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Thirty-eight years after Chernobyl, we are again on a nuclear knife-edge

Chernobyl isn’t something that happened in the past. The ultimate toll of death and disease is still to be fully realised

This Friday, April 26th, marks United Nations Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day – a day ratified by the United Nations to remember the victims and survivors of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident since the beginning of the nuclear age.

On that day in 1986, a new word – “Chernobyl” – entered the history of language, the history of world disasters and the history of the world itself. Unfortunately, like many disasters, they pass quickly out of sight and out of mind, relegated to the past and for many people, Chernobyl belongs to history. But not so for the victims.

Chernobyl happened almost 40 years ago, but its impact continues to stalk the generations. It remains locked in the land, water, air and DNA of all life. Chernobyl isn’t something from the past; Chernobyl was “forever” and it is “forever”. The impact of this single shocking nuclear accident launched an invisible war that we cannot see, taste or touch and it can never be undone. Chernobyl’s radioactive footprint is permanently embedded in our world with people still being affected by its deadly legacy – shadowing into their lives for future generations.

Thirty-eight years on, the Chernobyl zone may be more radioactive than previously thought, according to research issued by the American Geophysical Union. The half-life of caesium-137 that was expelled from Chernobyl is thought to be 30 years, but now some scientists believe that it could take between 180 and 320 years for caesium to disappear from the local environment, what’s known as its “ecological half-life”.


Chernobyl continues to expose humans, flora and fauna to radioactive lethality especially in, but not restricted to, Ukraine and Belarus. Research by the New York Academy of Sciences has shown that there is no safe level or threshold level of ionising (man-made) radiation, though debate continues about what an “acceptable level” may be. The ultimate toll of disease and death is yet to be determined – given long latency periods, the increasing concentration of radionuclides in internal organs from food grown in contaminated soil, and damage to the human genome will only be known over many generations. With this different frame of reference of tragedy, there is now the realisation that any dose of ionised radiation is an overdose, and often puts the burden of proof of radiation-related injuries on the victims.

The intensifying nuclear threat in Ukraine is an inconvenient truth, but one we must not shy away from

On February 24th, 2022, Chernobyl re-entered centre stage for all the wrong reasons. The movement of Russian troops towards Kyiv came via the world’s most toxic environment, the dreaded Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and is thought to have re-released deeply buried toxic radioactive elements, such as caesium-137, back into the environment.

After Chernobyl, Russian forces moved onwards to one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants at Zaporizhzhia – and in what feels like an ominous deja vu, the world is once again watching another nuclear power plant in Ukraine with bated breath, in fear of yet another unwinnable war against radiation. The latest reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency paint an alarming picture of the situation at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – direct drone attacks, leaking steam generation circuits and safety systems, inadequate staff, and no 2024 maintenance plan. The escalating crisis at Zaporizhzhia is an untenable situation; we are on a knife-edge. If another nuclear explosion or meltdown happens, by either accident or design, humanity and the environment would be scarred forever. Any potential explosion or meltdown at Zaporizhzhia, or any of the Ukrainian nuclear plants, would cause irreversible damage to the environment and human life that will last for thousands of years. The uranium-235 housed within the susceptible Zaporizhzhia plant has a half-life of more than 700 million years, which would change the world forever if expelled from the reactors. There would be no opportunity to evacuate the war zone surrounding the nuclear power plant if a nuclear accident occurs. We neglect Ukraine at our peril.

The intensifying nuclear threat in Ukraine is an inconvenient truth, but one we must not shy away from.

Every day that peace in Ukraine is denied, we are rolling a dice. If we allow this to continue, our luck will run out and Zaporizhzhia will become the next Chernobyl, or even worse. We cannot overstate the current critical situation and nuclear threat in Ukraine. If we remain silent, we are playing with a loaded gun and risk a humanitarian Armageddon.

The weaponising of nuclear power facilities that began at Chernobyl and continued onwards to Zaporizhzhia directly violates international law that defines any attack on a nuclear facility to be a “war crime”. Ukraine is sitting on a nuclear powder keg.

The accident at Chernobyl happened as a result of faults in the technology and human error. However, if a nuclear accident happens at Zaporizhzhia, it could very well be intentional. We must pay attention to keeping weapons and materials of mass destruction, in this case nuclear weapons-grade materials such as uranium and plutonium, out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations.

The people of Ireland are intrinsically linked to the victims of Chernobyl. I plead with the Government to scale up diplomatic initiatives so we can avoid any nuclear conflagration. Our neutrality is our greatest asset. We must use that strength to call on world leaders to invoke The Hague Convention and call for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine.

We must do everything in our power to prevent Zaporizhzhia from becoming the next “Chernobyl”.

Adi Roche is a campaigner for nuclear disarmament, founder and voluntary CEO of Chernobyl Children International