THE CHERNOBYL DISASTER AS A NATIONAL
CATASTROPHE FOR BELARUS

Speaking about Chernobyl today does not seem as real as it used to, say, 9 years ago, when the topic was being elucidated regularly in the mass madia and was being reported from the disaster site. For most of the world, the disaster was something that happened "there," behind the "iron curtain" and after a while it was only the scientists who continued to show interest towards the situation in the affected territories. But the shadow of Chernobyl turned to be too long to ignore. Moreover, the actuality of this giant problem hasn't diminished and will remain the same for at least the next couple of generations. For the independent states that replaced the Soviet Union and were also affected by the Chernobyl radiation on April, 26, 1986, that date will remain as one of the greatest tragedies throughout history.

Most of the damage has been and is being done to the Republic of Belarus which has received 75% of the Chernobyl radiation. Having been destroyed and devastated many times throughout the centuries by conquerors, Belarus faced an invisible enemy this time, and the consequences of this fight may prove fatal for the over 10 million Belarusian people. That's why at the environmental summit in Brasil, the former Belarusian leader Stanislau Shushkiewich, a nuclear physicist by profession, declared Belarus a zone of ecological catastrophe and thus shocked the summit's participants with the truth about Chernobyl. Some scientists assess the result of the Chernobyl explosion equivalent to 150 Hiroshimas...

How could it happen that the nuclear power station accident in the territory of the Ukraine affected Belarus so badly? The answer is simple: after the disaster the wind blew constantly in the direction of my country, the Chernobyl power station being located just 4 miles from the Belarus-Ukraine border. The Moscow newspapers wrote, after all that "fortunately the wind didn't blow in the direction of Kiev," which could otherwise be swept from the Earth's face. Yes, unfortunately it blew in the other direction where there also lived hundreds of thousands of people. The most contaminated area of Belarus is in the Homiel' region with a population of about 1.5 million people. Another huge pollution area is the Magilyow region which is rather far from Chernobyl. How could it happen that in some areas of the Magilyow region the radioactivity was the same as in the nucleus of the disaster 200 kilometers away? There's still no exact answer, but an investigaton conducted by the Belarusian novelist and public figure Ales Adamowich showed that the huge radioactive cloud moving from Chernobyl to Moscow was shot at by Soviet chemical troops and then the cloud came down on Belarusian territory. Thus, one-fourth of the population of Belarus turned out to be living in the contaminated territories.

What did those May rains and south-east winds bring to Belarus? The total release of the radioactive substances was estimated at 18,500 million million becquerel, or 50 million curies. This is 2,500 times that of the the Windscale nuclear plant accident in England in 1957, and 16 million times that of the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1978. Nearly 30 radioactive isotopes had erupted from the burning reactor. Most of them were short lived, like iodine-131, tellurium-132, zirconium-95, or cerium-141. They affected the population mostly during the very first days and months after the disaster, and those days, by no means, were the most tragic, because the governments of Belarus and the Soviet Union not only didn't provide the people with the necessary instructions for protection, but even made the people, as usual, take part in the 1st of May demonstrations. Meanwhile, the children of the communist leaders themselves were far away from the dangerous zones, starting on the 1st day after the disaster, when the true but secret information was available to them.

Seven years after the disaster, the three isotopes are still significant in the total dose of radioactive fallout in Belarus. They are caesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium-239 with half-lives of 30, 29, and 24,400 years, respectively. They are the sources of the three types of radiation that affect people in the polluted areas - alpha, beta, and gamma.

The impact of radiation on the human body is expressed in many ways, one of the most dangerous of which is the chromosome aberrations causing mutations. The mutations in the case of Chernobyl were mostly recessive, which means that their accumulative effect will not be obvious for several generations. However, cases of mutations in mammals and plants have already occurred in the contaminated area, and there have been a few cases of mutation in newly born children. But, again, the worst has yet to come.

One of the most delayed effects of radiation is the induction of cancer. As the experts predicted, in the contaminated territories of Belarus, especially in the Homiel' and Magilyow regions, the increase in leucaemia, or blood cancer, caused by the Chernobyl disaster is already frightening. What is even worse, there are dozens of cases of leucaemia among the children in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a city with 1.7 million people. Minsk was considered to be clear from radiation; however, there are several big radioactive hotspots around the city, and there is absolutely no guarantee that these spots haven't spread over Minsk. Most of those children didn't visit the regions of high levels of pollution, but still they got the radiation-induced disease. They are being treated in a special radiological hospital, but in order to cure leucaemia they need a complicated bone marrow transplant. This operation is very expensive and few people have such sums in the republic that is undergoing the heaviest economic crisis. Almost every day in the Belarusian newspapers, one can see the ads, begging for financial help written by the despairing parents who don't want to watch their children dying of cancer. But few people can afford to spend thousands of dollars when the average monthly salary is no more than 30 dollars.

