Ionizing Radiation from Chernobyl and the Fraction of Viable Pollen

Tim Mousseau – latest Chernobyl paper in International Journal of Plant Sciences:

Oct 05, 2016

Pollen viability is an important component of reproductive success, with inviable pollen causing failure of reproduction. Pollen grains have evolved mechanisms to avoid negative impacts of adverse environmental conditions on viability, including the ability to sustain ionizing radiation and repair DNA. We assessed the viability of 109,000 pollen grains representing 675 pollen samples from 111 species of plants in Chernobyl across radiation gradients that spanned three orders of magnitude. We found a statistically significant but small and negative main effect of radiation on pollen viability rates across species (Pearson’s r = 0.20). Ploidy level and the number of nucleate cells (two vs. three) were the only variables that influenced the strength of the effect of radiation on pollen viability, as reflected by significant interactions between these two variables and background radiation, while there were no significant effects of genome size, pollen aperture type, life cycle duration, or pollination agent on the strength of the effect of radiation on pollen viability.


Most organisms are susceptible to environmental perturbations—such as climate change, extreme weather events, pollution, changes in nutrient availability, and changes in ionizing radiation levels—but the effects of such perturbations on individuals, populations, and ecosystems are variable (Candolin and Wong 2012; IPCC 2013; Møller and Mousseau 2013). In order to better understand these effects and to predict how a given species would respond to environmental disturbances, a study of the specific effects at different stages of organisms’ life cycles is required. Since reproduction is a key phase in the life cycle of any organism, reproductive effects are of particular interest. In the case of the effects of ionizing radiation, the negative consequences for reproduction in response to acute irradiation have been studied for decades and are well established (review in Møller and Mousseau 2013). However, the effects of long-term chronic exposure to low dose radiation are poorly understood.

Pollen grains are susceptible to the effects of environmental perturbations, which can have significant negative consequences for plant reproduction through pollen limitation (Delph et al. 1997; Ashman et al. 2004). Potential negative environmental effects include those resulting from elevated levels of ionizing radiation (Koller 1943). Therefore, plants have mechanisms to protect themselves from such effects, such as DNA repair, bi- or trinucleate cells, or redundancies in the genome resulting from duplications.

The area around Chernobyl in Ukraine has proven particularly useful for studying the effects of radioactive contamination on ecological and evolutionary processes at a large spatial scale. The Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986 led to the release of between 9.35 × 103 and 1.25 × 104 petabecquerel of radionuclides into the atmosphere (Møller and Mousseau 2006; Yablokov et al. 2009; Evangeliou et al. 2015). These radioactive contaminants were subsequently deposited in the surrounding areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine but also elsewhere across Europe and even in Asia and North America. The pattern of contamination is highly heterogeneous, with some regions having received much higher levels of radionuclides than others, owing to atmospheric conditions at the time of the accident (fig. 1). To this day, the Chernobyl area provides a patchwork of sites that can differ in radioactive contamination level by up to five orders of magnitude across a comparatively small area. Even decades after the accident, the amount of radioactive material remaining around Chernobyl is enormous (Møller and Mousseau 2006; Yablokov et al. 2009).


Fig. 1. Map of the distribution of radioactive contamination in the Chernobyl region, with pollen sampling locations marked. Adapted from DeCort et al. (1998).

Because of the unprecedented scale and global impact of the Chernobyl event, it is not surprising that it generated significant interest in both the scientific community and the general public. As a result, studies have been conducted to assess the consequences of Chernobyl for human health and agriculture as well as its biological effects, ranging from the level of DNA to entire ecosystems. Since ionizing radiation has long been well established as a mutagen (Nadson and Philippov 1925; Muller 1950), a large proportion of the research effort has focused on examining changes in mutation rates in areas that have been radioactively contaminated to different degrees as a result of the accident. Although there is considerable heterogeneity in the results of these studies, most have detected significant increases in mutation rates or genetic damage following the Chernobyl disaster, with the rates remaining elevated over the following 2 decades (reviewed in Møller and Mousseau 2006). For example, the mean frequency of mutations in Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is positively correlated with the level of background radiation, and it is 10 times higher in contaminated areas compared with control sites (Shevchenko et al. 1996). A study of Scots pine seeds detected elevated mutation rates within the exclusion zone over a period of 8 yr following the accident (Kal’chenko et al. 1995). In wheat (Triticum aestivum), the mutation rate was six times higher in radioactively contaminated areas compared with controls (Kovalchuk et al. 2000). Likewise, the frequency of chromosomal aberrations in two varieties of wheat grown within the Chernobyl exclusion zone 13 yr after the disaster was elevated compared with the spontaneous frequency of chromosomal aberrations in these cultivars (Yakimchuk et al. 2001). The levels of chromosome aberrations in onions (Allium cepa) were also positively correlated with the intensity of radioactive contamination in plants grown 20 yr after the accident (Grodzinsky 2006). Therefore, there is considerable evidence showing increased mutation rates in plants in the most contaminated sites (Møller and Mousseau 2015).

