INTERVIEW: Antony Froggatt, Greenpeace representative in Ukraine

Greenpeace International, the worldwide activist environmental group located in Amsterdam, has been in Ukraine since 1990, when it initiated a medical project to diagnose and treat children who suffered from the fallout of the Chornobyl explosion. Since 1993 Greenpeace Ukraine has existed as an independent public environmental organization and as a national office of Greenpeace International.

Today Greenpeace Ukraine has a two-pronged agenda: (1) to push for alternative energy sources and the shutdown of RBMK reactors and deal effectively with the aftereffects of Chornobyl; and (2) to focus attention on the extensive toxic pollution in Ukraine, including chemical, air and water pollution, and how to reduce it.

The Kyiv office has 14 staffers and an organized support structure of volunteers throughout the country. Its 1995 budget was $200,000.

The Weekly interviewed Antony Froggatt, the representative of Greenpeace International for the former Soviet Union and Central and Western Europe, on April 9 while he was in Kyiv. Mr. Froggatt, 29, graduated from Westminster University in London with a degree in ecology. The following edited interview was conducted by Staff Editor Roman Woronowycz.

Q: What are the ramifications 10 years after the Chornobyl reactor exploded.

A: There are a huge number. First of all, look at the area of land contaminated. The United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 160,000 square kilometers is still contaminated, that is in the three republics, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Within that, somewhere between 6 and 9 million people still live in the contaminated area.

According to the World Health Organization, about 270,000 live in areas where they should be evacuated, the levels of contamination are just so high.

Between 400,000 and 500,000 people were evacuated in total. As far away as the United Kingdom there are still restrictions on agricultural practices. It is truly a continental disaster.

Q: In what way are there restrictions in the U.K.?

A: Restrictions, basically, are on the sale of meat in sheep. The sheep have to be brought to different, lower areas of land [from where they have historically grazed] to allow the radioactivity to decrease.

Q: Are the animals tested for radioactive levels?

A: Yes, officials know which farms have restrictions placed upon them. In January 1996, there were still 219 farms with restrictions.

Q: Are these farmers being compensated for this by the British government?

A: The total British compensation has to date been $18 million. Germany has paid out $307 million because of the accident, in Austria - $94 million. This is a good example of the truly global nature of the accident.

Then, in terms of the health impact: For a long time, for five or six years after the accident, the international community was saying that you are unlikely to see any significant health impacts. The World Health Organization even today is saying that only 30 or so people died as a result of the accident. But in 1992-1993 [Ukraine] started to see an increase in thyroid cancers among children.

Today in Belarus, there is a 100-fold increase in the country as a whole of thyroid cancer among children. In the highly contaminated areas of Homiel, there is a 200 times increase.

The thing that makes this important is the children that are affected, but also, many health and radiation experts say that this one is the indicator; [thyroid cancer] is the first disease you would expect to see within the larger population.

Then you have the question about what other health impacts you might see. This week there was a conference going on in Vienna organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency in which they are discussing this sort of issue. At the moment, unfortunately, organizations like them and others are saying that thyroid cancer is the only disease that we can see at the present time. This is contradicted by a number of people, by the World Health Organization in fact.

Q: Is there any documentation that physical mutations have occurred, animals born with five legs, two heads?

A: There were many pictures that came out in the early nineties. As to how much of this could be directly related to the accident and how much was in the natural population but just noticed more has never really been investigated to a sufficient degree.

This is one of the problems regarding that; the other is the synergistic effects, because there is also other heavy environmental damage that exists, heavy metal, pesticides, etc.

One of the real problems that exists is the longevity of the radionuclides. Most of the contamination that you see today is of cesium-137. Basically, it has a half-life of 30 years, so the levels of contamination we see today will be around for generations, there will be only a slow reduction.

There is, of course, plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, but the quantities dispersed were much smaller.

Q: What does Greenpeace think is important to emphasize, to put on the public agenda in terms of Chornobyl and its aftereffects?

A: There are two basic points. First and foremost, the Chornobyl station is still operating. Units 1 and 3 are still generating electricity. This clearly has to stop. The reactors themselves have serious design flaws. On top of that, you have aging components, a lack of regulatory regimes, all of which, in the words of the U.S. Department of Energy, make these probably more dangerous than in 1986. Clearly these reactors need to be shut down.

