Global Ethics and Environment

By Nicholas Low | Go to book overview

5

Chernobyl, global environmental injustice and mutagenic threats

Kristin Shrader-Frechette

Introduction

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, according to one United Nations (UN) volume, was ‘the greatest technological catastrophe in human history’ (Savchenko, 1995:xv; Shrader-Frechette, 1999, 2000). Nearly 7 tons of irradiated reactor fuel was released into the environment—approximately 340 million curies. Included in the release were radioactive elements with a half-life of 16 million years. Yet we humans cannot protect ourselves from such radiation because we are biologically not equipped to do so. We are unable to taste, touch, smell, hear or see radiation. Its effects are silent but deadly. Less than six years after the accident, already there had been a hundredfold increase in thyroid cancers in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Most of these will be fatal (for verification of these comments see Henshaw, 1996:1052; Rytömaa, 1996; Poiarkov, 1995; NEA and OECD, 1996:28; Makhijani et al., 1995:98).

On the one hand, the Soviets, the French, UN agencies and many proponents of nuclear power have tended to claim that the consequences of the Chernobyl reactor explosion and fire were minimal. They say Chernobyl caused only 28 casualties (MacLachlan, 1994c:11ff.). The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), a UN agency dominated by the nuclear industry, places the number of Chernobyl fatalities at 31 (IAEA, 1991b:4). On the other hand, many health experts, scientists and environmentalists, especially in developed nations, have argued that the effects were catastrophic. They say that the accident has caused 32,000 deaths so far (Shcherbak, 1996:46; Konoplev et al., 1996). Others put fatalities at 125,000 (Campbell, 1996), or half a million if one counts future premature cancer deaths induced by germline mutations (Gofman, 1995).

Why has the international scientific and political community allowed the global environmental injustice of Chernobyl—the half million premature cancer deaths and the permanent contamination of millions of acres of land? Why has there been so much cover-up and denial? Apart from outright ethical corruption, one reason may be that we, who could make a difference, have remained largely silent, despite the fact that half of the half-million premature

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