On the basis of the results of these studies, one might expect that a similar relationship between radiation level and the frequency of abnormalities would be seen in pollen. Indeed, Kordium and Sidorenko (1997) reported that the frequency of meiotic anomalies in microspore formation and the frequency of pollen grain viability was reduced in 8%–10% of the 94 plant species studied as a function of the intensity of gamma radiation 6–8 yr after the accident. In violets (Viola matutina), the proportion of viable pollen was negatively correlated with background radioactive contamination (Popova et al. 1991). While it is evident that plants differ in their susceptibility to ionizing radiation, the reasons for this variation are not entirely clear. It is likely that some species develop tolerance and/or resistance to mutagenic effects of radiation to a greater extent than others (Baer et al. 2007). For example, pollen of silver birch (Betula verrucosa), which grows in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl accident, showed elevated DNA repair ability compared with pollen from control areas, consistent with adaptation or epigenetic responses to increased radiation (Boubriak et al. 2008). There are also indications that genome size might affect the response of different species to radiation. Among the plants studied by Kordium and Sidorenko (1997), the rate of pollen viability decreased with increasing radiation to a higher degree in plants with smaller genomes (Barnier 2005), although the actual mechanism remains unknown. One potential explanation is that a larger genome might contain multiple copies of some genes as a result of duplication, rendering mutations in one of these copies less deleterious than if there were only a single copy present, although this explanation may not universally apply (Otto 2003).

In order to assess the effects of radioactive contamination on plant reproduction and to further assess species-specific differences in the effects of ionizing radiation on pollen viability, we analyzed pollen samples from plants growing in the Chernobyl region. We expected that the effects of radiation would differ among species, with some plants showing higher pollen inviability rates than others as a result of elevated radiation levels. A second objective was to test whether observed differences in pollen viability rates could be attributed to differences in phenotype among species, with possible explanatory factors including pollen size, the number of pollen apertures, ploidy, genome size, bi- or trinucleate cells, life span (annual vs. perennial), and pollination agent. We hypothesized that each of these factors could be related to the plants’ ability to resist or to tolerate radiation-induced mutations. Pollen size, genome size, and ploidy are all related to the amount of DNA and the number of copies of genes contained in the pollen grain. Because the pollen aperture—as the site of pollen germination—could be particularly susceptible to radiation-induced damage, we included the number of apertures as a potential explanatory variable. Furthermore, whether a plant is annual or perennial is related to individual longevity and, consequently, to the number of mutations that can accumulate over its lifetime as well as to the number of generations from the time of the Chernobyl accident until the time of sample collection. This may be particularly relevant for plants, given that germ tissue is derived from somatic tissues during each reproductive event as opposed to most animals, in which germ cells terminally differentiate very early during embryonic development (Buss 2006). Pollen viability depends on the ability of pollen to assess the integrity of its DNA and to repair the DNA of the generative nuclei before division (Jackson and Linskens 1980). This process is particularly important for binucleate pollen cells in which this happens during pollen germination, which is in contrast to trinucleate pollen cells, in which the need for DNA repair during pollen germination is less evident. DNA repair efficiency and adaptation of plants to chronic irradiation may also depend on the composition of radiation at the contaminated sites (Boubriak et al. 1992, 2008).