Secondly, the sarcophagus, the structure around Unit 4, is collapsing. It was built under extreme conditions between May and November 1986. It was supposed to last 30 years. People say it will be lucky if it lasts another 10.

Two things need to happen. One is there needs to be urgent work to shore the thing up. Secondly, and this is in the more medium-term, they need to replace it, however this is going to be very expensive. Estimates undertaken for the European Commission say it will cost around $1.5 billion.

Ukraine does not have that type of resources. Western taxpayers, basically, are going to have to pay. This is the price we all have to pay for the nuclear industry.

On top of that you have measures that are needed in terms of trying to reduce the dose that individual people have absorbed, trying to assist them in getting cleaner food. If there needs to be more relocation, then Western financing will have to assist them.

Q: Why is Chornobyl not higher on the public agenda?

A: From the U.S. perspective it is a very long way away. Not many people in the U.S. have an affinity with Ukraine or Russia.

It's probably not top of the list [in Europe], but people are aware of it, in Germany and other places, places that received the contamination. It's always a reminder to them of what happened 10 years ago and that it could happen again; you were affected individually.

Obviously, however, it is not high enough on the political agenda for any real improvements to have taken place in the last 10 years, and I think that is the really sad thing; we haven't seen this design of reactor shut down, they can't be made significantly safer and the threat of another Chornobyl still exists.

Q: Why do politicians not seem to be acutely aware of the problems, or why do they seem to downplay them?

A: Countries that have nuclear power do not necessarily want to raise the specter of another accident, because it may well draw back to themselves the dangers of their own reactors.

A second thing is that it is very clear that within the politics of Russia MinAtom (the nuclear ministry) is very, very powerful. The person who heads it up, Viktor Mykhailov, was formerly head of the weapons program in Russia, he's very, very powerful. MinAtom, basically, will fight tooth and nail to keep any reactor operating. As you have seen with the sale of nuclear reactors to Iran, the U.S. tried very hard to stop that sale and was not successful.

So there is the very real political force of the Russian nuclear industry, and the Russian nuclear industry is also very much encouraging Ukraine's to keep operating Chornobyl. They do not want to see the West interfering in what they perceive as their backyard. This is a very difficult political situation.

Q: How about the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)? Does Greenpeace think they have adequately addressed the problems of Chornobyl?

A: If you look at their record, it doesn't stand up, really. First of all, they organized a conference in the second half of 1986 to look at the causes of Chornobyl and, basically, they took the Soviet line all the way and said that it was operator error rather than design error.

Their defense could be that this was all the material [available] to them, but I just don't agree. I think that their recommendations and their conclusions from that study were used against the operators who were subsequently sent to prison. They should not have been so naive, if naive is the right word, to believe what they were told about how good the design of the RBMK was. Even prior to 1986 they had articles published by the international atomic energy industry bulletin saying what good reactors RBMKs are. Clearly it isn't a good design.

Even today, just last week when the IAEA had a meeting on RBMKs, they did not conclude that RBMKs should be shut down. It is very clear that they should, that they cannot be brought up to an acceptable safety standard.

It is clear that the IAEA does not do its job, if its job is to be a watchdog for the nuclear power industry.

Q: Why do you think that, when to most of world it seems to be clear that RBMKs are flawed and not adequately safe, the IAEA continues to be a proponent?

A: It is basically because the IAEA has a dual function. Article 4 of their charter says that it should promote nuclear power. It's an anachronism that you have a so-called watchdog or regulator and a promoter under the same body. It just doesn't work. If you look at national institutions, in the majority these functions have been split. But on the international level it hasn't.

The [IAEA] has a conflict of interest, and unfortunately, they tend to fall down on the promotional side as opposed to the regulatory side.

Q: How about the G-7, do you think it has dealt adequately with Chornobyl in terms of finances, or made adequate recommendations to resolve the problems of Chornobyl?

A: No. In every G-7 summit since 1992 they've made statements saying, "we welcome the work that has been done on Eastern European nuclear safety," or "we urge the quick closure of high-risk RBMKs and the first generation of EBR reactors," but this has not happened. The G-7 commissioned the World Bank, the International Energy Agency [sic] and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to come out with specific plans about how to reduce nuclear risks in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; these have not been followed up.

The reactors are still operating, none of the so-called high-risk reactors have been closed permanently since 1986. Basically, the G-7 has not achieved what it set out to do.

Q: What more could it do? I mean, are we talking strictly about money here?