The topic of the children of Chernobyl is most shocking and awful. The only world these children see are the white walls of the hospitals, and they have to take painful procedures every day - in this way, the doctors are trying to postpone the fatal moment. The discarded dolls and toys in the villages within the 30-kilometer-zone around Chernobyl were shown on TV, but no one seems to care for the 3-year-old kids with daily headaches caused by radiation taken in with food, air, and water. The children's immune systems can't resist the invisible enemy, and the result is the statistical fact that the number of absolutely healthy children in Belarus does not exceed 20 per cent. The rest have more or less serious health disorders. And everything can be included as a reason - Chernobyl, the general ecological situation, nitrates in food, the economic crisis, etc.

The two most dangerous radioisotopes, caesium-137 and strontium-90, are still in the soil, dust, and water. Strontium-90 is analogous to calcium, the element essential for bone tissue. When strontium-90 is taken internally, it tends to replace calcium in the bones and accumulates radiation in them. This element cannot be removed from the body in contrast to caesium-137, which is analogous to potassium, which is also a vitally important element in the human organism. It can be removed by special diets, but before it can, it will cause its damage by emitting beta and gamma radiation. Plutonium-239 is mostly found in the territories close to the 30 kilometer zone, and it still is the main sourse of alpha radiation. Besides, the huge emission of short-living, iodine-131 caused a big increase of thyroid cancer, again, mainly among the children in the contaminated territories of Belarus.

During the first months after the disaster, agricultural activities in most of the polluted areas were not cancelled. The milk and meat industries were producing contaminated food for consumption. Even later, when the truth started to be told, there were secret instructions about the dilution of the clean meat with the radioactive in the proportion 10:1, and this meat was still being sold for a couple of years after the disaster. All these things happened after the Soviet leader Gorbachev already had assured the western correspondents that "the worst has been overcome." In spite of that, the population was totally removed from the most contaminated zones only 3 years after the accident. Moreover, in some cases it turned out that the villages built for evacuees were still in the contaminated territories. And nobody even thinks of removing the population from the territories with the level of pollution of 1-5 Ci per square km; and this is 20% of Belarusian territory with one quarter of the population of the country. That's why the Belarusian scientists are alarmed that the genetic fund of the Belarusian people is in great danger. The health of the people and, especially, of the younger generation is seriously damaged by Chernobyl; this means that the nation's immunity has been weakened. For the more than ten million people it may cause unpredictable consequences up to becoming extinct. The fatal coincidence is, again, the economic crisis occurring together with the ecological one, and due to it there is lack of money for even elementary means of dosimetry, prophylaxis, or removing radiation from the organism available for the population. With this background the newest forecasts show that the spots of pollution migrate and expand due to the winds and erosion. According to some of these forecasts the level of radiation in Belarus will increase 10 times in 4-5 years due to the movement of subsoil waters spreading radiation to wide areas. The opinoin that the Chernobyl power station itself is now safe is also not true. Right after the disaster the construction of the concrete sarcophagus which was to cover the exploded reactor had begun. But due to the errors in the construction there are many cracks in the sarcophagus now. Their total area already exceeds 1000 square meters. This means that the radiation blocked in the reactor still leaks to the athmosphere. The recent decision of the Ukrainian parliament was to continue the work of Chernobyl nuclear plant because of shortage of energy in the country in spite of the fire in the other reactor of Chernobyl in 1991.

Although there are no nuclear power stations in Belarus, its neighbours- Ukraine, Russia, and Lithuania seem to have built theirs as close as possible to the border with Belarus. Besides Chernobyl which is still functioning, Belarus is surrounded by 3 more nuclear power plants, 2 of which have the same old type of the reactor as Chernobyl with the high possibility of emergency cases. And there's no intention to close them because of the energy crisis on the territory of the former USSR. For Belarus, it's a difficult dilemma whether to construct its own power station or not, because the hydroenergy resources in the country are very low and the pollution of a normal functioning thermoelectric power station is much higher than that of a nuclear one.

Maybe it's also worth considering the use of alternative sources of energy, such as wind, solar, or constructing new types of cleaner power stations using traditional fuels? This is a job for physicists and energy experts. One thing is clear: it won't be easy to persuade the people who suffered the terror of the nuclear catastrophe of the necessity of constructing another possible source of the same disaster. And nobody can accuse the Belarusian people of radiophobia. They know how it looks when the "peaceful atom" goes out of control.

I can't really say what would be a reasonable compromise, but the Chernobyl experience shows that the responsibility of these decisions is enormous, and all the pros and cons should be carefully weighed before making the final choice.

But the armageddon for the Belarusian people is not yet over, and all the truth about what is happening there must be told to the world so that it can hear the SOS of this little country.

Content by Auhien Reshatau. Prepared by Dzmitry Zelenka


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