November 24, 2014

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Pandora … revisited

March 31, 2011

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

The air felt heavy. I imagined tiny particles of radiation seeping into my lungs, lodging in my tissues, only to erupt sometime in the…future?

Radioactivity over southeastern Poland that spring day in 1986 originated in Soviet Ukraine, and reactor number four at Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant melted down just as I happened to be living in an east European neighborhood.

Soviet censors delayed notification, precluding the most immediate precautions. A radioactive cloud hovered overhead. Communist-controlled newspapers reported “minor contamination” at the plant, a disingenuous attempt to allay fears. Students in my dormitory gathered around radios, straining to hear Radio Free Europe broadcasts, scrambled by Moscow. We grasped at shreds of information, catching intermittent phrases: “major nuclear accident,” “stay inside until the radioactivity disperses,” “strontium 90.” The air was laced with radioactive iodine – in what concentration, we did not know. My fear was surpassed by a surging, palpable anger.

“How could (the Soviets) not tell us?” I questioned. “I can’t believe they tried to hide this!”

I’d grown accustomed to inconveniences of Eastern Block living; ration cards and long lines didn’t faze me. Intentional withholding of information impacting health and welfare infuriated me.

“You don’t understand,” my friend Ela offered with resignation.  “This ‘accident’ is just another wave of Soviet oppression, one of many. We’re used to it.”

Absorbing devastating images from Japan, I am struck by the presence of four nuclear power plants dotting its northeastern coast. Onagawa, Fukushima Daiichi, Fukushima Daini and Tokai hug the shoreline like lighthouses along Cape Hatteras, except this isn’t North Carolina or Cape Cod. Japan’s coastline traces a precarious path along the highly seismic Pacific Ring of Fire. The “Ring” threads itself along 40,000 kilometers of the Pacific Basin, hosting 90 percent of earthquakes. If Earth is a checkerboard of tectonic plates, this is where the “game” is played.

Japan’s March 11 earthquake and accompanying tsunami extracted an enormous human toll, decimating coastal communities. It triggered a major nuclear disaster, exposing people, animals, land and food to insidious contaminants. Radioactivity doesn’t simply go away – it lingers, ominously, darkening the future.

The crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant received a 10-year extension to operate in February 2011. The extension came despite the presence of stress fractures in its back-up engines, exacerbating vulnerability to surging tsunami waters.

In the days following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, I took part in my first anti-communist demonstration. Although I witnessed earlier protests, fear kept me from direct participation. Feeling zapped by Chernobyl embodied a very personal affront. I felt “tainted” by whatever radioactive material blew over Poland.

We gathered at a church in Nowa Huta, an industrialized city outside Cracow. The church – shaped like an arc – was overflowing. I was one of several hundred protesters outside listening to speeches via loudspeakers.

Scores of Polish paramilitary troops – ZOMO – waited a few blocks away. Outfitted with riot shields and billy clubs, ZOMO were hated and feared for their unrestrained brutality. I caught a surreptitious photo of water cannon; ready to unleash a punishing wave of water against peaceful protesters.

My fear was tempered by the knowledge that, if arrested, I’d likely be deported as a trouble-making American “capitalist.” My friend Ela assumed greater risk in voicing her discontent. If detained, she faced expulsion from the university.

Vermont Yankee supplies a full one-third of our electric power. As we ponder its future – tritium leaks and all – I think of Ukrainian ghost towns and elevated cancer rates in what was once “The Breadbasket of Europe.”

I consider Japan’s current battle to contain contamination. I fear looming health consequences for those living and those yet to be born.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently approved extending Vermont Yankee’s operation beyond its 2012 decommissioning date. I scratch my head and have to believe there’s a better way to address our gluttonous appetite for power. Nuclear contamination, when released, is a Pandora’s Box. Even if Vermont Yankee remains open and is operated in a “safe” manner, what of the burgeoning stockpile of radioactive waste?  We can’t simply bury it in a landfill.

In “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster,” author Svetlana Alexievich writes: “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

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