Chernobyl's Poisonous Legacy Lives On

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Twenty years after the explosion at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the poisonous radioactive legacy of the accident is crippling the health of several generations.

Images from around Chernobyl

But while domestic and international agencies are disputing estimates of the damage, many Chernobyl victims remain deprived of aid.

There could have been up to 9,000 excess cancer deaths due to Chernobyl disaster among the people who worked on the clean-up operations, evacuees and residents of the contaminated regions in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a report earlier this month.

"The WHO report on the health effects of Chernobyl gives the most affected countries, and their people, the information they need to be able to make vital public health decisions," said Dr Lee Jong-wook, WHO Director-General.

However, the environmental group Greenpeace challenged the WHO report and claimed that the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter of a million cancers cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers. Greenpeace report described the U.N. data on Chernobyl "as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering."

Greenpeace's report said it was based on Belarus national cancer statistics and predicted up to 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl. The report also estimated that 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.

The Greenpeace report said the incidence of cancer in Belarus had jumped 40 percent between 1990 and 2000, with children not yet born at the time of the disaster showing an 88.5-fold increase in thyroid cancers.

Gregory Haertl, a spokesman for Geneva-based WHO, reportedly defended its figures. He said the predicted eventual number of extra deaths in the most polluted areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia was estimated to be 4,000, while another 5,000 deaths were predicted among those who had been living in the less contaminated zones.

Haertl questioned Greenpeace's estimated 10 percent death rate for thyroid cancers, arguing that actual rate is one percent. "They are overstating the figures," he said.

The fourth Chernobyl nuclear plant reactor, located 80 miles north of Ukraine's capital Kiev, exploded on April 26, 1986, sending up a poisonous radioactive cloud over Europe. Subsequently, the staff of the nuclear power plant was accused of causing the disaster by testing reactor number 4 in violation of safety rules. During the ill-fated experiment, the chain reaction in the reactor went out of control, entailing a strong explosion.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, 30 firefighters and plant workers died from high radiation. This year's commemoration ceremonies to honor these first victims are held at the Chernobyl Memorial in Kiev, Russia's main Orthodox cathedral and at Mitino cemetery near Moscow.

As a result, radioactive dust blew across wide areas contaminating large parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia -- over an area of more than 160,000 square kilometers. An estimated 50 million units of radiation -- 500 times stronger than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb dropped on Japan by the United States in 1945 - was released. Chernobyl is still blighted by a 30-square-km contaminated area surrounding the plant.

In December 2000, Ukraine shut down the plant's last functioning third reactor. All fuel rods from reactor No 3 are to be removed, and all jobs will be shed, by the year 2008. The first of four graphite-cooled reactors at Chernobyl, completed in 1977, was shut off in November 1997.

Reactor No 2 has not worked since a fire in its turbine building in 1991. However, a number of Chernobyl-type reactors, although modernized, still remain in operation in Russia and some other former Soviet states.

The Ukrainian, Belarus and Russian authorities are struggling with the problems of Chernobyl victims as the poisonous radioactive legacy of the accident is crippling the health of millions. Statistics show rising numbers of radioactivity-related diseases. About 3.2 million of Ukraine's 50 million people, including more than 1 million children, have been affected by Chernobyl, according to official figures.

The ill-fated nuclear plant still poses danger as the "sarcophagus" of reactor No 4 is in bad condition. Chernobyl plant officials fear that the structure could collapse and release hundreds of tons of deadly radioactive dust into the atmosphere. There are also 1.5 million tons of irradiated waste in the vicinity of Chernobyl.

In the wake of the disaster, some 57,000 square km of the Russian soil, with a population of 3 million people, is contaminated, according to Russia's official estimates. It is estimated that Belarus spends some 20 percent of its budget, Ukraine 10 percent, and Russia 1 percent to tackle the consequences of Chernobyl.

After the accident 116,000 people were evacuated from the area. An additional 230,000 people were relocated from the highly contaminated areas to other areas in subsequent years, according to the WHO. Russia has approved a series of bills to help Chernobyl victims and survivers, but not all of them are actually receiving promised aid.

Nonetheless, former nuclear power minister Yevgeny Adamov, now in Russian jail on fraud and embezzlement charges, used to describe Chernobyl as a "minor technical incident." Adamov also notoriously suggested that those complaining about the victims "should be sent to mental institutions".

Both local and international non-governmental organizations have been carrying out a program of "Solidarity with Chernobyl Children". Under the program, thousands of children have been sent on vacations outside Ukraine, Belarus and Russia since the disaster.

To deal with the aftermath of the disaster, the U.N. set up a 19-member inter-agency Task Force on Chernobyl, which, together with NGOs, provides aid to people affected by radiation, studies the radiation's environmental impact, facilitates waste disposal and decontamination, and provides technical support for improved nuclear safety. The U.N. Strategy for Recovery, launched in 2002, gave all UN agencies and the international community a framework for rebuilding the affected areas.

Despite the damage cause by the Chernobyl disaster, the Russian authorities allowed the commercial import of spent nuclear fuel. In December 2000, the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, approved three drafts to change the law that forbids the long-term storage of nuclear waste on Russian soil.

Before December 2000, Russian law prohibited the importation of radioactive waste or nuclear materials from other countries for long-term storage or burial. Russia's Nuclear Power ministry had expected to attract clients to reprocess $20 billion worth of spent nuclear fuel from around the world, but -- luckily for Russia -- these expectations have failed to materialize so far.

As the world marked the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl disaster, available evidence indicates that necessary lessons have not been learned, as the Russian nuclear officials are still willing to take risks of importing nuclear wasted from around the globe.

Source: Ohmy News