Chernobyl 31 years on: Are we equipped to deal with the fallout of another nuclear disaster?

Arik Eisenkraft
Arik Eisenkraft

31 years ago today the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, close to the Belarus border, was hit by an explosion and fire.

The 1986 incident is widely regarded as the biggest man made disaster in the world.

The accident prompted sweeping health and safety changes across the atomic energy industry.

But in 2011, a 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three reactors at Fukishima nuclear plant in Japan.

The subsequent meltdown was the only other nuclear incident other than Chernobyl to be given the most serious rating – ‘major incident’ – on the International Nuclear Events Scale.

So what if another disaster was to unfold on Europe’s doorstep?

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute there are now 450 atomic reactors spread across 30 countries globally. Many more are currently being built.

Dr Arik Eisenkraft, a former chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense expert with the Israeli Defense Force, is leading efforts to produce effective medical countermeasures in case the worst was to happen again.

He is currently the Director of Homeland Defense Projects at Pluristem Therapeutics Inc and is studying placental stem cell therapies which can be distributed in the event of a nuclear incident by way of intramuscular injection.

The idea is to reduce the “devastating” effects of acute radiation syndrome within the 36 to 48 hour window from exposure.

Dr Eisenkraft said: “We are focussing on the hematopoietic subsyndrome of Acute Radiation Syndrome.

“This is the immediate life threatening danger.

“What we see is a remarkable survival rate following our treatment with a small animal model.

“So far we have shown an almost full survival of animals following exposure to radiation.

“The aim would be to deploy these clinical counter measures as quickly as possible.”

But Dr Eisenkraft said not all countries are willing to pay the price to be prepared for such eventualities.

He said: “The Chernobyl disaster opened our eyes. For the first time people all over the world understood that a single incident in the Ukraine can influence other countries even far away. Many of these countries have nuclear energy themselves.

“Now we understand that we need to be prepared for such an event, as it is shared by everyone.

“If we look 31 years after the disaster, while lessons have definitely been learned, we still keep on learning about potential consequences of such a disaster.

“I cannot honestly say that all lessons have been implemented, at least not by all countries.

“Not everyone shares the notion that you need to be well prepared. It’s down to cultural difference, budget constraints and other things.

“Currently there are governments and authorities that do invest a lot in preparations for such a catastrophe but others are still suffering from major gaps in preparedness.”

The Chernobyl incident unfolded during a planned shutdown when there was an inadvertent explosion of the reactor core.

The subsequent fire pushed radioactive particles high into the atmosphere and across Europe.

Around 116,000 people were permanently evacuated from the 1,600 square mile exclusion zone around the plant, with nearby villages and towns left to rot and ruin.

Environmental group Greenpeace places the eventual death toll at 93,000 cancer deaths world wide due to the incident.