Adi Roche has spent the majority of her life campaigning for peace, humanitarian aid, and education. In 1990, she became the first Irish woman to be elected to the Board of Directors of the International Peace Bureau (IBP), based in Geneva. Adi is also responsible for creating the Peace Education Program that is taught in classrooms throughout Ireland, and is the first woman ever to be chosen by an alliance of broad-spectrum political parties to run for President of Ireland in the election of 1997.
John LeKay: So Adi, you just got back from Chernobyl; is there anything new that's happened since the last time you were there?
Adi Roche: Oh God John. There's always something new. Somebody asked me recently how many times I've been there and I'd say I lost count after about 50 times. And you kind of feel that you know some place and you know something. And that's the rock I've always perished on because you always go back. It's like the peeling of an onion. There are so many layers within layers. There's always new information. You'll talk to new experts. There's new research. There's always another story that kind of gets you in the gut. I went to visit our hospice program for example, where we have some extreme cases of children that we are trying to help to die with dignity. So there's always something that kind of gets you on the curve ball, that you were not expecting. One is at an intellectual level and sometimes then it's at a very deep profound heart and gut and emotional level as well. So sometimes it comes from all around, all of the senses are impacted. So you kind of run through the whole gamut of emotions, John, when you are there.
JL: Can you give me an example of that? I mean what about when you come back to Ireland after these trips, how do you feel then?
Adi Roche: I remember when I came back Sunday night of last week, very late in the evening and the next day I just felt this extreme sense of loss. And I felt a deep emptiness, profoundly in my heart, but actually very physically in my arms. I kept asking myself what was it about. And I kind of just looked back on 24 hours before that and I was just thinking of a specific child that I had held in my arms that I will never hold again, because that child is in a very final stage of her life. And that kind of has a profound impact on you and you never harden to that and in a way I say, thank God you never harden to that, because the day we cannot shed a tear for another human being or feel an emotion about the suffering or the agony of another human being, no matter what part of the world they are in, is the day I think we switch the light off on the planet because we have lost who we are as a species and we have lost our sense of responsibility of being part of the human family.
So John you are never really prepared for it, in that sense because there's always something to knock you out.
JL: What about in terms of the new research?
Adi Roche: In terms of the research, there's always new information coming up, which is quite extraordinary and so I’m like a sponge that's absorbing information, because I love research and I love disseminating information because I really feel that while the charity is there to alleviate the suffering of the victims and the survivors of this tragedy which the world has described as the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of humanity. That's a huge statement right there. But we all the time have to say to ourselves that we have to constantly check back in with what that reality actually means for the people that are sleeping, eating and breathing in what has been declared as the world’s most radio-active environment; and those who are paying the price. I mean, twenty-one years on, you know I have a sense like when we say twenty-first, it’s usually a happy occasion – you say happy twenty-first.
But this for me this is a very unhappy twenty-first commemoration. But it’s an opportunity for us to reflect back, to analyze what those twenty-one years have meant for the victims and survivors, in order that we can learn from that kind of tale of woe; in order that we can look forward to aspire and inspire towards some kind of a future; because if we don't remember such a past event, then we are surely doomed to commit the same mistake again. And when it comes to nuclear power, we cannot afford that luxury. And in a sense in the looking back on twenty-one years we’re talking about an endurance test beyond anything of your wildest imaginings. Its twenty-one years of living, sleeping and breathing in the world’s most radio-active environment. It’s twenty-one years of facing enforced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people who became the first ever environmental refugees, since the definition of a refugee, the beginning of the last century. But worst of all, they have had to face the world’s complacency and ignorance; and on top of that, they've had to watch their children being struck down. I think every time a child dies that we lose a unique and a special spirit. And as I held this child, last week I remember saying what potential, what richness was locked in that final stage body. It could be a Rachmaninov, or a W.B. Yates or a wonderful writer, or a scientist or a singer, mother, father or a teacher.
JL : Yes.
Adi Roche: I mean who knows what is being lost to humanity. Someone that may be the one that will find the cure to some, what is at the moment an incurable disease. I have seen first hand that devastation and I have held that in my arms and I am not a scientist and I’m not a medical expert but I am convinced that the dying the death, the illnesses the traumas, the heartbreak are as a consequence to something that happened at 1:23 AM, twenty-one long years ago. Because I have heard it through my Geiger counter, which measures radioactivity; and I’ve heard the droning sound of what I often call the radioactive death song of the land.
JL: And the babies?Adi Roche: I have traveled and I have watched those babies with their twisted limbs and bodies almost cry out that Chernobyl did this to them; and I have held broken hearted parents as they have to contemplate their ravaged son or their ravaged daughter. I mean, I'm terribly strong about this, because I just feel I can never prove conclusively that this child or that child has died directly or is dying directly as a result of Chernobyl; but I know what I see. I know what I hear. I know what I've experienced through the stories of the parents and the children. And I know that a lot of these children that I have been with over the last years, that they did not come from contaminated villages before Chernobyl. They came from very healthy environments where there wasn't heavy industry; where there was nothing that would have caused theses kinds of medical conditions, or these kinds of birth defects. So therefore, I believe that these children are surely victims of this tragedy. And it is a case of the old doctor’s dictum, of doctors differ and patients die. And you're talking about the direct damage caused by radiation on one hand and then the equally significant or indirect, economic, social, medical and ecological consequences.
