Tag Archives: disaster

Chernobyl – a quarter of century ago

An anniversary might be the best reason to mark my presence on Polandian for the third time this year. Most of the readers probably not only do remember about the disaster in Chernobyl, but also still have in mind the days after the disaster itself. I unfortunately cannot reminisce those strange days, as I was born some time after the dreadful accident.

Today, the actual cause of the explosion is said to be an experiment carried out with appaling breach of safety procedures. Those, who want to drill down into the technical details of experiment, please go on to wikipedia page on the accident, where you can also find links to a Polish article and links to other scientific papers.

The explosion occured on 26 April 1986, at 01:23 at night. Firefighters arrived at the scene soon, totally oblivious of the fact that radiation doses they would receive would be fatal. The fire was extinguished within hours, actions taken to minimise the radiation and concrete over the blown-up reactor were swift. The disaster left many casualties among the staff of the power plant, rescue workers and firefighters. It was absolutely typical for nuclear accidents, nuclear accident in Fukushima I from March 2011 will probably lead to deaths of people who sacrifice their lives to save lives of other people, but the explosion in Japan occured in a normal country with undisrupted flow of information. The Japanese government was accused of concealing information about the dangerous impact of the accident on local environment and people, indeed it could have done so to avert panic.

In the communist union, a country where flow of information was paralysed by fear and censorship, things looked much worse. Firstly, local authorities were afraid to inform federal authorities on Kremlin about the disaster. They did so with a delay, which postponed the evacuation of nearby cities by at least 30 hours (evcuation kicked off 36 hours after the initial expolosion). People from the Soviet Union were informed about the accident three days later, but the scale of disaster was still withheld. Soviet authorities failed to inform other countries about the explosion and radiation released into the air. Blown by easterly winds, the radioactive cloud moved over Poland a day later, on 28 April 1986. Polish scientists, who saw the radiation levels surging, at first thought a nuclear war had just begun. They contacted Polish government, but they also did not know anything about the disaster. Poles found out about the explosion in Chernobyl from BBC. A preventive actions to protect people against radiation were launched three days after the accident. Soviet authorities still denied the tragedy, but fortunately in those days Polish government acted to defend its own citizens, not comrades from the Soviet Union. The first western country to learn about the disaster was Sweden. They measured excessive radiation in their power plant on 28 April 1986 and launched an investigation, over which source of the radiation was traced back to the western Soviet Union.

The effects of the disaster would have been probably much lower, if it had occured in a democratic country.

– the disaster whipped up fears of nuclear energy,
– number of indirect fatalities remains unknown, as it is hard to estimate how many deaths were caused by the increased radiation and to how many other factors contributed to a much higher degree,
– the closed zone around the former power plant is the biggest natural, but unofficial reservoir in Europe, wildlife is thriving there, despite radiation,
– scientists are still divided when it comes to evaluation of real risks for human life and health incurred by the radiation,
– Ukraine is accused of wheedling out money from Chernobyl Shelter Fund.

Until recently I thought the nuclear accident as pernicious as the one that happened 25 years ago would not repeat. Nuclear power plants are much more modern, have better safety procedures established, are better run. But then on 11 March an eartquake of huge magnitude hit Japan. Fukushima I power plant was designed to survive such a quake and it did; it was also designed to withstand 5.7 metres high tsunami wave. Unfortunately the one which hit the power plant was 14 metres high. Day by day, situation in the Japanese stricken power plant was worsening, after a few weeks it scored 7 out of 7 points in the INES, which put it at a par with Chernobyl explosion.

Events in Fukushima were, however, hard to predict. Precautions have been taken, but as the reality proved, they tunred out to be insufficient. This event should be, in my opinion, seen as a black swan and should not bring to a halt nuclear energy development programmes, as it still has much more upsides than downsides.

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Polish minibus disaster surprises nobody

Eighteen people killed in a minibus—several million wondering if they will be next. Anyone who has been on one of these rattling deathtraps has been expecting this. There are tens of thousands of them on Poland’s roads, most of them operated by tiny companies and almost all of them alarmingly substandard.

The thousands of minibus operators fill a yawning gap in the nation’s public transport network. For millions of people living in rural areas they are often the only way of getting anywhere. The formerly state-run national bus company, Przedsiębiorstwo Komunikacji Samochodowej (PKS), was in a woeful state when it was broken up and partly privatised in 1992. More recently its monopoly was broken when new laws allowed competition. The minibus companies that sprang up like autumn mushrooms to fill the market are a fine example of the benefits and pitfalls of the free market.