Across all plant species, we found a statistically significant relationship between radiation and the frequency of viable pollen of an intermediate magnitude (Cohen 1988). We also documented significant interactions between species and radiation, radiation and cell number, and radiation and ploidy. However, the significant effect of ploidy disappeared when both ploidy and whether cells were bi- or trinucleate were entered simultaneously in a single model. Most effects were small to intermediate in magnitude, as is commonly the case in studies of living organisms (Møller and Jennions 2002). We emphasize that our study included by far the largest sample size so far reported to detect effects of chronic radiation on pollen viability. However, we also emphasize the limits of our study. Many plant species could not be included simply because we could not locate multiple flowering specimens during our fieldwork. These and other sampling limitations reduced the number of pollen grains and the number of species that could be included.

Species differ in their susceptibility to radiation, as demonstrated for birds at both Chernobyl and Fukushima (Møller and Mousseau 2007; Møller et al. 2013; Galván et al. 2014), and in terms of adaptation to radiation (Galván et al. 2014; Møller and Mousseau 2016; Ruiz-González et al. 2016). The observed interspecific differences in radiation effects reported here for the proportion of viable pollen could be due to adaptation to radiation through tolerance of radiation-induced mutations or through induction of increased DNA repair in organisms living in contaminated areas. Another possibility is that some species are more resistant to radiation because of historical exposure in radiation hotspot areas with high natural levels of radiation (Møller and Mousseau 2013).

We observed a significant relationship between the proportion of viable pollen and the interaction between ploidy and radiation. Such a finding might suggest that resistance to deleterious effects of radiation is based on redundancy in the genome, where species with higher ploidy levels have an advantage if they have multiple copies of a given gene. We failed to detect an effect of selected physical attributes of pollen grains—such as genome size, pollen size, and aperture type—on the susceptibility of pollen to radiation. Furthermore, whether a plant was annual or perennial or whether it was insect or wind pollinated did not affect the proportion of viable pollen. Finally, whether plants produced bi- or trinucleate pollen had a significant effect on pollen viability, and the interaction between radiation and cell number was also significant.

While we confirmed the general finding of Kordium and Sidorenko (1997) that in approximately 10% of species the proportion of viable pollen is negatively correlated with radiation level, we were unable to reproduce their findings with respect to the overall magnitude of this effect. Our observed effect size was much smaller, and the slopes for individual species differed significantly from those reported by Kordium and Sidorenko (1997). Because more than 10 yr have passed between the two studies, we suggest that a change in radiation effects has taken place over time, for example, as a result of adaptation or accumulation of mutations. Another possible explanation for the discrepancy has to do with sample size, since our study included a much larger number of pollen samples and sampling locations than the study by Kordium and Sidorenko (1997). These explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Whereas other studies have demonstrated significant negative effects of radioactive contamination around Chernobyl on mutation rates and fitness in general, our study of pollen viability shows a very small effect, and some species even show positive relationships between pollen viability and radiation that is suggestive of adaptation to increased levels of radiation. However, on the basis of the current study, it is not possible to determine whether the observed heterogeneity reflects evolved adaptive responses or is the consequence of unmeasured selective effects on characters correlated with pollen viability, which could in part explain an overall positive effect of radiation (for a discussion of evolutionary responses in Chernobyl, see Møller and Mousseau 2016). Experimental approaches would be needed to decipher the mechanisms underlying the heterogeneity in plant responses observed here (Mousseau 2000).

The observed variability in susceptibility to radiation is a common finding in studies of the effects of radiation from Chernobyl (Møller and Mousseau 2007; Galván et al. 2011, 2014; Møller et al. 2013). While our results are consistent with earlier findings that DNA repair mechanisms may play an important role in adaptation to life in radioactively contaminated environments—especially for plants, which are sessile and hence cannot move to less contaminated areas—further research is required to test this explicitly. Finally, because of the observed differences in resistance to radiation among species, it is likely that even small overall effects of radiation—such as the one on the proportion of viable pollen described here—can have significant consequences for species composition and abundance at a given location and, therefore, for ecosystem characteristics and functioning.

In conclusion, we have found a statistically significant overall negative relationship between radiation intensity and the frequency of viable pollen in plants growing in contaminated areas around Chernobyl. The magnitude of this effect across species included in our study was intermediate. We only found a significant relationship between the proportion of viable pollen and ploidy × radiation interaction, bi- or trinucleate cells, and bi- or trinucleate cells × radiation interaction. This suggests that DNA repair mechanisms could play an important role for the ability of plants to resist increased radiation, at least when it comes to pollen formation.


