SEGH Articles

"Chernobyl: now open to tourists" - Risk communication or public engagement

15 June 2011
The Ukraine government is not only to lift restrictions on access to the restricted zone around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, but also plan for redevelopment and repopulation.

A thought provoking headline from one of the UK's major daily newspapers (Walker, 2010), revealed an eye opening development at one of the most infamous environmental disaster zones. The Ukraine government is not only to lift restrictions on access to the restricted zone around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor for citizens and tourists, but also launch plans for the progressive redevelopment and repopulation of the zone. It represents a significant decision, balancing socio economics with health risks. With obvious headline grabbing impact, it also raises an issue many environmental regulators face when dealing with "contamination" - the reality of the disruption and impacts, both short and long term on the communities affected and the barriers to identifying acceptable solutions.

As the UK enters into the 11th year of its "Part IIa", risk-based regulatory regime for contaminated land, the consequences of contaminated land management on the affected human population is more frequently one of engagement and communication. Options for development and choices for are numerous, information available to support these decisions increasingly draws on the academic community, who are often criticised for the lack of understanding and the direct relevance of their research to support policy and regulation decision making.

So what are the issues? Where are the problems?

A number of recent publications show we are starting to face these challenges (e.g. Burger et al 2010; SNIFFER, 2010) and that for SEGH and wider academic community new opportunities to focus the efforts of our research. We offer some reflections on the Chernobyl situation - a perspective from an experienced practicing environmental regulator and a middle aged academic who cut his research teeth in the Chernobyl cloud....

Five million people live in the areas of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus considered to be ‘Contaminated' by radionuclides following the catastrophic failure of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.  Approximately 349,400 people were subsequently evacuated from contaminated areas (Yablokov & Nesterenko, 2009), where 137Cs exceeded 555 kBq m-2 (UNSCEAR, 2006).  A 30km radius zone of alienation was set up around the plant in Ukraine with similar exclusion zones established in Belarus to restrict access to these more contaminated areas (UNSCEAR, 2006).  Twenty-five years later, these exclusion zones remain largely vacated, but for the remediation workers, the residents who refused to relocate and the occasional tourist bus party.

In 2006, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published a revaluation of its radiation effects assessment of 2000, which finds the majority of affected people to have been exposed to low-level radiation doses and who "need not live in fear of serious health consequences".  However, the rapid relocation is shown to have had psychological effects resulting from the break up of established community groups, anxiety for future health implications, which may also lead to psychosomatic symptoms.  This has incurred a significant financial welfare burden on the respective Government administrations.

The UNSCEAR (2006) report considers the majority of ‘contaminated' exclusion zones to be safe for rehabilitation of residents, although some areas are indicated to require on-going restrictions on land-use activities.  In addition to the socio-economic burden and unprecedented scale of investment into the remediation of the affected areas, there is now increasing political pressure to repopulate and reinstate economic value to these exclusion zones.

Irregular or "spotty" contamination distribution, bioaccumulation of radionuclides, the changing conditions of radioactivity and the presence of additional soil contaminants such as lead (Yablokov & Nesterenko, 2009) will present difficulties when it comes to zoning areas for controlling land use activities.  Whilst UNSCEAR (2000, 2006) report levels as an average that may be a few times in exceedance of the background levels, ‘hot spots' tens to hundreds of meters across may be ten times the background level of the surrounding area (Yablokov & Nesterenko, 2009).

The Chernobyl radioactive contamination is both dynamic and long term (Yablokov & Nesterenko, 2009) and requires a management strategy incorporating a controlled land use policy and communication strategy could provide an authoritative framework for local governmental agencies.  Different types of environmental assessments may be required according to contaminant, media and sensitivity of land use and conflicting guidance from regulatory agencies and governmental administrations have the potential to be contradictory or confusing (Burger et al, 2010).

Effective communication must be based on the understanding that people will have different perceptions of risk as a result of their own situation and values (SNIFFER, 2010).  The presence of Chernobyl radionuclides may exceed established thresholds that deem the land contaminated.  However, the observed health effects appear to be less severe than originally anticipated in the UNSCEAR (2000) assessment report. In addition to concerns for health and wellbeing of the individual and family, people will be concerned about property values, amenity, liability, damage to the wider environment and level of confidence in the ability of authorities to provide protection (SNIFFER, 2010).  Produce from the area is likely to be blighted by association and alternatives such as biofuel crops may provide a more gainful economic return.

Residents who have been involuntary exposed to contamination suffer form the loss of control in their lives (SNIFFER, 2010).  Although, there is a substantial volume of information available to residents, this needs to be processed and disseminated in a format as to provide people with a sufficient understanding to have a constructive involvement in developing solutions for the re-building of towns and infrastructure (SNIFFER, 2010).  This approach empowers the community alleviating "victims' syndrome" and reinstating an element of control.

Children who were evacuated in 1986 may have young families of their own and much of the displaced population are likely to be settled in their new communities.  Many of the vacant and now derelict homes will require financial assistance for restoration or rebuild.  Rehabilitation of the exclusion zone will require further investment to create incentives for people to move there, promoting safe healthy lifestyles, social amenities and economic prospects.  Transparent and truthful risk communication will be critical in persuading families that it is safe enough to return home. 

In the absence of human activity, wildlife has thrived and nature reserve designation is being considered.  The infamy of the Chernobyl disaster may be its economic lifeline with ‘environmental' tourism maintaining a high profile for the site and securing commitment from the EU to continue its long-term monitoring of the after effects. 

Roslyn McIntosh & Andrew Hursthouse, University West of Scotland, Paisley UK. Andrew.Hurthouse@uws.ac.uk

References

Burger J., Powers C. and Gochfeld M. (2010) Regulatory requirements and tools for environmental assessment of hazardous wastes: Understanding tribal and stakeholder concerns using Department of Energy sites.  Journal of Environmental Management (2010) 1-10.

Nesterenko VB and Yablokov AV (2009) Chapter I. Chernobyl Contamination: An Overview.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

SNIFFER (2010) Communicating Understanding of Contaminated Land Risks.  Project UKLQ13.  May 2010.

UNSCEAR (2000) Report to the General Assembly. Annex J. Exposures and Effects of the Chernobyl Accident (UN, New York): 130pp

UNSCEAR (2006) Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.  The Chernobyl Forum: 2003-2005.  Second Revised Version.

Walker, P. (2010) Chernobyl: now open to tourists http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/13/chernobyl-now-open-to-tourists