Twenty Years On, Effects From Chernobyl Disaster Go On

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Twenty years ago, explosions at the Chernobyl power plant sent a huge radioactive cloud into the air in the world's worst civilian nuclear accident that still affects millions of people today.

Part of the 60,000 "liquidators" sent in to clean up the radioactive debris on the roof of reactor number 4

At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986, a series of explosions ripped through reactor four at the plant in the north of what is today Ukraine, near its border with Belarus. Radiation fell across much of Europe.

For days, the Soviet leadership refused to admit -- either to its own people or to the world -- what had happened less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of a major city, Kiev, and near the huge Dniepr River that criss-crossed Ukraine and provided much of its water supply.

Only after the news blackout ended were 135,000 people evacuated from the most affected areas around the plant.

To this day, Chernobyl fuels controversies over the use of nuclear power, attracts tourists and researchers, feeds fears of another release, continues to claim victims, and gobbles huge amounts of international funds.

An army of some 600,000 "liquidators" -- firemen, soldiers and civilians -- helped to construct a concrete sarcophagus meant to contain the reactor for 20 to 30 years before a more permanent structure could be built.

The fate awaiting these people and others exposed to radiation from the blast is one of the main controversies still surrounding the plant.

In its latest report on the disaster released in September, the United Nations estimated that fewer people will eventually perish than was initially predicted.

The report, the work of some 100 scientists from eight UN agencies, said up to 4,000 would eventually die as a result of the accident, in addition to the nearly 60 people who have already died.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace rejected the findings as "whitewash," collusion "with the nuclear lobby" and "insulting for the victims." They estimate that the death toll will be in the tens of thousands.

In addition to health effects like thyroid cancer, survivors also deal with psychological problems.

A study of more than 2,000 "liquidators" by the Serbsky Psychiatric Institute in Moscow found that two thirds of them suffered from psychological illnesses.

"Considering their young age at the time of the accident, all of the negative effects have not appeared yet," said Galina Rumyantseva, who led the study.

Regions affected by the accident remain today both socially and economically devastated. Some 350,000 people have been evacuated from the surrounding areas in all. Some 784,320 hectares of prime agricultural land remain ruined, as do 700,000 hectares of forest.

The United Nations estimates that the eventual price tag of the disaster will run to hundreds of billions of dollars.

Today, the sarcophagus over reactor four is cracked and crumbling, raising fears that more radiation can be released.

Some 28 countries have pledged to chip in more than 750 million dollars toward the construction of a new 20,000-tonne steel case. The cover is expected to cost between one and two billion dollars and is hoped to be finished by 2012.

But it will take at least a hundred years to safely get rid of dangerous fuel and debris inside the plant, said spokeswoman Yulia Marusich.

The plant, whose last reactor was shut down for good only in 2000, continues to attract attention -- tourists come to gawk, while researchers come to observe the remarkable flourishing of flora and fauna.

Hundreds of mostly elderly people who lived in villages around the plant have ignored government restrictions and warnings of radiation to resettle in the 30-kilometre (18.6-mile) exclusion zone around the plant, raising animals and eating fruits and berries from the radiation-soaked land.

The final effects from the series of explosions that occurred in the early hours at a Soviet nuclear power plant in 1986 may not be known for years, scientists say.

"We may not see anything today, but genetic modifications can appear in 20, 50 years," says Rudolf Alexakhin, director of the Agricultural Radiology Institute in Moscow.

Source: AFP