Chernobyl anniversary becomes weapon in nuclear lobbying war

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Nuclear power lobbyists as well as green NGOs and renewable energy champions are using the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe to strengthen their case for or against a “nuclear renaissance”.

In the context of the renewed debate on the future of nuclear energy in Europe, the commemorations around the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, have also rekindled the discussion on the health and safety aspects of nuclear.

In the autumn of 2005, the UN’s Chernobyl Forum, under the leadership of the International Atomic Energy Agency, published a study  saying that the effects were less dramatic than originally feared and that “only” about 9.000 people would ultimately die from cancer related to the accident. For a summarised version of this report, see Greenfacts‘s “Scientific facts on the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident”.

But other studies undertaken by opponents of nuclear energy contest the figures of the Chernobyl Forum and accused the UN agencies of downplaying the effects of the catastrophe.

study  commissioned by the Greens in the European Parliament estimates that between 30.000 and 60.000 people will suffer premature deaths because of Chernobyl. Another publication presented last week by Greenpeace with input from over 50 scientists from all over the world concludes that more than 100.000 cancer deaths will be likely in the long term as a result of the disaster.

The Commission has tried to keep itself out of the controversy about the effects of Chernobyl by publishing on 21 April a press release highlighting the financial support the EU has provided to Chernobyl-related projects. 

In  a press statement for the presentation of their commissioned TORCH ("the other report on Chernobyl") report, the Greens in the European Parliament accused the IAEA of "downplaying" the "consequences of the worst nuclear catastrophe". Green Mep Rebecca Harms said: "The IAEA must be stripped of its competence for assessing the impact of Chernobyl; this must be left up to independent evaluation. The agreement between WHO and IAEA to hush-up Chernobyl must be ended".

Greenpeace stated in the press release for its report: "It is appalling that the IAEA is whitewashing the impacts of the most serious nuclear accident in human history. Denying the real implications is not only insulting to the thousands of victims, but it also leads to dangerous recommendations and the relocation of people in contaminated areas. The IAEA cannot remain as the world’s nuclear watchdog if it cannot at least admit that nuclear power is responsible for the impact on those whose life it scarred forever”.  

The renewable energy sector fears that a "nuclear renaissance" will undermine future financial support for its energy sources and used the Chernobyl anniversary to demand continued attention from politicians for their sector. In a press statement on 24 April 2006, EWEA, the European Wind Energy Assocation, referred to a recent report of the UK's House of Commons which raised serious questions about the renewed interest in nuclear by the Blair government (see EURACTIV 18 April 2006). EWEA also pointed to the fact that wind power received only "0.03% of all IEA government energy research expenditures since 1974, while nuclear power received 60%, or $175 billion in the same period".

On the morning of 26 April 1986, reactor four of a Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl (now Ukraine) exploded. The accident created panic in Eastern and Western Europe in the following weeks and led to political fallout for the nuclear sector when several countries, in subsequent years, decided to halt the development of new nuclear power plants and put in place nuclear phase-out plans.

However, this bleak prospect for the nuclear sector changed  when global warming and the recent supply-demand driven price explosion of oil took hold of the political agenda and nuclear re-emerged as a potential source of Europe's future energy mix. 

  • The European Parliament holds a debate on 20 years Chernobyl on 26 April;
  • The Commission is still awaiting stakeholder feedback for its Green Paper on Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy until 24 September 2006.

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