-heroes” to jail. Plant directors were sentenced to 10 years behind bars, including Dyatlov who suffered lethal radiation exposure. Most heroes and anti-heroes died within a few months.
The Japanese media are praising the relief workers who stayed at the plant when everyone else was evacuated. But no major conclusions can be drawn now: Fukushima has not yet become history.
Submarine commander blamed for deadly 2008 accident
On Monday, the Pacific Fleet Court ruled that Dmitry Lavrentyev, commander of the K-152 Nerpa Shchuka-B/Akula II type nuclear-powered attack submarine, and mechanic Dmitry Grobov should face trial by jury for aggravated malfeasance and manslaughter. Experts say the defendants have been framed, and maintain the November 8, 2008 accident was in fact caused by systemic, structural flaws.
The sub’s fire extinguishing system was activated without authorization during trials in the Sea of Japan, releasing Freon gas which killed 20 people and injured 38 more. Lavrentyev faces up to ten years in prison while Grobov is looking at five years behind bars. Investigators previously claimed Grobov activated the system without permission, out of sheer curiosity and negligence.
Grobov confessed to activating the system, and Lavrentyev was indicted only in 2009. He and submarine brigade commander Sergei Zakharchenko were charged with negligence. Lavrentyev has now been indicted for more serious violations.
Alexander Kulakov, Lavrentyev’s legal counsel, said he will request the case be closed and reinvestigated. Kulakov and his client expect a full acquittal. Kulakov said the fatalities were caused by malfeasance on the part of defense industry managers and by the shameless embezzlement of funds during the submarine’s construction.
The defense will submit evidence that the fatalities were caused by the Freon gas used, which contained a mix of dangerously toxic substances. Lavrentyev’s colleagues are outraged with the charges against him, and accuse fleet prosecutors of trying to frame him.
Former Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Gennady Khvatov, said the submarine was not ready for a trial run. While admitting that the commanding officer on board deserves to be questioned, he stressed that other officials also had a key role in ensuring the sub’s systems were in working order.
He added that the gas used was substandard and that the system had been activated independently – something that should not happen. These defense industry failures, Admiral Khvatov noted, fall outside the submarine commander’s purview.
Former Pacific Fleet Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Voitovich, claimed the case against Lavrentyev had been brought “to order, not in accordance with the law” to protect the real culprits.
Former Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Viktor Fyodorov rejected claims that the submarine commander’s crew was to blame, focusing instead on uncertified equipment, the lack of any mention of the gas used in the sub’s documentation, and the fact that its systems had not been tested. He said fatalities could have been avoided had certified gas been used for a limited period of time.
The Nerpa submarine was developed in St. Petersburg and completed in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Construction began in 1991 and later stopped. The submarine was to have entered service with the Russian Navy in December 2009. There were plans to lease it to the Indian Navy for ten years under a $650 million contract. The submarine is still undergoing tests, and the transfer to India has been repeatedly delayed.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 20.
Grounded: No May vacation
Hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists who have been planning trips abroad over the upcoming holidays in early May might have no planes to fly on. The Russian Federal Agency for Air Transport has turned down charter flight requests from eleven airlines.
The list of destinations denied includes Burgas, Pardubice, Dresden, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Rimini and Thessaloniki. Several companies were not allowed run charter flights to popular Turkish resorts Antalya and Bodrum. All these destinations are extremely popular on May holidays, meaning that the watchdog’s decision risks sparking a tourist crisis.
The aviation watchdog said this decision came as no surprise for airlines. The commission considers charter flight requests on a monthly basis and it is normal for some airlines to get the green light while for others don’t. Though the federal agency is not obliged to justify its decision, it did offer Izvestia the following reasons. First of all, airport capacity has decreased due to tighter security measures following the Domodedovo blast. Moreover, on April 15 reconstruction work on Vnukovo airport began.
The agency stressed that rejected airlines are free to resubmit their requests next month. As for tourists who might face problems over the May holidays, the watchdog assured Izvestia that the number of airlines operating was sufficient and that they could meet the demand.
Meanwhile, airlines have their doubts. “For example, now there are only two flights from Moscow to Pardubice per week, by Transaero. We used to fly there but our request was turned down this time,” said Vitaly Korenyugin, spokesperson for the low-cost airline Sky Express that was included in the agency’s ‘blacklist.’ He added that the air transport watchdog’s decision could fuel suspicions of lobbyism.
In any case, it will be tour operators and tourists who will bear the brunt. Russia’s air transport and tourism watchdogs warn travel companies not to sell tours before airlines get charter flight permission. But this time the ‘blacklist’ was published only on April 22 while some tours start on April 25. Naturally, tour operators had to sell tours at their own risk. Moreover, this is the first time the air transport watchdog has turned down requests from so many airlines at one time.
According to Irina Tyurina, who heads the Russian Tourism Industry Union, the number of tourists grounded over the holidays might run to the tens of thousands at best and hundreds of thousands at worse. Naturally, travel companies will not be able to provide them all with alternative flights and will have to reimburse them for the failed vacation. But under international tourism regulations, most of the money has already arrived in the recipient company accounts. Thus, when people find they’re not being paid compensation, they are likely to turn to the courts as happened after the freezing rain-triggered transport collapse last December.
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