Today is the 30th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in history, at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union. According to the United Nations, "31 people died immediately and 600,000 'liquidators,' involved in fire fighting and clean-up operations, were exposed to the high doses of radiation. Based on the official reports, near 8,400,000 people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine were exposed to the radiation, which is more than the population of Austria. About 155,000 sq. km of territories in the three countries were contaminated, which is almost half of the total territory of Italy. ... Nearly 404,000 people were resettled but millions continued to live in an environment where continued residual exposure created a range of adverse effects."
It took a long time for the world to figure out exactly what happened. The Soviet Union didn't report the accident until April 28, when the Swedish government detected wind-swept radioactivity. In July 1986, Physics Today reported that "the plume of smoke is gone, but a cloud of uncertainty still obscures the cause of the severe accident."
As it turned out, the disaster was caused by a flawed experiment testing electrical equipment in reactor 4. Despite several easily identifiable red flags, operators continued with the test. At 1:23am, an out-of-control chain reaction led to several explosions that breached the reactor, partially melted down the core, started fires in 30 places, and released nearly 520 dangerous radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. An August 1986 Soviet report said that operators witnessed "a fireworks display of glowing particles and fragments escaping from the units." You can read about the preliminary findings on the accident in this December 1986 Physics Today article (free for the next week): http://goo.gl/Y2vAmZ.
The Chernobyl power station continued to operate until 2000, when unit 3 was shut down. Still today, staying in some areas near the facility would be equivalent to getting a CT scan every day. Ukraine is currently building a new confinement structure for the destroyed reactor and a concrete spent-fuel storage facility.
Some experts say that the lessons of Chernobyl were not heeded as they should have. "The lessons of Chernobyl were not internalized in the West until Fukushima," environmental scientist Jan Beyea told Toni Feder in Physics Today's 30th anniversary coverage: http://goo.gl/sf541z.
(Image credit: Matti Paavonen, CC BY-SA 3.0)
“If levels continue to rise it could pose significant health risks to both the fish and the people consuming them.”
Authored by a team of researchers including U of T Scarborough's Arhonditsis, Dr. Nilima Gandhi, and Dr. Satyendra Bhavsar, a research scientist with Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, the study looked at trends in mercury levels found in Ontario Walleye, northern pike and lake trout over the past 15 years while projecting where levels will be in 2050.
The study is unique because of the richness of data obtained through the province’s long-running Fish Contaminant Monitoring Program. Not only did it cover a large geographical area but more than 200,000 measurements of fish mercury levels were taken across the province, even including remote locations only accessible by plane.
The study also looked at the impact rising mercury levels will have on fish consumption advisories. It shows that by 2050 only one per cent to 33 per cent of monitored Ontario lakes may have walleye in which mercury levels could be deemed safe to eat twice a week, which is the recommended serving of fish by Health Canada to maintain a healthy diet.
Mercury emissions in North America have been in decline, especially in Canada where rates fell 90 per cent between 1970 and 2011. North American emissions now represent only about three per cent of human caused global mercury emissions. Global coal burning and mercury emissions have actually gone up in the last 20 years mostly due to greater industrialization in China and India. Current global emissions of mercury stand at about 2,000 metric tons annually.
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