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Czech nuclear watchdog: a trip to Chernobyl is safe for you

A more exciting tourist destination than most others

Yesterday, on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, the chairwoman of the Czech State Office for Nuclear Safety Dr Dana Drábová gave an interview for the left-wing daily Právo and the news server

A trip to the forbidden zone in Chernobyl? Why not, it won't hurt, claims nuclear physicist Drábová

The areas contaminated after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant have turned into founts of wisdom, claims Dana Drábová in the Tuesday's interview for the Právo daily. She is the chairwoman of the State Bureau for Nuclear Safety. According to her words, an educational sightseeing trip to the Chernobyl zone won't harm anyone because the guides know which places are safe to visit.

During the 30 years from the tragedy, the Chernobyl zone has morphed into an unwanted lab. Have the tragedy and the material and human losses brought us some insights as a compensation?

Not only the Chernobyl area but also the territories in Belarus where the contamination level is the same are being carefully monitored exactly in order to find the detailed information about the behavior of the radioactive isotopes in various chains. The areas provide us with a fount of wisdom teaching us what regulations are effective and should be adopted in the case of a similar accident. The experience with the protection of the population have been intensely imported to Fukushima (a nuclear power plant that exploded after a tsunami).

A poll: Would you like to visit Chernobyl? 72% Yes, 6% I am fearful, 22% No

Really? Just recently, we learned that in Fukushima, they don't know what to do with the huge amount of water that was used for cooling, and they want to pump the water to the ocean.

However, the question what to do with the Fukushima water is mainly a psychological problem. When the water is poured to the sea, nothing bad will happen. In the water used for cooling, the concentration is absolutely negligible.

Ten years ago, also in our Právo daily, you talked about the mutations of the pine cones but you said that the wildlife is otherwise doing very well. Have the scientists found additional changes?

I haven't noticed any new recent events.

Pripyat, the only large enough town (was: 50,000 people) that "totally" suffered and had to be evacuated – sadly, with the delay of 40 hours

And what about humans? Some of them quickly returned to the area. How a colleague at Mr Jakub Kynčl confirmed in a report, many of them have lived there for 30 years despite some scientists' predictions of a speedy death for them.

The outbreak of any cancer is always a matter of probabilities. The contamination of the area is highly non-uniform. During the first two weeks after the explosion, particles of different sizes and different levels of radioactivity were getting out. Even somewhere in the very vicinity of Chernobyl, the doses weren't high enough to cause immediate reaction of the tissues. To be sure, I am not talking about the power plant itself.

While Ukraine hasn't labeled the area "safe to return", it's right that the country isn't preventing the people who want to return from doing so. Extirpation could be worse than radiation for many, especially old, inhabitants.

What is the impact of Chernobyl on Czechs and Slovaks? For example, some radioactive fallout has sparked a radiation alarm in the Dukovany nuclear power plant 30 years ago. The employees knew nothing about Chernobyl so they were scared that a problem was occurring in Dukovany. It wasn't the case because the radiation came from Ukraine.

Even in Czechoslovakia, the levels were measurable. But we must realize that the devices are sensitive and they are capable of recording levels weaker by many orders of magnitude than the levels that are dangerous. Something's being measurable doesn't imply that it's threatening yet. (LM: I am often making this point, also in the context of temperature changes in the discussions about "global warming".)

Has the Chernobyl event increased the cancer rates in our homeland?

To retroactively calculate the likely effect of Chernobyl on the number of cancers in our country isn't methodologically kosher. We had to make such a calculation or an estimate, anyway. The result is that over the (past and future) 70 years after the Chernobyl accident, 500 cases of cancer on the territory of former Czechoslovakia may be attributed to the tragedy. This should be compared to the 28,000 casualties (deaths) of any kind of cancers (regardless of causes) in Czechia every year.

Newspapers indicate that the Chernobyl area is turning into an attractive tourist destination. Is it a good idea to organize an inspirational sightseeing trip over there?

It cannot harm anyone. And why wouldn't people go if they want to take photographs, e.g. Mr Tomáš Svoboda (the photographer of both first presidents Havel and Klaus who is displaying his pictures at the headquarters of the Czech Nuclear Supervision Bureau, comments by editors). Nothing bad will happen. The guides have very good knowledge about the places where it's safe to take the visitors, and places that are already risky.

Even the neighborhood of Fukushima was cleaned. Is it safe to travel there as well?

A big part of that are has already been declared "safe for return" by the Japanese officials.

The interviewer: Jindřich Ginter, Právo

Additional articles about the anniversary:
  • Ukraine remembers 30 years after Chernobyl. The complex will turn into a natural reservation.
  • 30 years after the catastrophe: He was working with the turbines on the fateful night. He is still alive.
  • One day before the catastrophe: No sea, their main target is radiation.
  • Two days before the catastrophe: Even Ukraine has its own "Blanka" (new tunnel in Prague), the Chernobyl sarcophagus (mentioned probably because both constructions turned out to be more expensive than promised).
  • Four days prior to the catastrophe: Abandoned Chernobyl? Not at all.
  • Five days before the catastrophe: The eyes of the Pripyat Doll are chilling even 30 years later.
  • Six days prior to the catastrophe: Was the giant Eye of Moscow blind?
  • Seven days before the catastrophe: Inside the third Chernobyl block. The neighbor of the silent killer.

Another interview with Dr Drábová for the Czech public radio: Radiation levels weren't dangerous at those times, it's a myth (CZ). She says that she's been obsessed with nuclear safety since the very explosion. It was the worst imaginable accident of the kind. In August 1986 in Vienna, the information finally painted a clear picture. The responsible people tried hard. Czechoslovakia was safe, in contrast with myths. Some cracks in some Dukovany concrete weren't posing an immediate threat but this stuff doesn't belong to nuclear power plants because details must matter and she won't forgive these things. It's likely that similar problems will be seen in Temelín, our newer nuclear plant, because the stuff was done by the same company etc. Drábová thinks that some people fight the "past wars" and a new accident would have to be significantly different but there are so many layers of protection and compensations that the failure of all of them seems to belong to science-fiction.

By the way, for decades, we've been used to Austria's being the greatest threat for our nuclear power plants. The degree of anti-nuclear brainwashing has been high there. Perhaps more seriously, we just learned that the Green Party of Germany urges the German Chancellor to force all countries adjacent to Germany to close their nuclear power plants as well. Holy cow.

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