Chernobyl reactor radiation still lethal 5 years after nuclear plant blast, many have resettled, others are ill.

April 25, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

BARTALOMEYEVKA, U.S.S.R. -- Doors bang with the wind. Fences have fallen around the village's stout houses. The post office, the school, the community center are all padlocked. And yellowed weeds, some shoulder high, wave in the fields where Bartalomeyevka's farmers grew rye, potatoes and vegetables.

Bartalomeyevka is a modern ghost town -- it was killed by radiation.

Home to more than 3,000 people just five years ago, it is one of the hundreds of villages in the western Soviet Union that was abandoned after clouds of radioactive particles from the April 26, 1986, explosion at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station passed overhead and made the villages uninhabitable.

"The young have all gone -- they understood that all this radiation would be a living death," said Anatoly E. Popkov, 58, whose family is one of 17 still living in Bartalomeyevka, about 100 miles north of Chernobyl. "We should leave, too. There is still lots of radiation here, and it churns up your stomach and makes your bones ache and just eats away at you.

"But how can you leave a place that has been your whole life and the life of your parents and their parents and their parents before? Bartalomeyevka is where God put us -- this is our place in the world. Where will we go?"

As destructive as the original explosion was, the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster are only becoming clear five years later:

* Hundreds of thousands of farmers from Byelorussia, western Russia and the Ukraine have been resettled, or must still be, from land so poisoned that it cannot be farmed for a generation or more. Yet, the massive migration from villages that go back centuries threatens to destroy the very societies it is intended to save.

* Upward of 4 million people from the region are thought by doctors to be in high-risk groups susceptible not only to cancer but a range of severe illnesses, already rising, that include heart and lung diseases, nervous disorders and digestive tract ailments. For doctors, the sharp increase last year in cancer of the thyroid gland among children and adolescents is a portent of the human suffering still to come.

* The exploded reactor at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in the northern Ukraine remains a serious threat. Although stabilized at tremendous cost in 1986 and encased in a concrete sarcophagus, the reactor is still highly radioactive and far from leakproof, and a fierce dispute is raging over what to do about it.

* And the cleanup, the resettlement and the health care that will be required now seem beyond the capability of the crisis-ridden Soviet Union and its Byelorussian, Ukrainian and Russian republics. At the same time, there is widespread distrust of all government, a feeling that it will abandon Chernobyl's victims to their fate.

"A sense of doom is settling on our people that, if we accept it, could condemn our nation to extinction," said Natalya P. Masherova, president of the Byelorussian group formed to aid Chernobyl victims.

"People ask, 'What have we done for God to punish us this way?' And it does seem a punishment. Every fourth Byelorussian was killed in World War II, and now every fifth Byelorussian -- 2.2 million people -- was in the Chernobyl radiation zone. It is a real question, 'How will we survive?' "

Under the central government's resettlement program, more than 163,000 people have been evacuated from territory where radioactivity was considered too high.

Altogether, officials estimate that more than half a million people will eventually be moved.

"The scope and the degree of the radioactivity was seriously underestimated from the beginning," Professor Dmitri M. Grodzinsky, a biologist and member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, said.

"This means that many more people than we believed were subjected to greater doses initially and to continued radiation . . . It means, in short, that the long-term consequences of Chernobyl can only be assessed now."

In Gomel, a Byelorussian city of half a million about 80 miles north of Chernobyl, the municipal council elected last spring made a full cleanup its first priority -- but was astounded to find radiation levels far higher than the central government had disclosed.

"Our schools, our clinics, our factories, our stores, not to speak of our housing, are contaminated," Alexander F. Zinchuk, deputy chairman of the Gomel council, said. "Of 172 kindergartens, 151 are contaminated, and that ratio holds true whatever we have looked at . . . Byelorussia absorbed 70 percent of the fallout from Chernobyl, and that was many times what fell on Hiroshima."

Estimates of Chernobyl's eventual number of victims vary widely; even now, Soviet officials continue to maintain that only 32 deaths can be attributed to the disaster, while environmentalists put the number as high as 10,000.

Scientists working for the Chernobyl Union, an activist group working to win medical treatment and benefits for victims of the accident as well as for increased safety in the nuclear industry, estimate that 1 percent of the 600,000 soldiers, firefighters and nuclear power specialists who struggled over three years to "liquidate" the disaster -- have since died, that one-third of the rest run a serious risk of cancer and that about 5 percent are already invalids.

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