Fukushima Matches But Differs From ChernobylBy Michelle Krebs April 12, 2011
Chernobyl and Fukushima now rank as the worst nuclear disasters in history, but the situations differ widely in terms of their impact, not only on the lives of residents in those areas but also on the world economy and global auto industry. On Tuesday, Japan raised to the highest level the severity rating of its nuclear crisis at its Fukushima nuclear plant, damaged during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. If radiation continues to leak from the plant, the severity rating could exceed Chernobyls.
Already, Fukushima, which ironically translates to good fortune, has surpassed the severity of the 1979 partial reactor meltdown of Pennsylvanias Three Mile Island. And the radiation leak has forced the widening of the evacuation zone, moving closer to a critical Nissan engine plant. But the global aspect of Japans natural disaster and subsequent nuclear plant catastrophe has far more ripple effects than did Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.
In spring 1986, I was invited to visit the Lada plant one of the worlds largest automotive assembly complexes at the time located in Togliatti, Russia, in the then Soviet Union. At the time, Lada cars were being sold in Canada. To drum up more interest in the brand for expansion possibly to the United States, Lada Canada, the distributor, invited a dozen Canadian journalists and me -- then an editor for trade journal Automotive News -- to see the factory and test drive the newest model, the Samara.
The trip was abruptly cancelled when Chernobyl occurred not long before our departure. Almost 25 years to the day (April 26, 1986) one of Chernobyls nuclear reactors exploded and spewed radioactive debris miles into the air, releasing radiation said to be 200 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Japans Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Indeed, the Chernobyl disaster was in the news in United States and raised recollections of our own Three Mile Island. But it wasnt the source of daily attention as is Japans situation, which started with a massive natural disaster that now is believed to have claimed the lives nearly 28,000 people. In addition, Chernobyl was kept secret by the government for days; news from Japan is part of the daily headlines in this Internet era.
My trip to the Soviet Union was re-scheduled for that August. What was surprising was how little affect we felt and how little discussion there was of Chernobyl during our visit. The massive Lada factory, which received its power from hydro-electric plants on the nearby Volga River (a stopping point on our week-long tour), was humming along without so much as hiccup from Chernobyl, churning out cars based on old Fiat designs. Virtually all of the components were made on site.
Unlike Toyota, Nissan, Honda and the other Japanese makers are now, Lada was no player on the global automotive scene. Except for a few exports to Canada and Third World and/or Communist countries, almost every Lada made was intended for internal Soviet consumption. An eight-year waiting list existed for Ladas or any car, for that matter. Those lucky enough to own an automobile removed items like windshield wipers when they parked them because replacement and maintenance parts were in such short supply that they were easily stolen and re-sold on the robust black market.
It was, after all, the Cold War, personified by Val, our friendly KGB agent, who made sure we were tucked into our hotel rooms at night and tailed us from the time we touched down until the time we took off. The Cold War, the new openness of the Soviet Union under President Mikhail Gorbachev that were the main topics of conversation during our trip more than Chernobyl. (So, too, were Gorbachevs efforts to deal with the nations high alcoholism rate. Giant billboards in the factory scorned the drinking of Vodka while building Ladas.)
One particularly heated conversation with local journalists reminded us of how out of touch the Soviets were with the world beyond the Wall. They could not understand why their cars based on old designs and of poor quality would not be purchased by Westerners. They could not fathom the choice of high-quality vehicles we had available to us in the U.S., and that their goods would not make the cut.
While Chernobyl had become synonymous with Soviet bungling and callousness toward the nations people, that attitude was evident in the plant, where the safety and care of workers was seemingly non-existent. Women worked the assembly line in cheap open-toed sandals. Many of the men clearly had lost fingers to the stamping machines they operated. But the only firm evidence of the fallout from Chernobyl was the food. August should have been the height of the harvest season but not a fresh vegetable was in sight. Our memorable farewell breakfast was a bowl of hot dogs boiled in what must have been cabbage canned from the previous season. As one of my Toronto colleagues noted: they are serving us the best they have.
Five years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and much has changed since then. In Japan, twin natural disasters of the earthquake and tsunami combined with the Fukushima nuclear plant catastrophe have vastly more far-reaching impact that spans the globe for who knows how long.