All of which when you combine them together are like a devastating prognosis and in a sense, I would often say to people – you know the old saying - we do not own the earth, but we are merely here as the caretakers for our children and our children's children.
We have this huge obligation as the adults, as those who have the responsibility because in a way – we’ve been given this extraordinary gift; this miracle of the planet and life. As far as we know, the only planet with life is this galaxy of the Milky Way. And like the greatest treasure of every race lies in its children. I mean, that is our treasure, our legacy, our bequest for future generations. And if we deny them a future, I truly believe it is a form of genocide. And even when using that term genocide, I use it very carefully, but very specifically because Chernobyl has been an ethnic cleansing machine that respects no borders, no people, no age, no class, no color, no religion and that there is no emergency exit to escape from.
JL: I just want to get back to your book a little bit, Chernobyl Heart. You mentioned that this accident exposed the people to radioactivity 90 to 150 times more than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and how the food chain has been affected. What is the situation like there today regarding the food chain?
Adi Roche: Oh gosh, I suppose the food chain is probably one of the saddest stories that we have to tell because there’s a beautiful quote from this man who is a nuclear physicist actually, he’s called Evgeny Konoplya , and he is the Director of the Radio-Biology Institute of the Bellarussian Academy of Sciences and he says in relation to the cleaning of the land; and I quote this, “You would have to remove the entire fertile upper layer of our soil, tear up our trees by their roots and turn this area into a desert because there is no way that we can undo the damage”. It’s a little bit like the old story of Pandora’s Box, you cannot open that box just a little bit. We have opened the entire spectrum of that and like we are now going to pay the price because where radioactivity is deposited in the soil, it will persist for years, particularly in the top 5 centimeters of the soil; this is where plants have their roots. The ecosystem is so fragile – I mean we have in our arrogance as a species - we think we are more superior than nature. Nature will always win at the end of the day no matter what that means to us even if it means our own destruction – nature will be triumphant at the end of the day and the food chain is very contaminated.
JL: What about the children; how are they getting exposed today?
Adi Roche: Children are being exposed to it particularly through dairy products, they are being exposed to it in the water; you know when they swim or fish in their streams or their rivers, even though they're not supposed to, but you cannot tell people they cannot do these things when children play in un-sandy roads or in their back yards or in sand pits in their school yards; they cannot avoid the fallout. When kids are going to dig and they’ll play and then of course the farmers are constantly out and plowing up the land and their plowing up the radioactivity and it gets back into the food chain – whether you’re a vegetarian or not – it makes no difference because it’s in the vegetables as much as it is in the animal life.
JL: So is the level of radioactivity in the soil decreasing over time?
Adi Roche: No, the radioactivity is being topped up each and every year to what they call “forest and bush and brush fires” which happen due to the intense heat during the summer months and this spreads the radioactivity over areas topping up what they have already received over twenty-one years ago – that’s called secondary contamination.
JL: What about the sarcophagus?
Adi Roche: Yes, they get further contamination from the cracking sarcophagus. I mean the sarcophagus has several holes in it – several holes that are big enough to drive a car through which is leaking out radioactivity on a daily basis. We cannot control that – I mean bearing in mind that only 3% of the radioactivity of that nuclear reactor was expelled up to seven kilometers high into the natural environment into the earth’s atmosphere in 1986. That left behind 97% of what they call the rumbling radioactive volcano including something like 216 tons of highly radioactive graphite and uranium. Now that is an extraordinary thing and there was a phrase that has been coined by Ukrainian nuclear physicists which is this, “the next Chernobyl will be Chernobyl itself”. Now that is a scary statement right there because what he is warning us – Unless we do something about the sarcophagus and its state of disrepair – May God Help the World!
JL: Yes, another nightmare waiting to happen?
Adi Roche: Yes, this is not just a small land mass we’re talking about here – 3% sent a huge amount of radioactivity; and in the book I am conservative about the figures. I mean, in the meantime there are others that have come out and are saying that it was definitely over 200 times the combined releases from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and we know from the US Academy of Sciences for example, who have stated very clearly that even low dose exposure to ionizing radiation can cause cancer; and they have gone on to say that if a risk is avoidable – well then it is unacceptable. I mean we’re talking about huge consequences. The entire planet got a dusting in 1986 and just in terms of Europe, would you believe this, these are the official figures – these are not like out of my head or anything. The official figures are 40% of the entire surface area of Europe was contaminated; that’s 40% of CZ137. In my country, we got 67% of our entire land mass – north and south of Ireland. It doesn’t recognize North of Ireland because radiation doesn’t recognize any territorial boundaries. It travels wherever the winds will take it.
JL: Wow, 67%?
Adi Roche: It’s just extraordinary – and when you consider the fifty to sixty year latency period from exposure to the cancer appearing. I’m telling you John, I don’t know how old you are, but it will be long after we are dead and buried that the true consequences of that monster that has been unleashed will actually be seen. We are talking about a demographic disaster; those that were within 5 and 6 years of age in 1986 – they are the young parents of 2007; and it’s in this generation that we are starting to see it crossing the boundaries – crossing into the genetics.