The consequences of something going wrong

Joseph Korff, Vermilion
November 12, 2003

Public meeting between U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission O350 Panel and FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company
Oak Harbor, Ohio

Joseph Korff
Joseph Korff
My name is Joseph Korff. I live in Vermilion, Ohio, right on Lake Erie.

Just so we understand what happens when procedures are violated, Iím going to read to you, part of a report called 2002 Update of Chernobyl Ten Years Out, by the Nuclear Energy Agency of the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development:

"Unit 4 of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was to be shut down for routine maintenance on 25 April 1986. On that occasion, it was decided to carry out a test of the capability of plant equipment to provide enough electrical power to operate the reactor core cooling system and emergency equipment during the transition period between the loss of main station electrical power supply and the startup of the emergency power supply provided by the diesel engines.

Unfortunately, this test, which was considered to concern essentially the non-nuclear part of the power plant was carried out without the proper exchange of information and coordination between the team in charge of the test and the personnel in charge of the operation and safety of the nuclear reactor. Therefore, inadequate safety precautions were included in the test program, and the operating personnel were not alerted to the nuclear safety implications of the electrical test. This lack of coordination and awareness resulting from an insufficient level of safety culture within the plant staff led the operators to take a number of actions which deviated from established safety procedures.

. . . The combination of these factors provoke a sudden and uncontrolled power surge which, resulted in violent explosion and almost total destruction of the reactor. The consequence of this catastrophic event were further complicated by the graphihte moderatorand other material fires that broke out in the building and contributed to a widespread and prolonged release of radioactive materials to the environment."

To me, an oops isnít going to make it here, fellows. An oops is what caused Chernobyl, and we sure donít want it around us. Iím not yet convinced that I heard no oops is going to happen.

I appreciate the hard work and perseverance that everybody has had to go through for this gut wrenching experience to find all of the skeletons in your closet and realize that theyíre not only in someone else's house, but theyíre in your house and to deal with them forthrightly.

My purpose right now is to describe the worst case scenario and remind people in this room what happens in the worst case scenario by again quoting from the 2002 report by the Nuclear Energy Agency, and Iíll tie that into a very personal experience.

It talks about low doses of radiation. It says lower doses and dose rate do not produce acute affects early because available cellular repair mechanisms are able to compensate for the damage. However, this repair may be incomplete or defective, in which case the cell may be altered so that it may develop into a cancerous cell perhaps many years into the future, or its transformation may lead to inheritable defects in the long-term.
"Since the last report we have a better view of the behavior of radionuclides in the contaminated area, and we know now that the natural decontamination processes have reached an equilibrium state. The decrease of contamination levels from now on will be mainly due to radioactive decay, indicating that radioactive cesium will be present for approximately 300 years."
We wonít be around to worry about that, but someone hopefully will.

The most important lesson learned is probably the understanding that a major nuclear accident has inevitable transboundary implications, and its consequences could affect directly or indirectly many countries even at large distances from the accident site.

This is certainly not contained in Ottawa County, and it was concluded that the Chernobyl accident has had significant long-term impact on psychological well-being, health-related quality of life and illness in the affected populations.

One statistic they cited was in 1986 children under 15 in Belarus had the occasion of three out of 100,000 had thyroid cancer. By 1993, it was 87 out of 1,000 that contracted the cancer, and outside the former Soviet Union, no concerns were ever warranted for the levels of radioactivity in drinking water.

On the other hand, there were lakes, particularly in Switzerland and the Nordic countries, where restrictions were necessary for the consumption of fish.

These restrictions still exist in Sweden, for example, where thousands of lakes contain fish with a radioactive content still higher than limits established by the authority for the sale in those markets.

Over 16 years after the accident, exposures of populations are mainly due to the consumption of agricultural food contaminated with cesium-137, a very heavy element.

Talking about the area immediately around the Chernobyl area -- and itís a 30-kilometer radius, so weíre again 20 miles radius from the site of the accident -- it is not clear whether return to the 30-kilometer exclusion zone will ever be possible, nor whether it would be feasible. So, thereís a whole chunk of the earth that may never be contaminated again for 300 years perhaps.

"An important effect of the accident, which has a bearing on health, is the appearance of the widespread status of psychological stress in the populations affected. The severity of this phenomenon, which is mostly observed in the contaminated regions of the former Soviet Union, appears to reflect the public fears about the unknowns of radiation and its effects, as well as its mistrust toward public authorities and official experts. . ."
On a personal side, last month when I was here, I said that my wife and I were host of a Chernobyl child for a couple years. Quite surprisingly, we've heard from him for the first time since he left us in the mid '90's. He sends a letter dated October 2 and he wrote it in Russian. My son happens to be a Russian linguist so he translated it for us.

Sergei Volcov came to our house when he was, 10 or 11, maybe a little older. He grew up with my son, Geoff. Sergei is now 21 probably, has a child. He says --
"Hello to my dear friends, Susan, Joe, and your big family, with a big hello and a lot of the best memories from your old friend Sergei Volcov and my family, my wife Olga and daughter Ketrin. You have probably forgotten me and likely donít remember, and after all this time I still have not forgotten you and often think of you and tell my friends how good it was to stay with you. I probably would not have written to you, but I, well, more precisely, my daughter has suffered a great tragedy. When she was born, a heart defect was discovered and she needs a very expensive operation before her first birthday. . . "
He goes on to ask for the funds. She has a hole in her heart and sheís not quite a year old. He thinks if she doesnít have the operation by the time sheís a year old sheís going to pass away.

"Truthfully, Iím not hopeful that my letter will get to you or, even worse, that you have moved somewhere else for which I donít have the address, but I am strongly counting on you and think that you will understand and help me if you can. Iíll be grateful for the rest of my life. . ."
He encloses a picture of himself and heís holding his daughter and his wife.
"Iíll close my letter and wait and hope that this letter reaches you and that you will understand and help me, after all, hope is the last to die. Goodbye, with greetings to you from the family of Volcov."
The consequences of not doing absolutely flawless work in a nuclear power plant now that they have age on them are unthinkable, and you're the ones responsible. Youíre the public -- you hold the public trust. I know you take it seriously, and I can only emphasize the consequences of something going wrong. Weíre going to try to help this young man with this operation for his daughter, and we hope that it doesnít happen here.