The Chernobyl disaster of 25 years ago remains a human and environmental tragedy so severe the consequences will continue for centuries. Its anniversary this week is especially timely given the current emergency in Japan which echoes some of Chernobyl’s hard lessons. To learn them would honour those who suffer from the past and could save lives in the future.
Lessons behind both tragedies will figure in an extraordinary conference next month in Kingston, Jamaica where church representatives and partner organizations will debate a broad vision of peace. The conference theme is “Just Peace”; topics, like “Peace with the earth: so that life is sustained”, will point participants toward truths that Chernobyl and Fukushima deny.
A German theologian writing in advance of the Kingston conference calls Christians to care for creation as a gift from God. “My dream is that one day, the religions of the world will flow like fresh water (…) bringing the water of life from eternity into time,” writes Jürgen Moltmann in the March 2011 issue of The Ecumenical Review.
Nuclear catastrophe turns water and wind into destructive forces.
Contamination from the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl rendered an area the size of Switzerland unsafe for normal life for 300 years, according to scientific studies and Ukraine’s legislature. What are the essential lessons behind a forecast so severe?
As a fellowship of churches with members in over 100 countries, the World Council of Churches (WCC) is affected by disasters in different places. That was the case for member churches after Chernobyl and is the case again today in the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan.
“Emergency evacuations of tens of thousands of people, desperate measures to control dangerous materials, the spread of harmful radiation, and the prospect that some survivors will never be able to go home – these are echoes of Chernobyl for us in what is happening in Japan,” said WCC general secretary Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit. “Our hearts go out to the people still affected in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, as to people in Japan.”
“Churches have a solid record in emergency aid. We see it is a ministry that works in parallel with disaster prevention and long-term development,” Dr Tveit said. “But when the duration of the damage is so great, as around Chernobyl, and when a highly developed country faces devastation on such a scale, as in Japan, serious re-thinking is needed. These events train our prayers and our planning toward what societies and churches must do differently to keep people safe and protect the environment.”
The 1000-participant gathering for the WCC International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Kingston next month will meet to focus on exactly that. What are the main threats to peace — environmental, economic, political and military? What is our role as citizens and consumers in creating conditions related to complex disasters?
The WCC conference builds on long-standing ecumenical commitments that link the integrity of God’s creation with justice and peace, and give priority to the sustainability of communities and economies. The goal in Kingston is to challenge churches locally and globally to deepen their understanding of peace and broaden their collaboration in working for peace.
Today’s challenges are not all new.
Hillsides along the northeast coast of Japan have hundreds of old stone markers to tell people where to take refuge if a tsunami strikes. The problem is that these warnings about high-water levels have often been ignored in present-day Japan. Whole communities built on coastal flats below these ancestral warning stones were wiped out by the tsunami of 11 April 2011. Nearly 30,000 are dead or missing; more than 130,000 are homeless. The five Fukushima nuclear reactors were built at sea level, behind a strong wall that the tsunami easily shattered.
“We are all familiar with what has happened in Japan. We know about short-term actions taken without adequate measures to protect future generations from the consequences,” said Guillermo Kerber of the WCC climate change programme. “Even in so-called developed countries with many controls in place, people’s actions can make themselves and others vulnerable. Rampant development, high levels of consumption and lifestyles that are not sustainable all play a part,” Dr Kerber said.
“A big change of paradigm is needed.”
The basic document for the convocation in Kingston, “An Ecumenical Call to Just Peace”, speaks of the larger issues involved in terms of “lifestyles of mass extinction” and of “weapons of mass destruction”. Both are “violent misuses of the energy inherent in Creation”, the Call says, and both are proliferating. Nuclear power stations, which require dangerous and militarily sensitive technology and fuels to generate electricity, are implicated in both trends, notes Jonathan Frerichs who works on peace and disarmament issues for the WCC.
“Will our descendants be saved from radioactive fallout and contamination because of what Ukraine and its neighbours have suffered? Or will the construction of many new power plants continue regardless, increasing long-term threats to the environment from coal as well as nuclear fuels, and spreading technology needed for nuclear weapons to more and more places?” Mr Frerichs asked.
“There is a massive concrete sarcophagus covering the radioactive wreckage of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Do we take this as a warning? Will it serve to warn our children about future dangers, like the tsunami stones in Japan?” he said.
The relevance of Chernobyl and Fukushima to the peace convocation in Kingston goes beyond environmental and nuclear issues.
“Peace in the Marketplace: so that all may live with dignity” is another thematic area at the conference. A United Nations study of the legacy of Chernobyl found that the disaster played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and that, 20 years later, between 100,000 and 200,000 people were still struggling with isolation, poor health and poverty from the effects of the disaster. The study notes that millions more people still consider themselves as victims, but that they do not have access to full and accurate information about the effects of such a catastrophe. The actual costs, in terms of lives lost, health needs, environmental remediation and economic redevelopment, are not known and extremely difficult to determine.
Early estimates of the costs and dangers stemming from Japan’s triple disaster are already so high as to raise questions there about prospects for managing a large sovereign debt, and about economies and living standards that rely on nuclear energy. But the world need only remember Chernobyl to know that peace with the earth has been compromised.