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3.16.17 – Luncheon Notes

SPOKES Notes written by Charlie Gallmeyer

President Michael Sytsma called the meeting to order and Kris Palosaari introduced guests and visiting Rotarians.  Jason Webb led us in a classic St. Patrick’s Day song (you will never guess…) and Tom Moore asked the invocation.

Mark Potter announced a service opportunity with Habitat for Humanity.  Bill Buchanan gave students from GR Christian and Union High the opportunity to introduce themselves.

Paula Jastifer invited Matt Tiedgen to introduce new member Nick Pollice.

Ping Liang introduced speaker Dick Gauthier, VP at Universal Forest Products.  Dick’s topic was Chernobyl, 30 years later.

Chernobyl is a small town a few hours north of Kiev, Ukraine, and the scene of the worst environmental disaster of the 20th century.  Ultimately the colossal failure was a major factor in the dissolution of the USSR: the drain on the treasury was crippling, and the loss of confidence in the government was demoralizing.

Chernobyl was the scene of one of the Soviet Union’s proudest accomplishments, a set of 4 nuclear reactors and surrounding infrastructure built in 1977.  By the time the complex was built it was widely acknowledged that the reactor design was flawed, but the government refused to make any upgrades that might have improved safety.

In 1985 an attempt was made to increase the power supplied by a reactor.  To facilitate this, the built-in safeguards were disconnected, including a device that would have automatically shut down the reactor if it overheated.  During the test the heat generated became so severe that the reactor exploded, causing the death of some 30 workers at the power plant within a day or two.

Because of systematic attempts to hide the reality of the situation, the Kremlin was told that there was a minor fire at the plant.  It wasn’t until three days later that Soviet officials found out about the extent of the disaster, ironically from Swedish sources who detected extraordinary levels of radiation in the upper atmosphere above their country.

Even then the information about the accident was under-reported in an attempt to avoid creating a panic.  As a result many people were exposed to lethal levels of radiation with no knowledge of the danger they were facing.

Residents were eventually evacuated from the town amid promises of their imminent return.  Government workers were sent in to fight the ongoing fire.  Some precautions were taken, but they proved inadequate for the amount of radiation exposure involved.  Even the robots that were sent in to combat the situation stopped operating within hours of their arrival.  Soldiers thrown into the battle worked 40 minute shifts before they had to stop.  Up to a half million people became involved in the effort.  It is estimated that some 20,000 died as a direct or indirect result of the catastrophe.  Some four thousand settlements in the area were torn down.  These numbers are hard to document because of the secrecy and misinformation that surrounded the accident.

Around 1200 people, mostly seniors, chose to return to the exclusion zone to live out their lives.  About half of these still live there; they are sent to a hospital periodically for observation.

In the months following the accident a make-shift cover was thrown together to try to contain the remaining radioactive material.  The life of this device was estimated to be 30 years, so it is now functionally obsolete and in need of replacement.  A “permanent” sarcophagus (with an estimated life of 100 years) is still under construction, and it’s not clear when it will be put in place over the existing cover.

The neighboring town of Pripyat was built as a showpiece to house the thousands of talented workers who helped run the complex.  Today it is a ghost town of empty high-rise apartment buildings, stores and recreational facilities.  Tours of the city are conducted, but tourists are officially ordered not to enter any of the buildings as pieces of them can collapse without warning.

The lead investigator appointed by the Soviet government to explain the tragedy tried his best to tell the true story of the incident, but was routinely contradicted by higher authorities.  He ended up taking his own life after two years of frustration.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster the Soviet government budgeted $18 billion to fund the cleanup, an enormous amount of cash to divert from the normal requirements of the economy.  Estimates of the total cost of the episode are now in the area of $200 billion, and rising.

President Michael closed the meeting by presenting Dick with a certificate noting that a clean water filter will be installed in a home in Nicaragua in appreciation of his time with us today.



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