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Thursday
Mar172011

Comparing Japan to Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

DigitalGlobe via Getty ImagesREPORTER'S NOTEBOOK
By John Donvan, ABC News

(TOKYO) -- Though there are complaints that too little information is getting out about Japan's nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi, it's nothing compared to what we were told when Chernobyl occurred.

Chernobyl, the nuclear accident in the Soviet Union in 1986 that set a standard for awfulness, started out with the Soviets saying NOTHING at all for days after the explosion.

On April 28, 1986 all we knew was that in Sweden, of all places, some nuclear plant workers had showed up for their daily scan and there was radiation in their clothing. That was the only sign that something was in the air because it wasn't coming from Sweden.

The Swedes later discovered by looking at satellite imagery that it was coming from 600 miles away, where the red zones marked the Chernobyl reactors.

Suddenly, it was a global emergency. News reports around the world put up these maps tracking an invisible cloud that was HIGHLY radioactive. Everyone was trying to calculate the winds, radiation was showing up in Europeans' kids milk. and the Austrians were scanning passengers who might have flown through the cloud.

In Poland, they were making kids take iodine, and in Japan they were testing to see if the cloud had reached that far across the Pacific.

Finally, after three days, the Soviets admitted (barely) to the fact that there had been a fire, and they themselves were now belatedly starting evacuations from the area near the Chernobyl reactor. All the while they were insisting the fire was out.

Except, the fire wasn't out and for days it burned. Death came to the many firefighters and staff who stayed and the divers who swam in radioactive pools to reach critical valves. Helicopter pilots also fell ill as they ferried in water and cement to smother the whole mess from above. Had they not sacrificed themselves -- or been sacrificed -- the harm would have been a great deal worse to the rest of the public.

That's saying something because in time thousands of kids who lived nearby developed thyroid disease, and the nearest city to Chernobyl once abandoned in 1986 remains empty to this day. The kind of radiation that fell around here takes 300 years to dissipate.

Chernobyl was so bad because of the lies from officials and because there was no containment vessel around the reactor. When the roof blew off it was open sky for a reactor on fire.

The Japan reactors have containment vessels, greatly increasing the chances that radiation won't travel like it did in 1986. As long as that stays true, Chernobyl's hold on the title of worst nuclear disaster ever by far, seems sorrowfully secure.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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