I’m sure there is a stack of perfectly adequate regulation governing this industry, but I’m equally sure that they are completely unenforceable—there are just too many operators. Companies appear and disappear overnight, but the buses and drivers remain the same. Go to any of the multitude of muddy abandoned lots in Polish towns and cities that serve as ersatz bus stations for these crowds of minibuses and you’ll see layer upon layer of ambitious timetables issued by Franek’s Bus Company, Janek’s Bus Company and Auntie Halina’s Bus Company pasted on top of each other.

I have no idea if yesterday’s tragedy was anybody’s fault, but it is clear that the bus was ridiculously overcrowded—and this is certainly the most common problem. If a private operator can cram 47 paying passengers onto a minibus with 20 seats, he will. If you’ve been standing by the side of the road in the freezing rain for half-an-hour, you’ll put the risk at the back of your mind and try and be the 48th. I avoid minibuses during peak travel hours as assiduously as I avoid volunteering as a Chilean miner, but sometimes they are the only option if you don’t have a car—an alternative that I do not regard as significantly safer on Poland’s roads. It’s hair-raising stuff. It is, for example, common practice for the driver to collect money and hand out tickets as he is pulling away from the stop. Four of five people stand clinging onto seats, a couple of feet from the windscreen, as the driver steers with one hand and fiddles with change and the ticket machine with the other. I’ve even seen a driver changing the paper roll in the ticket machine as he is pelting down the highway at 60. Certain catastrophe balancing on a coin edge.

What astonishes me is that these potential tragedies are obvious long before they happen. Two local examples: in Krakow last year there was a series of accidents in the crowded Old Town involving horse-drawn carriages. It was sheer luck that nobody was killed or severely injured. Nobody who has spent time in the Rynek in mid-Summer was even mildly surprised.

Double melex: what could possibly go wrong?

In the past couple of years the number of those electric buggies, sometimes called golf carts (or melex), whisking tourists around the sights have exploded. These things are usually driven by students and often stuffed with ‘excitable’ tourists on pub crawls urging extra speed and louder music.  Melex are not exactly fast, but, fully loaded, and careening down a narrow street they are quite capable of mashing a passerby to a pulp against a wall. It’s just a matter of time, but not until it happens will anything be done.

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The Smolensk disaster

This morning’s shocking news of the death of President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other prominent Poles in a plane crash near Smolensk is a tragedy for this country. Everybody at Polandian offers their deepest sympathies to the people of Poland and especially to those directly effected by these deaths. The fact that the crash happened as the group were on their way to take part in ceremonies commemorating the Katyn Massacre adds immeasurably to the sadness. The name Katyn, already blackened in the collective consciousness of the Polish people, will forever be associated with another national catastrophe from this day.

The sudden and violent death of a head of state is a severe trial for any nation. That such a large group of other leading figures in Polish society should be killed at the same time will make this a doubly testing time for Poland. Questions are already being asked about responsibility. The aging Tupelov 154 in which the party were flying is bound to come under suspicion, although there is no evidence that it has a worse safety record than other, comparable aircraft.

It has to be said that Kaczynski was not a popular figure among our readers, but nobody would have wished such a sudden and appalling end to his political career.

[later edit by scatts] – I would obviously echo Jamie’s words above. The President was the most senior figure on the aircraft but the list of lost Poles is staggering and not just politicians but the military, religious leaders, historians and many others. Impossible to pick anyone out but my wife is particularly upset by the loss of so many strong & popular female figures as there were so few of them to begin with. Twelve hours on from the tragedy I find a few key points keep repeating themselves in my mind:

1/ Nobody would choose this way out but it does mean Mr. Kaczynski will be remembered very differently to the way he might have been had this not happened.

2/ Excellent opportunity for Mr. Komorowski to secure (or not) his position as the next President of the Republic of Poland.

3/ Why oh why were so many important people on the one plane? The risk profile for this flight was just ridiculous – not the best of planes, crappy airport, poor weather conditions, very early morning and yet crammed full of Poland’s finest. I heard a story that there was another plane doing the same route but that one was full of media people, is that true? If so, why not as a minimum have each plane carry half and half dignitaries and media folk? Not that media lives are less valuable but at least they are not running the country. (I suppose that last point is debatable)

4/ Given the passenger list I find the decision to ignore instructions to land elsewhere quite amazing, especially as they had already had to abort earlier attempts to land at Smolensk. I suppose we will never know, unless the black box recordings have some clues, as to why this decision was made. I have to say it is hard to believe that the pilots made the decision themselves. As has already been commented, was the feeling on the plane that the Russians were just being awkward buggers and therefore instructions were given to land and teach them a lesson? Are we expecting to hear a recording of the pilot saying “I have been instructed to land at your airport….”? The search for an answer to this one may run and run.

5/ What kind of horrid job lies ahead for those charged with identifying and then bringing the bodies back home.

6/ Massive funeral coming up.

Unprompted by us, Zosia drew this and placed it by the television.


And one picture from the Palace earlier today

President 2

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