We thank Puri López-García for use of a microscope for pollen counts. This work has benefited from the facilities and expertise of the cytometry platform of Imagif (Centre de Recherche de Gif; We thank Spencer Brown and Mickaël Bourge for their help with the flow cytometry measurements and Srdan Randić for help with pollen counts. Field collections for this study were supported in part by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Collaborative Linkage Grant program, the Fulbright program, the University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences, and the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust. Two reviewers provided constructive criticism.

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Fukushima rice set to make first EU foray with debut in Britain

Not only it is criminal to allow Fukushima products, potentially contaminated, to be sold in London, Europe at a Japanese Government sponsored event, and their ignorant buyers to be possibly internally contaminated, knowing that internal radiation exposure is 100 times more harmful than external radiation exposure; such event is then used by the Japanese government in the local Fukushima newspaper (Fukushima Minpo) and in the national newspapers (Japan Times) as propaganda to convince the Fukushima people and the Japanese people that it is quite safe, not harmful to eat the Fukushima products, the proof: Europeans are buying it and eating it!



Fukushima nativees sell products made in Fukushima Prefecture at the Japan Matsuri festival in London last Spetember (Fukushima Minpo)

Fukushima-harvested rice will hit the stores in Britain in July, which might make it the first member of the EU to import the grain, following a sustained effort by a group of Fukushima natives in London fighting rumors about the safety of the crop.

It is also the third nation, after Singapore and Malaysia, to import Fukushima rice since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Starting next month, 1.9 tons of Fukushima rice called Ten no Tsubu will be sold in London. A Fukushima branch of National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, a Japanese farmers group better known as Zen-Noh, will export the rice via a British trading company.

“With the U.K. as a foothold, we hope to expand the sale of prefecture-produced rice to other EU member countries,” said Nobuo Ohashi, who heads the Fukushima branch of Zen-Noh.

According to Japan’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, the EU has been phasing out its ban on Fukushima food products since the nuclear disaster started. But for Fukushima rice, the EU still obliges importers to submit a radiation test certified by the Japanese government or sample tests by the member nation importing it.

“It’s bright news for Fukushima, which has been struggling with the import restrictions,” said an official at the prefectural office in charge of promoting its products. “We will make further efforts so the restrictions will be lifted entirely.”

There were many hurdles to overcome.

Amid fears that Fukushima products were tainted with radioactive fallout, Yoshiro Mitsuyama, who heads the Fukushima group in London, consulted an official at Zen-Noh’s branch in Germany on how to sell Fukushima products a few years ago.

With the help of Zen-Noh, Mitsuyama’s group started selling Fukushima-made rice, peach and apple juice at the annual Japan Matsuri held at London’s Trafalgar Square three years ago.

The products were popular with London residents. When Visit Japan Ambassador Martin Barrow came to Fukushima last April, he bought some local produce.

“I want to help sell Fukushima fruits like cherries, apples and pears in London as well, not just rice,” said Mitsuyama.

This section, appearing every third Monday, features topics and issues covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in Fukushima Prefecture. The original article was published on May 25.

Germany readying law on nuclear waste storage costs

The German Cabinet plans to approve a draft law on Aug. 3 that will require its utilities to pay billions of euros into a state fund to help cover the cost of nuclear storage, according to an Economy Ministry timetable seen by Reuters on Monday.

A commission recommended in April that Germany’s “big four” power firms — E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall — pay a total €23.3 billion ($26 billion) to remove unwanted long-term liability for the storage of nuclear waste.

The commission asked utilities to transfer provisions set aside for storage sooner than expected, starting with a first instalment totalling €17.2 billion no later than early 2017. The government is widely expected to adopt the commission’s proposals.

The legacy costs stem from Germany’s decision to end nuclear power by 2022 following the start of Japan’s Fukushima disaster five years ago.

The Bundestag lower house of parliament is due to vote on the law in early November and to be debated in the upper house at the end of November, the timetable showed.

