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CNEWA Connections: 35 Years After Chornobyl

Thirty-five years ago, on 26 April 1986, a failure at reactor No. 4 at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in what was then known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — now Ukraine — caused the worst nuclear disaster in human history. On the somewhat understated International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, Chornobyl was the first nuclear event to measure a seven, the most severe rating.

A radioactive cloud spread out, mostly toward the west, scattering elevated levels of radioactive elements, such as caesium-137, that were recorded as far away as Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, where measures were taken to protect people and livestock. There were 237 cases of acute radiation sickness, with 31 fatalities within three months of the accident. Thousands more died of radiation-related illness, including cancer, in the decades since. The Chornobyl disaster has had an undeniable impact on the world CNEWA serves.

This year on 26 April, which is now U.N. Chornobyl International Remembrance Day, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres recalled the tragedy in which 350,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes, with tremendous human and financial cost. The then-U.S.S.R. spent the equivalent of $2.5 billion for containment and decontamination. Former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev attributed the huge costs of the clean-up incurred by the U.S.S.R. as one of the main causes for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Last Sunday, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk, Belarus, marked the anniversary with a Mass of remembrance for the Chornobyl victims. 

“Our people, as well as others, especially neighboring Ukraine and Russia, have been fighting a radioactive pandemic for three and a half decades,” he said.

Chernobyl's fourth reactor, encased in protective concrete, was involved in the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986.
Chernobyl’s fourth reactor, which was involved in the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986, is pictured in this 1996 file photo. The reactor remains covered in protective concrete in Ukraine. (photo: CNS/Reuters)

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople also underlined the suffering that resulted from the Chornobyl disaster and reflected on how it could bring “redemption and transformation” to conscientious citizens generations on. 

In his message to the Kyiv Security Forum, gathered to mark the anniversary on 26 April, the start of Holy Week for Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew emphasized the need to “always remember” the tragic events at Chornobyl and those who died from the tragedy. 

He urged the world to “learn to say ‘No!’ to technologies with harmful effects on God’s sacred and sensitive gift to creation” and “‘Yes!’ to another ethos, an alternative system of values, a different way of life: one that affirms the beauty and dignity of all people and things.”

“Our choices and actions affect every detail of our planet and impact the future of the generations to come,” he said.

Coming as it does so close to Earth Day, Chornobyl Remembrance Day is a reminder that calls to protect the environment — such as those made by Pope Francis in the encyclical “Laudato si’” and in statements by Patriarch Bartholomew — may seem to be idealistic, impractical dreams, but they are also, quite literally, deadly serious. 

“This anniversary should be a moment of reckoning for us all — a reminder of what is at stake and what needs to be done to avert global disaster.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Francis, too, reminds us repeatedly of our interconnectedness. With this anniversary, we see once again how that vision can be not only vital and urgent, but prophetic. Remembering Chornobyl, we remember as well that physical distance from such a disaster does not protect us. Indeed, we realize anew how fragile our planet really is — and how vulnerable we all are.

We remember, too, how often we fail to learn from history. Chornobyl was the first nuclear event to register as the most severe on the nuclear event scale. Tragically, it was not the last. In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami triggered an accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. To date, one person has died from cancer linked to radiation exposure and 18 people suffered physical injuries from hydrogen explosions or radiation burns.

Will we ever learn? 

St. John Paul II, marking the 15th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster, called for collaboration and a shared world commitment to peace.

“This is a task for everyone,” he said. “For this to happen, there must be a combined technical, scientific and human effort to put every kind of energy at the service of peace, with respect for the needs of the human person and of nature. The future of the entire human race depends on this commitment.”

This anniversary should be a moment of reckoning for us all — a reminder of what is at stake and what needs to be done to avert global disaster.

A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.

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