Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Health

ENVIRONMENT: French Finally Confront Chernobyl Risks

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Apr 1 2005 (IPS) - The French government concealed the enormous risks from radioactive clouds in the weeks following the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April 1986, new evidence claims.

Official documents presented at a judicial inquiry in Paris this week supported claims made earlier by several independent scientists and by people suffering from cancer, especially of the thyroid glands.

The documents presented at the inquiry include a report by two nuclear scientists, Paul Genty and Gilbert Mouthon based on documents classified earlier as confidential. Their report says French authorities had “full knowledge” that radioactivity detected in France had surpassed safety levels.

The Central Service for Protection against Ionic Radiation (SCPRI, after its French name) “obviously concealed information at its disposal, and denied that high risks of contamination existed,” they say. “As consequence, basic measures such as the administration of iodine (to the population at risjk) were never put in practice.”

The explosion at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union, released numerous radioactive elements including iodine 131, an isotope that attacks the thyroids and provokes glandular cancer. Regular iodine pills are a known antidote.

Other documents that surfaced at the judicial hearings in Paris this week include minutes of government meetings at which officials warned of considerable health risks associated with the consumption of fresh vegetables and milk.

“We have figures (of radioactive contamination) that cannot be made public,” an official had said at the meeting then. He gave an example: “goat milk: more than 10,000 becquerel per litre” (becquerel is a unit for measuring decay brought on by radioactivity).

European legislation at the time required that all food products containing more than 500 becquerel per litre of iodine 131 be taken off the shelves.

After the explosion at Chernobyl Apr. 26, all European governments ordered urgent measures to protect their people from radioactivity. In Germany the government banned consumption of fresh vegetables for a month, starting May 1986. It also banned fresh milk for children.. All swimming pools were closed, and sports activities in open air were declared dangerous.

The Italian government banned the sale of fresh vegetables starting May 12, and recommended that pregnant women and children under 10 avoid fresh milk. It set up strict border controls on all food products from abroad.

Similar measures were taken across Europe. Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Finland stopped children from playing in open air, and ordered substitution of fresh dairy products by powder milk.

Only France refused to take such measures. On May 6 that year the ministry of agriculture reassured people that “French territory, due to its distance (from Chernobyl), has totally avoided being affected by the radioactivity.”

In another statement early in May, then environment minister Alain Carignon said the government had found “levels of radioactivity far below danger, five, ten, hundred times below dangerous levels.”

But the documents presented at the inquiry this week show that French agencies commonly found radioactivity levels of between 2000 and 4000 becquerels per litre in milk and other food products.

The present judicial inquiry was initiated in 2001 by 51 people suffering from thyroid cancer, who associate their illness with the Chernobyl radioactive cloud, and by the Research Commission on Radioactivity, an independent group of scientists who have been studying nuclear contamination in France since the early 1990s.

“Even if we do not have all the conclusions yet, experts shows the dimensions of the cover-up launched by the government of the time,” Emmanuel Ludot, legal representative of some of the victims of thyroids cancer, told IPS.

Ludot said his clients were not expecting any “confession” from the politicians who mismanaged the case, “but because the political responsibility is clearly established, the government should create an indemnification fund to aid the victims of the Chernobyl radioactivity to deal with their disease.”

Stephane Lhomme, spokesperson of the group ‘Get rid of nuclear power’ said the French government had its own reasons for downplaying the risk.

“In France, which has 58 nuclear power stations, and depends up to 80 percent on nuclear power for the generation of electricity, governments do not want to associate nuclear power with health risks,” he told IPS. “Therefore, Chernobyl was for the government at that time a most unwelcome catastrophe, whose risks had to be concealed, in order to avoid the emergence of people’s opposition to nuclear power.”

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