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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Chernobyl 30 Years On

Apr. 26, 2016

People in Ukraine are observing the 30th anniversary of one of the world's worst nuclear disasters. On April 26th, 1986, a plume of highly radioactive fallout drifted from Chernobyl across the former Soviet Union and Europe.

Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate and the effects are ongoing.

Commemorations are underway to mark the 3 decades that have passed since the tragedy unfolded.

Sirens blared at 1:23 a.m., the exact time of the explosion inside Chernobyl's number 4 reactor. Former plant workers and soldiers paid their respects at a monument to the victims.

"I'm proud of those guys who were with me then, and are no longer here," said Andriy Veprev, a former Chernobyl nuclear plant worker. "I'm mourning. Thirty years is a long time and only a few of us are still living. More are dying every year."

The disaster spread radioactive substances into the air. About 30 workers and firefighters died in the immediate aftermath. Some people affected died later from cancer or leukemia, and others still suffer health problems.

A giant concrete-and-steel sarcophagus covers the reactor where the meltdown took place. It was a hastily built structure, erected in 1986 as authorities scrambled to contain the radiation.

The aging sarcophagus that's past its use-by date is about to be covered by a giant arch currently under construction. Financial support for the $1.5 billion project is coming from Europe, the United States and Japan. It's expected to be finished next year.

Tracking Health of Nuclear Workers
Daisuke Kamikubo

Experts in Japan have found something to learn from the ongoing recovery work at Chernobyl in Ukraine.

The catastrophe there 30 years ago was rated the same accident level as the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011.

The 2 events had different causes and outcomes, but officials in Japan are keeping a close watch on the situation at Chernobyl.

Professor Ryuji Okazaki is a radiology expert who has visited Chernobyl to learn about the measures the Ukrainian government takes to protect its nuclear workers.

Okazaki, a professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan, says the health issue is a priority.

"We still don't know much about the influence of radiation," he says. "So it is important to continue our research into how workers have been affected."

Around 4,000 people are currently employed at Chernobyl. They undergo regular health checks and the government keeps track of all their information. A database covers more than 200 types of health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease.

Okazaki says the officials pay special attention to tests that focus on eyesight. Any problems in that area can be an early indication of radiation exposure.

They also check workers' sense of balance. If any irregularities are found during the medical tests, those affected are reassigned.

"Government officials are solely responsible for the health of the workers there. They seem to be paying close attention to employees' needs," Okazaki says. "I think this makes the workers feel safe to be working at the site."

Ukraine's government has set up a research institute to monitor workers' health. It gathers all kinds of data, including human teeth.

"The human tooth is very good natural dosimeter," says an official at the research institute. "And if it’s possible to collect a tooth, it’s possible to evaluate the dose received by a person."

Over the years, the institute has collected more than 10,000 teeth volunteered from people who have been employed at the plant. It analyzes tooth radiation readings, and possible links to leukemia.

Researchers at the institute are calculating initial the radiation exposure of the workers through a combination of interviews and site contamination statistics.

That's because in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, most of them didn't carry dosimeters. The data's been gathered from more than 110,000 workers over a 20-year period.

"Ukraine once used 4 percent of its national budget to care for the health of plant workers," Okazaki says. "The government is determined to protect workers from health problems, and has adopted comprehensive countermeasures."

NHK World chief correspondent Yoichiro Tateiwa joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Yoi, we see that at Chernobyl, they're still having trouble managing the site and local residents continue to suffer.

Tateiwa: Yes, because they chose not to decommission the plant immediately, a vast area that surrounds Chernobyl remains an evacuation zone even after 3 decades. And there's still a risk of radioactive particles contaminating the environment.

Beppu: Of course, Japan and Ukraine have many differences and aspects, but as Professor Okazaki pointed out if there's something to learn from Chernobyl, definitely it's about the workers' safety. How did you take it?

Tateiwa: Well at Chernobyl, the Ukraine government is actively involved in managing workers' safety. That maybe comes from the immediate death toll. Many workers, about 30 of them, died from radiation exposure at the beginning of the work.

But in Fukushima, it's not government but the operator, TEPCO, that's responsible for the decommissioning work. But when it comes to taking responsibility for the health and safety of the workers, neither party is actively involved.

Workers are hired in a multi-layered subcontracting system. That means their needs are managed by extremely small companies at the end of that layer. As a result, safety management seems not to be so sufficient. Workers at the plant say TEPCO should hire directly.

"It wasn't an environment where you could continue working. I think the responsibility lies with Tokyo Electric Power Company and the government. They have to show the willingness to deal with the problem through to the end and set up a proper framework to decommission the reactor."
Tetsuya Hayashi, former Fukushima Daiichi plant worker

We've obtained shocking footage. It shows workers receiving a groundless explanation about the dangers of radioactivity.

Beppu: Well we know that the decommissioning work at Fukushima is going to take several decades. I think we should be desperate to squeeze a positive lesson from the Chenobyl experience and we don't have the luxury to ignore it.

Tateiwa: The radiation expert says there must be a better system to oversee the safety of the workers.

"I think the Japanese government should take an initiative to manage the safety of the workers. It should not only supervise the safety of the workers, but also put them in a better situation with proper education on the effects of radiation. Otherwise, it will be difficult to find people willing to work at the site long-term."
Ryuji Okazaki, professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan

You know, this year marks 5 years since the Fukushima Daiichi accident and 30 years since Chernobyl. If there is something we can learn from what's happened in Ukraine, as you mentioned and as the expert was saying there, I think that's how to secure the health of the Fukushima workers.