In 2009, I went to Chernobyl. Thirty years after the accident it was still not easy to get authorization to visit the place and see the ruins of the nuclear reactor. I received permission to spend a maximum of six hours at the site. The landscape that I had the opportunity to see was frightening, desolate, a scene of nuclear devastation without the explosion. Silent, smokeless.
I was able to visit buildings, schools, restaurants, recreation centers, all abandoned, phantasmagoric, in spite of the beauty of the white snow surrounding them. A Ferris wheel from a children’s amusement park remained intact in anticipation of the opening day, which was to be the day after the tragedy. The houses had been invaded by the trees growing inside them. Soon everything will be a forest; only the mausoleum of the reactor will remain, surrounded by the highest buildings.
All indications are that the horror began when the managers of the generator made an error, allowing an engineer to test to what point it would be possible for the reactor to operate securely. He lost control and the reactor exploded, emitting the terrible radiation. Despite “glasnost,” the Soviet government chose to keep the information secret for a few hours until analysts in Finland perceived the strong increase of radiation in that region and revealed the matter to the world.
After the news was divulged, the Soviet government decided to evacuate the two cities: the old, modest, almost medieval Chernobyl, with its little wooden houses; the new one, ostentatious and modern, a miniature Brasília, the official headquarters of the services and residences of the generator employees.
Carrying only the clothes on their backs, tens of thousands of people, who were already contaminated, were obliged to leave the city in a few minutes. Their clothes were soon shed and thrown into the garbage classified as contaminated.
After almost six hours spent walking around, speaking with the officials of the affected area, and looking at the radioactivity meters scattered around the city, I had to pass through a full-body radiation detector in order to learn whether I would return to the hotel or be put into isolation in one of the country’s hospitals.
A visit to Chernobyl reveals a frightening scene. Even worse is the perception that comes from talking with people who lived 200 kilometers away and even today must bear the health effects upon their families. Worse of all is reading about the thousands of deaths over these 30 years, the people who will be ill for their entire lives and others who will transmit illnesses to the children who have not yet been born.
That visit made me change my position: I no longer see the nuclear alternative as clean energy. Fukushima consolidated my antagonism towards the use of nuclear reactors as a way of generating energy. At least as long as civil engineering has not evolved to guarantee absolute resistance in the buildings and nuclear engineering cannot guarantee secure residue storage. This does not mean saying “Nuclear Never!” It means declaring a moratorium of 20 years to wait for an evolution in the engineering.
At the present, the construction of nuclear generators is rash bordering upon criminal. This even includes maintaining the current ones and living under the risk of possible tragedy at any given moment. Instead of new nuclear centers, Brazil needs to reduce its consumption of energy and invest in new sources that are renewable and less dangerous.
The German government’s decision last month – establishing a schedule to deactivate their nuclear generators – is a warning that Brazil has no right to ignore.
The German generators are in more protected places than ours; their civil defense systems are better organized; their dependence upon nuclear energy is 23% of their total energy demand, while ours is merely 3%. And Germany does not have the alternative energy sources that we do.
Since Germany is frightened, it will be a crime for us to close our eyes to this matter. Above all, when we recall that we imported the old technology that the Germans developed and that no longer works for them.
Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District. You can visit his website at www.cristovam.org.br/portal2/, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SEN_CRISTOVAM in Portuguese and http://twitter.com/cbbrazilianview in English and write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New translations of his works of fiction The Subterranean Gods and Astricia are now available on Amazon.com.
Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome (LinJerome@cs.com).