Resuspension and atmospheric transport of radionuclides due to wildfires near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 2015: An impact assessment



In April and August 2015, two major fires in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) caused concerns about the secondary radioactive contamination that might have spread over Europe. The present paper assessed, for the first time, the impact of these fires over Europe. About 10.9 TBq of 137Cs, 1.5 TBq of 90Sr, 7.8 GBq of 238Pu, 6.3 GBq of 239Pu, 9.4 GBq of 240Pu and 29.7 GBq of 241Am were released from both fire events corresponding to a serious event. The more labile elements escaped easier from the CEZ, whereas the larger refractory particles were removed more efficiently from the atmosphere mainly affecting the CEZ and its vicinity. During the spring 2015 fires, about 93% of the labile and 97% of the refractory particles ended in Eastern European countries. Similarly, during the summer 2015 fires, about 75% of the labile and 59% of the refractory radionuclides were exported from the CEZ with the majority depositing in Belarus and Russia. Effective doses were above 1 mSv y−1 in the CEZ, but much lower in the rest of Europe contributing an additional dose to the Eastern European population, which is far below a dose from a medical X-ray.

On Sunday 26th April 2015 at 23.30 (local time), exactly 29 years after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (CNPP) accident, a massive fire started in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). The next morning (April 27th) at 07.30 the fire was partially stabilised and the fire-fighters focused on only two areas of 4.2 and 4.0 hectares. However, the fire spread to neighbouring areas due to the prevailing strong winds. During the night of April 27th to 28th, 2015, the fire spread to areas close to the Radioactive Waste Disposal Point (RWDP), and burned around 10% of the grassland area at the western of the RWDP1. On April 29th and 30th, 2015, the attempts to stop the fires in the CEZ did not succeed. Fire brigades from Chernobyl and Kiev region supported extinguishing attempts and the last 70 ha were suppressed on May 2nd, 2015. The radiation background is continuously monitored in the CEZ by an automated radiation monitoring system (ARMS) at 39 points1. Given the importance of this fire, background radiation and radionuclide content in the air near the fire were also analysed online.

Another less intensive fire episode took place in August 2015. About 32 hectares were initially burned in the CEZ on August 8th2. The fires started at three locations in the Ivankovsky area. As of 07.00 on August 9th, the fires had been reportedly localized and fire-fighters continued to extinguish the burning of dry grass and forest. The same fire affected another forested area, known as Chernobylskaya Pushcha. The fire spread through several abandoned villages located in the unconditional (mandatory) resettlement zones of the CEZ and ended on August 11th.

Forest fires can cause resuspension of radionuclides in contaminated areas3. This has caused concern about possible fires in heavily contaminated areas such as the CEZ4. While concerns were initially limited to the vicinity of the fires, Wotawa et al.5 have shown that radionuclides resuspended by forest fires can be transported even over intercontinental distances. Earlier in 2015, Evangeliou et al.6, based on a detailed analysis of the current state of the radioactive forests in Ukraine and Belarus, reported that forest cover in the CEZ has increased from about 50% in 1986 to more than 70% today. Precipitation has declined and temperature has increased substantially making the ecosystem vulnerable to extensive drought. Analysis of future climate using IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) REMO (REgional MOdel) A1B climatic scenario7 showed that the risk of fire in the CEZ is expected to increase further as a result of drought accompanied by lack of forest management (e.g. thinning) and deteriorating fire extinguishing services due to restricted funding. The same group8 considered different scenarios of wildfires burning 10%, 50% and 100% of the contaminated forests. They found that the associated releases of radioactivity would be of such a magnitude that it would be identical to an accident with local and wider consequences9. The additional expected lifetime mortalities due to all solid cancers could reach at least 100 individuals in the worst-case scenario.

This paper aims at defining the extent of the radioactive contamination after fires that started in the CEZ on April 26th (ended 7 days after) and August 8th (ended 4 days after) 2015. We study the emission of the labile long-lived radionuclides 137Cs (t½ = 30.2 y) and 90Sr (t½ = 28.8 y) and the refractory 238Pu (t½ = 87.7 y), 239Pu (t½ = 24,100 y), 240Pu (t½ = 6,563 y) and 241Am (t½  = 432.2 y). These species constitute the radionuclides remaining in significant amounts since the Chernobyl accident about 30 years ago, and their deposition has been monitored continuously by the Ukrainian authorities. The respective deposition measurements have been adopted from Kashparov et al.10,11 and are stored in NILU’s repository website ( Using an atmospheric dispersion model, we simulate the atmospheric transport and deposition of the radioactive plume released by the forest fires. We also estimate the internal and external exposure of the population living in the path of the radioactive smoke. We assess the significance of the emissions with respect to the INES scale and define the regions over Europe, which were the most severely affected.

