Legacy of Chernobyl

May 04, 1994|By Ludmilla Thorne

LAST WEEK marked the eighth anniversary of Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster that spewed 50 tons of radioactive particles (10 times the fallout of Hiroshima). The world's memory of Chernobyl has dimmed, its focus moved to other places in harm's way, like Rwanda and Bosnia. But for people living in the contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia, the accident continues to wreak consequences whose danger and immensity could not have been imagined before the explosion.

The small republic of Belarus was hardest hit by the catastrophe. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is in Ukraine, but the reactor that exploded during the night of April 26, 1986, is only 10 miles from the Belarussian border. The lethally radioactive cloud that was emitted passed first over Belarus; 70 percent of the radioactive matter ejected by the explosion fell there.

Nearly half of Belarus' 10 million people are still living in contaminated areas and are just beginning to see the devastating results. There has been an astronomical increase in thyroid cancer, especially among Belarussian children, with 237 cases diagnosed since the Chernobyl accident. About a dozen of the stricken children have already died. Under normal circumstances, the incidence of thyroid cancer in children younger than 15 is infinitesimal, on the order of one per million per year.

Other cancers, anemias, immune disorders and respiratory illnesses have also increased considerably in the affected regions of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Birth rates have dropped, due in part to the fear of genetic problems, and there is an increase in infants with Down's syndrome. In addition, there have been horrific mutations in humans, animals and plants, including livestock born with extra legs and other body parts and children born with missing limbs and skulls.

The harm of the radiation was multiplied because irradiated food products were distributed throughout the Soviet Union. Today, eight years after the explosion, potatoes, grains, cucumbers, onions, leafy green vegetables and fruit continue to be grown on highly contaminated land. Some farms in Ukraine and Belarus that were officially shut down continue to harvest grain; local officials even collect taxes on the produce. People know that the meat and vegetables they cultivate are poisonous, but not to eat them can mean going hungry.

Western experts believe that all three types of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors, especially the 15 Chernobyl-style reactors still operating in the former Soviet Union, are dangerously flawed and that another catastrophe is almost inevitable. But economic hardships, a lack of hard currency and energy shortages have forced the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union to continue depending on nuclear energy.

Since the 1986 disaster at the No. 4 reactor, there have been four fires and one water leak at the still-functioning Chernobyl units. There were also two "incidents" -- irregularities of function due to safety defects -- just last week. In 1992, there were 205 reported incidents at energy plants in the former Soviet Union, a rise of 19 percent over the previous year. In March 1994, the Russian Federal Nuclear and Radiation Safety Oversight Committee reported 20,000 safety violations for 1993.

On April 8, Ukraine said that it would shut down Chernobyl, but two weeks later told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it can't afford to do so. Chernobyl alone generates 7 percent of the country's electricity.

Among Chernobyl's most tragic victims are the so-called liquidators, the 600,000 young cleanup workers -- mostly soldiers, coal miners and army veterans -- who were sent in shifts over three years to the disaster site without protective clothing. They buried chunks of radioactive graphite blown out of the reactor and built a "permanent" concrete sarcophagus that is already dangerously ineffective. Health monitoring is poor, but more than 7,000 of the young men, whose average age is 29, are reported to have died of causes related to Chernobyl; up to 80 percent of the others are said to suffer from spinal-cord disorders, nerve damage and psychological problems. A spokesman for the Russian government's Chernobyl committee revealed last year that 18 percent of the men who have died -- about 1,250 people -- committed suicide, unable to cope with radiation effects.

Then there are the indirect victims, among them the "squatters" who have returned to their contaminated, abandoned villages to live out their lives rather than face ostracism as "Chernobyl goblins." Evacuees from Chernobyl's irradiated regions have been shunned and discriminated against.

In addition to inflicting immense suffering, the Chernobyl disaster has also spawned numerous scams, many of them involving Western humanitarian aid. In one such cheating operation, bureaucrats in the Bryansk region of Russia sent their own children, instead of sick Chernobyl youngsters, to Western summer camps.

Chernobyl has even given rise to poisoned values among children. Eight-year-old leukemia victim Pasha, who was born a month before the Chernobyl disaster in Gomel, Belarus, told a visiting journalist in his hospital room: "I like to eat everything with radiation. Without radiation, it doesn't taste good."

Ludmilla Thorne is director of studies for the Commonwealth of Independent States at Freedom House. She is editing an anthology on the the impact of Chernobyl on Belarus.

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