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Horrible Lessons from Chernobyl and the BP Spill

Gulf of Mexico Fishery Closure Boundary (NOAA) click to embiggen

That map to the right comes from the NOAA Fisheries Service’s Southeast regional office. They’ve been putting out maps like this since May 2, and the “No Fishing” area keeps getting larger. To put that “no fishing” area into perspective, NOAA’s spill website summarizes the closure like this (emphasis added):

NOAA Fisheries Service revised the fishery closure effective 6:00 p.m. EDT on Friday, May 28. The closure now encompasses approximately 25 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico exclusive economic zone.

By closed, they mean [pdf] “All commercial and recreational fishing including catch and release is prohibited in the closed area; however, transit through the area is allowed.”

The more stories like this that I hear about the disaster in the Gulf, the more I think about the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. The accident itself was bad enough, but the consequences of it continue. Like the closed fishing area around the oil spilling into the Gulf, a 30 kilometer “zone of exclusion” remains around Chernobyl, including the city of Prypiat where many of the workers lived. Entrance to the area is severely restricted, and the runoff from the spring rains has to be carefully handled, to keep radiation-filled silt from washing downstream.

Radiation contamination is different from oil and chemical contamination, but the parallels between the Chernobyl disaster and the BP oil spill haunt me. Like the radiation around the broken reactor, the oil that continues to leak into the Gulf cannot be easily wiped up, nor will it simply disappear on its own with no consequences. Instead, it will change the nature of the Gulf waters, the coastal regions, and the people who live and work in the Gulf for generations to come.

In 1989, Grigori Medvedev wrote The Truth About Chernobyl, which was translated into English and published in the US in 1991, winning the LA Times 1991 book prize for best science and technology book. (Two short reviews are here and here.) At the end of Medvedev’s look back at what happened, he also looks ahead:

What, then, in my opinion, is the main lesson to be learned from Chernobyl?

Above all else, it is that this horrible tragedy summons us forcefully to the Truth — to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That’s the first thing. My second conclusion derives from the truth.

. . . Like all tragedies of the past, Chernobyl showed us how great is our people’s courage and how strong its spirit. But Chernobyl calls us to use our reason and our analytical powers, so that we will not forget what happened, and will look clearly at our misfortune and avoid glossing over it . . .

Accordingly, the main lesson of Chernobyl is to sharpen our sense of the fragility and vulnerability of human life. Chernobyl demonstrated both man’s immense power and his impotence. And it served as a warning to man not to become intoxicated with his own power, not to take that power lightly, and not to seek in it ephemeral gains and pleasures and the glitter of prestige. Since man is both the cause and the effect, he must be more responsible and scrutinize himself as well as the things he has made. When we remember that man’s works carry over into the future, with all its joys and hardships, we realize with horror that those shattered chromosome strands and those genes, either lost or distorted as a result of radiation, are already part of our future. We will be seeing them again and again in the years ahead. That is the most horrible lesson of Chernobyl.

Like the residents of the Ukraine and neighboring Belarus, the residents of the Gulf coast will be learning first hand this very same lesson, as the BP oil disaster teaches us about the fragility and vulnerability of marine life, reshaping not only the life in the Gulf but also the lives of the people tied to its waters.

It is a horrible lesson, indeed.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.