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What is True?

What is true about Chernobyl’s legacy? I offer two competing accounts.

The first account describes Chernobyl as a “wildlife wonderland”:

Karin Brulliard. April 26, 2016. 30 years after Chernobyl disaster, camera study captures a wildlife wonderland. The Washington Post

Anecdotal reports of wildlife doing well in the ruins of Chernobyl have been controversial. Some scientists argue that the disaster has taken a deleterious toll on fauna, causing genetic damage and population declines. A study published last fall, however, backed up the idea of the fallout zone-turned-enchanted forest with data from helicopter observation and animal tracks. They pointed to flourishing animal populations.

The big picture of these pictures? According to Beasley, it’s that radiation does not seem to have kept wildlife from self-sustaining and spreading out across the Belarus evacuation zone. He said he expects another camera trap study being carried out in the Ukraine half of the zone will find the same thing.

I wondered what study “published last fall” backed the idea that the “fallout zone-turned-enchanted forest” had a flourishing animal population. It was apparently Dr. James Beasley’s (from the University of Georgia). He has quite a record of funding from the US Departments of Energy and Defense and is currently a consultant for the IAEA on Fukushima.  I recommend looking at his cv  There is no information available about his methodology in the publication, which is a “correspondence” here: http://dx.doi. org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.017.

In contrast to Dr. Beasley’s glowing account of “fallout zone-turned-enchanted forest” there is Dr. Tim Mousseau’s account of transgenerational effects that include reduced sperm count and smaller bird brains. 

I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Mousseau describe his research and his extensive field work capturing, sampling and releasing a range of animals in the Chernobyl and Fukushima zones. He is a very careful and methodical scientist who is not funded by US government agencies or the IAEA. He and his research partner have concluded that animals are not in fact adapting to radiation-contaminated zones ( see academic study here  ). Dr. Mousseau describes his findings here:

Timothy Mousseau. April 25, 2016. At Chernobyl and Fukushima, radioactivity has seriously harmed wildlife. The Conversation,

…in the past decade population biologists have made considerable progress in documenting how radioactivity affects plants, animals and microbes. My colleagues and I have analyzed these impacts at Chernobyl, Fukushima and naturally radioactive regions of the planet.

Our studies provide new fundamental insights about consequences of chronic, multigenerational exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation. Most importantly, we have found that individual organisms are injured by radiation in a variety of ways. The cumulative effects of these injuries result in lower population sizes and reduced biodiversity in high-radiation areas….

Radiation exposure has caused genetic damage and increased mutation rates in many organisms in the Chernobyl region. So far, we have found little convincing evidence that many organisms there are evolving to become more resistant to radiation. You decide what is true.


Mikhail Gorbachev: 30 years after Chernobyl, time to phase out nuclear power


By Linda Pentz Gunter

Thirty years after Chernobyl former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev remains haunted by the world’s greatest ever industrial catastrophe, writes Linda Pentz Gunter. Now 85 and a committed environmentalist, he’s still campaigning to bring the failed nuclear experiment to an end before further disasters follow, and encouraging a clean, efficient and renewable global energy economy.

“From the moment I was informed – by telephone, at five o’clock in the morning on that fateful April 26, 1986 – that fire had broken out in Block Four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, my life has never been the same.”

The author of these words, Mikhail Gorbachev, is 85 now. His health is failing.

He would like to travel the world and deliver this message. But more often than not, he cannot muster the energy. So in March, he sent an eloquent emissary in his stead, to address a gathering in London.

Gorbachev watched the Unit 4 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explode and melt down and the Soviet Union dissolve during his tenure as premier from 1985-1991.

Arguably it was the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe that turned him into an environmentalist. By 1992 he had founded Green Cross International, based in Geneva and from whence came his London emissary – Dr. Alexander Likhotal, the organization’s current president.

In a public and parliamentary meeting at Westminster’s Portcullis House entitled Fukushima 5 Years On, Chernobyl 30 Years On, Gorbachev’s words resonated in a room filled mainly with supporters of the organizers, Kick Nuclear, Japanese Against Nuclear UK and London Region CND.

