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Lessons from Chernobyl in Disaster Management

In the months after the 1986 accident, machinery driven by liquidators often became too radioactive to continue using. So they just dug pits and buried their own radioactive vehicles. 
Today, workers unearth the machinery to lay foundations for new construction. This day’s discovery was the boom of a crane. They lay it on a flatbed truck (covered with plastic to hopefully contain some of the contamination) and haul it to an edge of the Chernobyl plant site for pressure washing. (The contaminated washwater gets piped to the liquid radioactive waste treatment facility). Then the boom gets trucked to a dumpsite in the Exclusion Zone, where it will be stored until after you and I are dead. Unless priorities change once the danger fades from some bureaucrat’s mind. Or unless it gets stolen first and sold for scrap.
The horse is out? Quick, close the door! It seems to me there must be a better way, but our attention is short and disaster mitigation is long.

The immediate, tragic cost of poor disaster preparation is obvious. Less apparent but pricier still are the long-term recovery costs. Chernobyl has cost Ukraine 180 billion dollars over the decades, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said this spring. The amount is “comparable to the annual gross domestic product of our country,” he pointed out. (1)

With poor advance preparation, quick solutions during the disaster response stage often cause their own problems. Consider in Chernobyl:

After the Chernobyl accident, with no prior plan for disposing of radioactive waste, much debris beside the plant was simply dumped back into the ruins of the reactor 4 building. The “Shelter” (AKA the Sarcophagus) with outer concrete walls and iron shell was then built over the destroyed reactor 4. Constructed hastily with little planning in extreme conditions, it is neither stable nor leak-proof. It was meant to last 20 years but started crumbling sooner. As a result, a modern radiation enclosure is now under construction. It will cost $2 billion to build, an expense borne by 40 countries and the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development).

From 2008 to 2012, workers did groundwork for this New Safe Confinement super-structure. And guess what they found underground? Contaminated bulldozers. Excavators. Dump trucks. All buried in the field just west of the destroyed reactor.

Elsewhere in the Zone, liquidators buried everything from topsoil to village houses. Now at least 800 burial sites, mostly unmarked, are slowly leaching radiation into the groundwater. (3) (Fukushima now faces similar problems, which I’ll discuss later).

Other decisions made in Chernobyl’s heat of the moment — exactly where to evacuate, and how to structure survivor benefits — have become politically and economically intractable problems for Ukraine. Once these plans are set they are hard to revoke. Ukraine spends 5 to 7% of it’s annual budget on Chernobyl survivors (2) but at the same time, the stipends each individual receives are so small as to be unhelpful. “Every month, the government buys me one bottle of vodka,” one liquidator told me.

I’ve heard people ponder how life in Ukraine would be different had the disaster never occurred. But accidents happen. The seas rise. An equally valuable question: what if the disaster happened but it was really well managed?

Tomorrow: What went wrong in Fukushima?

(1) Xinhua

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