A: There are two things. There needs to be more money put into assisting the energy sector in the region. But in some ways the most important thing is the direction for this money. The whole problem exists in that nobody will shut down the reactors until the replacement is put forward. In Ukraine, the nuclear power plants contribute 30 to 35 percent of the country's electricity. They are not going to shut them down overnight unless there are alternatives.

Now Chornobyl contributes only 7 percent to the country's electricity. Unfortunately, nobody is investing in alternative energy, or at a quick enough rate to enable this to happen, to shut down Chornobyl.

The obvious thing, which is staring everyone in the face, yet no one is really tackling it, is the question of energy efficiency and energy saving.

In Ukraine they use about seven times as much energy per unit of gross national product as, say, we do in the U.K. So there is a huge potential for energy savings. This type of investment is absolutely crucial for both the environment and the country's economy.

In the past, Russia controlled all the supplies of fuel to Ukraine and the countries of the former Soviet Union, and this was supplied at little or no cost, so there was no incentive to save energy. Consequently, the industry is wasting huge amounts of energy. Also, in terms of the domestic sector, in the flat I live in now there are no valves on the radiator and no thermostat. So when it gets too hot, the only thing you can do is open up the window, and this is madness.

This is why the country continues to operate nuclear power plants, because there is no way in which individuals can save energy, there is no incentive for business to save energy. This is where the direction of Western assistance needs to go. Even the government says that you can save 10 percent of the country's energy demands through measures that will cost nothing, or very little.

This is where Western governments need to assist. It is not easy, it involves structural changes, changes in practice, but it is essential to the environment.

Q: Besides a statement by President Leonid Kuchma not long ago, I haven't noticed any attempts by the government to promote or market energy efficiency and savings.

A: Not yet. It is a very slow process. They have set up an Institute for Energy Saving Problems, as they call it. This process has gradually started. In Kyiv there is the energy efficiency center sponsored by the European Commission. The USAID is doing work on energy efficiency here. The studies are being done, the pilot projects are now starting, but this needs to be accelerated. And this is where money needs to be directed.

This is one of the unfortunate things: a memorandum of understanding signed by the G-7, the European Union and the government of Ukraine, which seeks the closure of Chornobyl by the year 2000. They put together a package of energy grants to the tune of $500 million and energy loans to the tune of about $1.8 billion. But the majority of the loan will go to the completion of more nuclear reactors in Ukraine, and there is only a small amount, if anything, on energy efficiency loans, or grants. They're just wasting the opportunity. They're putting together a package to enable the closure of Chornobyl, yet the package is in the wrong direction.

Q: Do you see the 10th anniversary commemorations as something that will help propel Chornobyl higher up on the world's public agenda? Are you optimistic that some issues will finally be resolved?

A: A mixture. I am very hopeful that the G-7 will do the right thing in Moscow, that they will push forward with a memorandum of understanding and really do start escalating the energy efficiency effort

In terms of revamping the energy structure in Ukraine, which is one of the key things to avoid another Chornobyl, I think it has to happen. As you start seeing the changes in energy pricing, you'll start seeing energy efficiency. When you start seeing some energy efficiency, one hopes that then this will escalate and people will be motivated to start saving energy and instituting energy efficiency measures. Once this happens and people can see the benefits, then the potential will be there to start closing down reactors.

As for the longer term future for people, the millions of people who live in contaminated areas, this is very difficult because it is a human tragedy on such a huge scale - how will their plights be dealt with is just impossible to know. Clearly more money has to be given directly to them and disbursed through the United Nations. It is clear at the present moment the U.N. is saying that we haven't got any more money for this.

Q: What is Greenpeace planning for Ukraine in terms of 10th anniversary commemorations?

A: As we speak, a tour is in the western part of the country to talk to people about Chornobyl and asking people to put their thoughts on Chornobyl down in a book, which will later be presented to the government. At the same time they are talking about alternatives to nuclear power, alternatives to fossil fuels. This is now on its second leg.

Also, the week of the anniversary a large bus which Greenpeace has will come to Kyiv with an alternative energy exhibition. It has solar panels and items to show what is the alternative energy future. Around the anniversary there is an alternative energy conference taking place, so we will park the bus there and show people how it can work.

That's just two things, there will be other activities involving the public, asking them to be involved, petitions, etc.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 21, 1996, No. 16, Vol. LXIV

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