Ten years ago, on an unseasonably warm late April day, the measured, predictable life in the sleepiest of the former Soviet republics was ripped apart by the world's worst nuclear accident - the April 26 explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the northeast corner of Ukraine.
Until that day, "chernobyl" was simply the Ukrainian name of a familiar herb growing in the marshy grasslands; forever after, "Chernobyl" would be the name of world's worst nuclear nightmare. And as the people of Belarus, which absorbed 70 percent of the radiation from the accident in its neighboring republic, have learned - "forever after" is a very long time.
The past 10 years have been but a millisecond in the 24,000-year half life of the plutonium radionucleides which are working their way into the soil of the former Soviet breadbasket and the water of the Dneiper River which provides drinking supplies for 28 million people. But even the brief eight-day half-life of radioactive iodine was long enough to spawn an epidemic of thyroid cancer among children in Belarus and Ukraine.
Ten years has been long enough to learn the litany of the medical, genetic, psychological and environmental disasters that Chernobyl has engendered but not nearly long enough to gauge the total cost. It has taken America 40 years to acknowledge the scope of the tragedy of the "Downwinders", the people who lived ominously close to the Nevada atomic test sites in the 1950s. It has taken Japan 50 years to measure the toll that Hiroshima and Nagasaki took on its people. But this much we do know, thanks to the reports of experts at the Third International Congress on "The World After Chernobyl" in Minsk last month and the International Atomic Energy Agency's conference "One Decade After Chernobyl" in Vienna this month:
- Fifty million curies of radioactive isotopes were spewed into the earth's atmosphere by the initial explosion, 200 times the radiation unleashed by the atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The release of radiation continued until May 10 when a makeshift covering was assembled over the burning hulk of reactor No. 4.
- At least 5 million people within the former Soviet Union were exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation.
- More than 10,000 square miles in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were contaminated by radioactive fallout, and 23 percent of Belarusan territory was seriously compromised.
- About 130,000 people were evacuated in the weeks immediately after the explosion; another 100,000 were relocated in next four years. Today, about 270,000 people continue to live in dangerously contaminated areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
- The occurrence of significant birth defects in the contaminated regions of Belarus has doubled since 1986.
- The occurrence of thyroid cancer in children in Belarus has increased 100-fold.
- The birth rate in Belarus is half what it was in 1986, well below the current death rate.
- How many have died? Official government statistics report 31 deaths, all among the cleanup workers known as "liquidators." Chernobyl Union, the victims' rights organization in the Ukraine, says150,000 have died as a direct result of the catastrophe. The truth? Probably somewhere in between.
We also know a great deal more that can't be quantified and that, in the end, may provide a more comprehensive judgment on the tragedy. Among the people who continue to live in the shadow of Chernobyl are the people of Belarus, an entire nation that has lost hope for their future and the future of their children, that no longer believes the experts who lied to them or accepted the lies of others, that no longer trusts its own government to protect them or lobby for them in the world community. These are a stoic, longsuffering people who lost a quarter of their population to the Nazi occupation of World War II and several hundred thousand more to the purges of Stalin and the forced collectivization of their farms. Chernobyl was still another benumbing assault.
That April, they knew an accident had occurred at the V.I. Lenin nuclear power plant, but they were assured that there was no danger. On May 1, the biggest holiday of the Soviet era, they allowed their children to march in parades directly under the radioactive ̉rainÓ of the ongoing nuclear fire. No one told them to stay inside and seal the windows, to take iodine replacement tablets, to avoid eating local produce and dairy products - and when they learned the truth, by word-of-mouth or by listening to western radio, it was too late.
Many scholars believe that the official silence of the Gorbachev government, a monstrous secret kept from its own people, was a significant factor in bringing the rotting Soviet autocracy to its knees, in raising Gorbachev's own consciousness, in restraining his instinctive reactions to the crumbling Warsaw Pact. But for the Belarusan people, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was still another blow. Moscow could shed its responsibility for the catastrophe and pass the buck to the leadership in Minsk, now in the hands of Alexander Lukashenko, the most repressive of all the successor autocrats. Now, Lukashenko himself may deliver the cruelest blow. On the 10th anniversary of the disaster, he has announced his New Concept (complete with capital initials) for dealing with Chernobyl. He said that 10 years is long enough to look back in horror; now it's time to face the future with confidence and optimism. It's time to end the special benefits for people living in the contaminated regions ("coffin" wages that were rarely, if ever, paid), the regular medical check-ups for adults and children at risk, the special attention paid to Chernobyl malingerers and the resettlement programs that have been miserable failures in handling the relocation crisis.
The first outward sign of the New Concept is the Lukashenko government's unwillingness to cooperate with international relief programs. Italy's recent offer of tons of seeds was rejected out of hand; humanitarian shipments of medicine and medical supplies from the West are being delayed at Customs.
Finally, Belarus has decided to go forward with its own nuclear power program. The country which, by all reasonable estimates, has suffered the most at the hands of nuclear technology, is considering four sites for its first nuclear power plant. The rationale? They have been at the mercy of the nuclear policy of their neighbors (Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania) for too long; now they will exercise their own nuclear power, even though they are without the expertise, finances and moral authority to take on the task.
And what about Chernobyl itself? Five times in the past 10 years, the government of Ukraine has agreed to close down the two notoriously unstable graphite-moderated reactors which continue to operate - and has reneged each time, citing serious energy shortages.
Meanwhile the IAEA declared Chernobyl one of the 10 most dangerous nuclear plants in the world (in cozy company with all the other RBMK-model reactors of Soviet design scattered around the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe). Other experts point to the flight of trained operators and the decaying condition of the containing sarcophagus and predict another major accident within five years.
But not to worry. At an international atomic energy enclave in Vienna, a speaker (quoted in France's "Le Monde") was reported to say, "Considering the critical need for energy today, the world can afford one Chernobyl every 10 years." In the shadow of his home? Scattering radioactive rain on his children? Surely deciding what the world can afford depends on who must pay the price.
former managing editor of The San Mateo (Calif.) Times, is co-author of "Children of Chernobyl: Raising Hope From the Ashes" (Augsburg Publishers, Minneapolis, 1993). She also is the founder of the Children of Chernobyl Project of Northern California. Her e-mail address is MICKICARTR@aol.com
The text was converted into html version by Alies' Arciuhovich