News & Politics
Chernobyl At Ten: Apocalypse Then & Now
April 25, 2000
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed between 150,000 and 300,000 people, depending on whose guesses you buy.For four decades we all thought that was the worst we could do to each other with a single shot.The Nazi did kill millions. But compared to the bombs, that was a long, slow process. The nukes instantly vaporized tens of thousands right on the spot.And their radioactive fallout penetrated the generations. Childhood cancers, birth defects, Leukemia, hard-tumor cancers spread among the affected like an Asian Black Death.At first the Pentagon denied the "atomic disease" existed at all.Then a multi-national Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission spent decades fudging census data and exposure estimates to downplay the radioactive death toll.But the word ultimately spread: a nuke kills hundreds of thousands at once. But its fallout never stops.And now, at the tenth anniversary of Chernobyl, we have found something even worse -- a "safe" atomic power plant that blew hundreds of times more radiation into the atmosphere in one big shot. And that will eventually kill even more people -- especially small children -- than died in Japan.The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombs exploded while still airborne. The Air Force wanted to maximize the leveling blast on the cities below.Had those Bombs actually hit ground, they would have sucked tons of freshly irradiated dirt and cement and glass and tissue into the jet stream. The fallout would have been immeasurably worse. Thousands more people would eventually have died.Really dirty atomic explosions were reserved for other places. Like Nevada, where the US lifted thousands of tons of fallout into the winds blowing over our own country.From 1951 through 1963 millions of Americans breathed in hot Nevada dust, a killer compliment to the lethal isotopes still floating in from Japan, and then from tests by the Soviets, British, French, Chinese, Indians, Israelis, and South Africans.We'll never know how many people have died -- and still die -- from the thousand-plus tests conducted worldwide. But the toll is almost certainly in the tens of millions.But no single bomb has held a candle to what happened with deceptive, deafening silence April 26, 1986.Chernobyl was the ultimate historic sucker punch. After 41 years of living in terror from the possibility of a deranged but deliberate weapons exchange, we were blind-sided by a "peaceful" technology.Reactor opponents had shouted out the danger since the late 1960s. Then there was that 1979 warning at Three Mile Island.But most eyes were focused on the missiles and bombs.Mikhail Gorbachev became a hero for the ages when he shook hands with Ronald Reagan (of all people) and began building down the Apocalypse.But when Chernobyl melted, he covered it up. Even now, the truth is barely out.Two hundred times more radioactivity was blasted into the atmosphere from Chernobyl than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The fallout may match the sum of all atmospheric tests by all nations through the entire Cold War. It blanketed Belarus and Ukraine, where an epidemic of childhood thyroid cancer ravages the region's youth.Simply: radioactive iodine enters the thyroid. An embryo, a fetus, a small child -- all have tiny thyroids. A tiny dose of radiation can make them cancerous. When Chernobyl's iodine came down on nearby farms -- as it did in central Pennsylvania after Three Mile Island -- it contaminated the grass. The cows ate it. The iodine concentrated in their milk. When pregnant or nursing mothers or small children drank that milk, they were dosed. Both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl melted in the spring, when the cows were out grazing. So the impact was that much worse.Today childhood thyroid cancer rates in some spots around Chernobyl are at least 200 times normal. The Ukrainian government cites an overall disease rate 38 percent higher than before the accident.There are terrifying reports of widespread mutations among both humans and animals. A collective farm 50 kilometers away reported a 28-times rise in animal deformities in the two years after the accident. Creatures were born without limbs, eyes, ribs. Some came with no heads; others with two. Small wonder Soviet doctors began advising local women to have abortions.But the radiation went worldwide. It poured into northern Scandinavia, where deer and berries are still heavily contaminated. Sheep grazing on radioactive pastures is still strictly regulated in parts of Great Britain. Tons of produce were confiscated throughout Europe.And on the US west coast, the cloud hit a rainstorm. Bird births plummeted at Point Reyes Station, north of San Francisco. The radiation carried from Oregon to New England.According to Dr. John Gofman, former chief health researcher for the US Atomic Energy Commission, Chernobyl will ultimately cause roughly a million cancers worldwide, half of them fatal.In other words, 475,000 or more deaths from a single event.The Peaceful Atom has killed more people with a single meltdown than any nuclear weapon ever dropped in anger.It could happen again.It could be happening as you read this.Yet 110 power reactors still operate in the US, 434 worldwide.They sit on earthquake faults, in flood plains, near volcanoes. Their technological foundations are crumbling.They are expensive, inefficient, obsolete.The best and brightest US and Soviet "experts" promised such disasters could not happen.They were as wrong as the military madmen who said fallout killed no one at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.This appalling anniversary screams out that these reactors -- all of them -- must be shut. Now. Before they kill again.