Chernobyl's 20th anniversary stirs interest but political wrangling stifles long-term research

April 28, 2006

The 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has generated a flurry of academic interest.

This year's annual Contemporary Ukrainian Studies lecture in Cambridge was given by Alla Yaroshinskaya, a Ukrainian reporter who in the late 1980s campaigned against Soviet suppression of information about the contamination, and next month Kingston University will stage a Chernobyl-related exhibition - "20 Years, 20 Lives!"

Simon Horsman, a senior lecturer in accounting at Coventry University's Business School, sees Chernobyl as a classic example of Jay Galbraith's model of information failure leading to disaster. "Undergraduates have little awareness of Chernobyl," Mr Horsman said, "so this year I shall switch my exemplification of Galbraith's model to raise their consciousness."

But such isolated initiatives are a far cry from the 1986 commitment not to "waste" the deaths of the Chernobyl victims, now estimated to be in the millions.

In August 1986, at a special conference hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Soviet nuclear experts submitted what at the time appeared to be a remarkably full report on the disaster.

Measures were being taken, the experts said, to rectify reactor design and introduce safety measures to prevent a repeat disaster.

Even before the Vienna conference, academics had begun to focus on Chernobyl. David Marples of the University of Alberta, author of a book on the Soviet nuclear energy programme, did a last-minute update to cover the accident and overnight became an "international expert" on the subject.

The reports of the Vienna meeting became instant course material for future nuclear engineers. But its focus was on the reactor itself. "For five years, I taught the Chernobyl explosion," says Alan Flowers of what was Kingston Polytechnic. "I taught the defects of the reactor design and the mistakes of the operators. But I never gave serious consideration to the ecological implications outside the 30km exclusion zone."

The Soviet rapporteurs at Vienna played down the long-term human and environmental costs. In their eyes, the death toll was confined to the station staff who had been on site at the time of the accident or the emergency workers irradiated during firefighting operations.J Their sacrifice, conference delegates agreed, must not go to waste - Chernobyl and its exclusion zone would provide a unique "experiment" in radioactive contamination.

A few days after Vienna, a Pugwash Science and Public Affairs meeting in Budapest heard a report from a team at the University of Groningen that had discovered particles from the reactor core on the clothing and shoes of students returning from courses in Minsk and Kiev in the weeks following the disaster.

But it was only in May 1991, at a Moscow conference honouring what would have been the 70th birthday of Andrei Sakharov, the Russian physicist and human rights campaigner, that the idea emerged to establish three international Sakharov colleges to study the radio-ecological consequences of Chernobyl.

In the event, one was founded - in 1992, in Minsk, the capital of newly independent Belarus.

Under director Alexander Lutzko, the college (later renamed the Sakharov Institute and then the International Sakharov Environmental University) launched a number of exchange and co-operation programmes with, among others, Harvard University and the Institut National de Physique Nucleaire et de Physique des Particles in Paris.

Kingston also developed programmes with Sakharov, including a joint training programme in computerised geographical information systems (GIS), although this came to an abrupt end when the entire Belarusian GIS student group decamped to a commercial enterprise in the US.

Early in the 21st century, the political climate in Belarus changed. Yury Bandazheuski,Jrector of the Gomel Medical Academy, whose work on the genetic effects of radiation had challenged official findings, ended up in jail on charges of alleged corruption. In 2004, Dr Flowers, Kingston's key contact with Sakharov, was banned from entering Belarus for five years.

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