Saturday, October 5, 2013

Can't Go Home Again

Probably the most enduring legacy to the Chernobyl disaster, aside from Chernobyl itself, is the town of Pripyat, only a few miles from the plant and home to plant workers. The residents of Pripyat were not immediately evacuated after the Chernobyl meltdown, but an evacuation did occur within 36 hours. The town of Slavutych was hastily founded as a replacement town, 28 miles east of Pripyat. Residents were told that they could only take essential items with them, as it was thought they would be returning in three days, and were not allowed to bring pets due to the contamination that may have been in their fur. The 50,000-strong town was empty in three hours. It has since been thoroughly ransacked.

Pripyat was actually lucky. It got to remain standing. Smaller surrounding towns that also were within meltdown radius were simply bulldozed flat with a sign stuck in the ground memorializing them.

As Martin Fackler of the New York Times reported on Tuesday, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Fukushima disaster has left similar ghost towns. The report comes from Namie, the largest of the towns, and thus likely to be the face. Namie sits five miles from the plant. As with Pripyat, when towns were evacuated, it was under the initial impression that it would be temporary, but also as with Pripyat, the reality is beginning to set in that former residents will never live in those towns again. The problem is that the Japanese government is reluctant to admit it, as they hope to restart Japan's other nuclear plants and admitting that towns nearby Fukushima have been rendered permanently uninhabitable would seriously hamper such efforts. However, failing to make that admission itself hampers efforts to find those affected permanent replacement housing; as of now, many are still receiving small subsidies in temporary housing. Some residents, mainly the younger ones, have given up on their hometowns; others, mainly the older ones, are still heading back during daytime to perform some kind of upkeep on their old homes that they know deep down to be futile but don't want to admit it either.

These are not the only two permanent nuclear evacuations. Between 1945-63, the British government conducted nuclear tests in Australia, at Maralinga, South Australia. Maralinga was inhabited by two aboriginal tribes, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara; the site had religious significance to them. Seven major tests were conducted and publicized, but a large number of smaller tests were kept secret, and it's the cleanup of one of these tests, the Vixen B series, that caused the land to become uninhabitable due to the sprinkling of 22.2 kilograms of plutonium-239 and 47.3 kilograms of americium-241.

Well, okay, maybe it wasn't permanent. The tribes did eventually get their land back. In 2009. With it still in a state that, despite the talk, wasn't exactly pristine. But it will eventually get back to normal.

After all, americium-241's half-life is only 432.7 years, and plutonium-239's half-life is a paltry 24,100 years.

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