In a recent referendum, Italians resoundingly voted against restarting nuclear power generation, apparently ending their flirtation with atomic power.
The roots of Italy’s anti-nuclear sentiment lie in the strict food controls implemented after heated discussions among government ministers following the Chernobyl accident.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, a country which put great priority on preventing public panic, fear of radioactive contamination from the accident still lingers.
“We shall have to say goodbye to nuclear energy.” So said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a news conference June 13. The prime minister had been aiming to restart nuclear power generation, which has been frozen in the country since 1990. However, in a national referendum June 12, over 90 percent of votes cast opposed the prime minister’s plans. There is little doubt that the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Japan had an effect on the outcome.
Italy is the only G-8 member that does not have an operating nuclear power plant. The government’s response to the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union 25 years earlier was the catalyst leading to the country’s current situation.
A few days after the April 26, 1986 accident in Chernobyl, clouds of radioactive particles drifted over Europe. Contaminated rain followed.
Nobody had imagined that a nuclear accident in a faraway country could pollute their soil, rivers and agricultural products with radioactivity.
Each country’s response to the accident was different; however, among European nations, the Italians implemented the most stringent measures.
On May 2, the Ministry of Health banned the sale of vegetables, closing fruit and vegetables markets for 15 days. It forbid pregnant women and children 10 or younger from consuming raw milk for 22 days.
Italy, which has a low energy self-sufficiency rate, began to use nuclear power in 1963. In the year prior to the Chernobyl accident, Italy had just revised its National Energy Plan in which it stated that the country would aggressively pursue the introduction of nuclear power. Why then did the government decide to implement such strict controls on foodstuffs knowing that this could possibly increase distrust of nuclear power?
A STATE OF EMERGENCY OR NOT?
OPPOSING VIEWS INSIDE THE CABINET
Memoirs uploaded to a research institute website by Minister for the Coordination of Civil Protection in Italy, Giuseppe Zamberletti, give us a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes at the time.
The Civil Protection Department first became aware of the accident at Chernobyl on the morning of April 28. Zamberletti reported on the seriousness of the incident at a Cabinet meeting that day. However, many of the ministers did not believe the situation represented a state of emergency for Italy. The next day, before flying off to attend a G-8 summit in Tokyo, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi instructed his ministers to take whatever measures were necessary to monitor the situation. At the same time, however, he also calmly told them not to get “swept away in a sea of emotions.”
At a Cabinet meeting on May 1, Zamberletti proposed telling the Italian people “not to eat fruits and vegetables that haven’t been thoroughly washed,” as radioactivity exceeding normal levels was starting to be detected in agricultural products across Europe.
However, Health Minister Costante Degan felt that this did not go far enough and advocated “closing fruit and vegetable markets” entirely. Zamberletti responded by noting that “Austria, West Germany and other countries closer to Chernobyl had not instituted such drastic precautions.”
In an adamant rebuttal, Degan told the minister, “If you are opposed (to closing the markets), then the Civil Protection Department should declare a state of emergency and assume responsibility for the entire matter.”
With the two cabinet ministers at odds, Giuliano Amato, Under Secretary to the Prime Minister’s office contacted Craxi in Tokyo, who said no to declaring a state of emergency, fearing it would be like throwing gas on a fire and ignite the already growing unease of the Italian people. In the end, it was decided that the produce markets would be closed.
Although a state of emergency wasn’t declared, Craxi returned from Tokyo disheartened, apparently telling Zamberlleti “we’ve lost nuclear power.”
In November of the following year, a national referendum on nuclear power plants was held with close to 80 percent of voters saying no to their continued operation, signaling an end to nuclear power generation in the country.
Zamberletti is also critical of the policy decision to close the markets in his memoirs; “Radioactive contamination (of produce) was far below any level requiring caution. However, shutting the markets amplified public fear, dictating the outcome of the referendum.”
On the other hand, why was Degan so adamant about going to such an extent to ensure food safety?
It is said that it was perhaps due to his sensitivity to issues related to life and health, based on religious values, that promoted him to act so uncompromisingly. As a member of The Christian Democratic Party, he also consistently worked to abolish smoking. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1988, so there is now no way of knowing his true motives.
It was the National Institute of Health, which is under the supervision of the health ministry, that proposed the market closure to Degan.