One of the most tragic incidents of our time

In marking those twin, grim anniversaries, Gorbachev reminded us that both Fukushima and Chernobyl were “the result of the inability of scientists and engineers to foresee how seemingly small problems can snowball into disasters of almost unimaginable scale.” Chernobyl, Gorbachev said, “remains one of the most tragic incidents of our time.”

Indee it was the biggest nuclear disaster of our time, as Dr. Ian Fairlie reminded us two days later at the Cher30byl and Fuku5hima – Beyond Nuclear meetings in Manchester.

“The collective doses are higher for Chernobyl than Fukushima,” said Fairlie, who recently updated his 2006 TORCH report (The Other Report on Chernobyl), which was originally produced to debunk the grossly diluted findings in the official 2003-2005 Chernobyl Forum produced by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Radiological contamination around Chernobyl was 50 times higher than around Fukushima”, said Fairlie, who took pains to point out that this in no way diminishes the seriousness of the Fukushima disaster which occurred in a far more densely populated area than Chernobyl.

Fairlie continues to predict 40,000 fatal cancers as a result of Chernobyl, lower than some estimates but far higher than the ‘official’ IAEA numbers. He also estimates there have been 6,000 thyroid cases to date, with 16,000 more anticipated.

Deaths from PTSD and other disaster-related traumas should be counted

But Fairlie insists that these are not the only numbers that matter. Both Chernobyl and Fukushima, he says, will contribute to “tens of thousands of deaths from PTSD, stress and trauma” directly related to the nuclear tragedies – which should not be dismissed or discounted.

These troubling statistics, and the prospect of another Chernobyl or Fukushima, says Gorbachev, remind us that “the questions raised by Chernobyl and reiterated by Fukushima are more relevant today than ever before, and they are still unanswered.”

Nor, asserts Gorbachev, are the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters the only serious accidents we should be tallying: “Contrary to the statements of nuclear energy advocates that there were only two major accidents, if one refines an accident to include incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or significant loss in property damage, a very different picture emerges.”

That picture, said Gorbachev, should in fact include a total of 99 nuclear accidents “totaling more than $20.5 billion in damages” which occurred worldwide between 1953 and 2000 averaging “more than one incident and $300 million in damage every year.”

Cost-free conservation and renewables

Such a frightening, not to mention costly, pace can be reduced, Gorbachev said, by simple actions that lie in our individual and collective hands: “Supporting new, more efficient technologies has a huge role in reducing waste, but massive improvements can be achieved just by changing behaviors and choices which costs nothing to do.”

On the international political scale, Gorbachev urges that “it is imperative that members of the international community work together to develop and distribute clean and renewable sources of energy.” He favors a gradual, rather than rapid, phase-out of nuclear energy, but notes that nuclear power should not be viewed through a narrow lens:

“It is vital that any discussions about nuclear energy address the issue comprehensively and in all its complexity. Nuclear power systems are not just a security issue, an environmental issue, or an energy issue. They are all of those at once.”

Most important to Gorbachev is the lesson of transparency that he himself pioneered through “the process of Perestroika and the policy of Glasnost.” Governmental openness is taken for granted in many countries and is being fought for in many others.

“Today, people want to have a say in what direction their countries’ economies take. They want to know how it affects the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and the future they leave to their children. Governments have a responsibility to respond to those concerns.”

US regulators claim a major nuclear disaster is too unlikely to be worth preparing for

In the nuclear sector such responsibility is invariably shirked if not suppressed. In highly nuclearized countries such as the US, France and Russia, access to information about nuclear safety is convoluted and opaque, or not available at all.

In the US we have frequently been told by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission that a major nuclear disaster is effectively too unlikely to be worth preparing for. But these flawed Probabilistic Risk Assessments are designed to protect the nuclear industry from additional expense – not the public from another Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Such a policy is dangerously divorced from reality, as researchers recently found; reseachers that Gorbachev cited when he warned that “the chances are 50:50 that a major nuclear disaster will occur somewhere in the world before 2050.”

These are not good odds. Thirty years on, the octogenarian Gorbachev is still haunted by that dawn phone call when he instantly realized “something horrific was happening.”

And yet our governments persist in leading us toward the same abyss.