According to Francesco Bochicchio, 52, currently Director of Research at the National Institute of Health, no matter how low the level of radiation, it cannot be said that there is no effect on the human body.
The ministers took the data provided by the research institute seriously. It was a good example of scientists and politicians working well together he said.
The research institute estimates that the restrictions placed on vegetable consumption prevented about 1,000 cases of thyroid cancer. Andrea Ferrante, 45, president of the Italian Association for Organic Agriculture, believes “Italians, who have a food culture based on local production for local consumption, take great interest in what they put in their mouths. They accept strict food regulations as a matter of course.”
In Italy, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policies is not in charge of food safety. That mandate belongs to the Ministry of Health. If the agriculture ministry had been in charge it would have had to consider the economic well-being of producers and other factors related to the economy and would not have been able to quickly implement controls says Ferrante, reflecting back on the situation.
MINISTER DRINKS TEA,
DECLARES EVERYTHING SAFE
Meanwhile, with the arrival of the radioactive cloud over Europe, the country most concerned with alleviating public fear was Turkey. However, the country’s actions gave rise to suspicions that “the government was hiding the truth.”
Even though a quarter century has passed since the accident, there is still fear among the people, especially in the region of the Black Sea coast, that “cancer is increasing as a result of Chernobyl.”
In the northeastern part of the country, about six kilometers inland from the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon, is the mountain village of Incesu. In the hazelnut grove-lined village center sits a mosque. Surveying the graveyard located behind the house of prayer, Imam Hamdi Yajuchu, 43, said, “Chernobyl is the only conceivable answer.”
According to Yajuchu, over the past five years, the village, which currently has a population of around 170, has lost about 30 people to cancer. Last year 13 villagers passed away. Of those, eight succumbed to cancer. Lung, breast, throat–the type of cancer killing the residents is varied.
In largely Muslim Turkey, Imams are civil servants. When someone dies, they receive the corpse and the death certificate. “I have been an Imam for 21 years, and without doubt (the number of deaths due to) cancer is increasing,” Yajuchu said.
Immediately following the Chernobyl accident, the Turkish government failed to release concrete radiation readings. Instead, it just repeatedly told the populace that the levels “were not harmful to human health.”
With a bitter smile, Kenan Kuri, 47, the organizer of an environmental association in Trabzon said, “A government minister appeared on TV, drank some chai tea, and said, ‘See, all is safe’. ”
The eastern region of the Black Sea is famous for its chai. “Based on the minister’s performance, many people were put at ease and continued to drink the locally produced tea. However, not long after, the government arrived in force and disposed of the tea remaining in factories and buried it underground. If it was so safe, why do it?,” asked Kuri suspiciously.
About 80 kilometers east of Trabzon is Rize, the center of chai production for the region. Tea rooms play prominent roles as places of relaxation and refreshment for the townspeople, where large numbers gather to sip tea out of small glass cups while enjoying board games.
“My uncle died of throat cancer when he was 77,” said construction worker Temel Ercan, 49. “His son died at 55 from stomach cancer while his daughter passed away at 45 due to brain cancer. Every household in Rize has someone affected by cancer.”
Zafer Alper, 40, president of the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK) denies such claims, saying, “Those are things said by groups opposed to the construction of nuclear power plants. There is no basis to the claim that cancer is increasing due to the effects of the Chernobyl accident.”
Turkey signed a contract with a Russian firm for help building its first nuclear power plant which is planned for the Mediterranean Sea coast. Its second plant is planned for the Black Sea coast, and Japanese companies are seen as likely to win bids.
Alper produced a report that was submitted to the Turkish parliament. “This report covers the government’s findings. It is publicly available on our website and anyone in the country can access it.”
According to the report, “there was an overall increase in the amount of radiation in the atmosphere, soil, and in foodstuffs.” It added, enough to adversely affect health, and reasoned that no significant increase in illness was seen. In its conclusion, the report states, “If the people had panicked, consequences more serious than those resulting from the accident itself would have been brought about.”
Cem Ozen, 39, an associate professor of nuclear physics at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, pointed out, “If scientifically supported, accurate data had been presented in the first place, people would not have panicked. The government’s handling of the situation lacked transparency, leaving a feeling of distrust among the public.”
Even after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is emphasizing that there has been no change in the government’s support for nuclear power.