Belarus brought to its knees by 'invisible enemy'

by Eugene Cahill

The Irish Times

April 26, 2001

Fifteen years after Chernobyl, the world has moved on. But for Belarus the problems are only beginning. Thyroid cancer rates have risen by 2,400 per cent since the explosion, writes Eugene Cahill

At 1.23 a.m. on April 26th, 1986, an explosion occurred in the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. Some 190 tons of highly radioactive uranium and graphite were blasted into the atmosphere.

The radioactive cloud released from the burning reactor travelled north into the neighbouring country of Belarus. It then moved east over western Russia and west across Europe.

The fallout from the disaster has directly affected over nine million people in Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia. The people of these countries were exposed to radioactivity 90 times greater than that released by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The UN has declared the disaster the worst environmental catastrophe in history.

It is the country of Belarus which has suffered, and continues to suffer, most from the disaster: 70 per cent of the radiation has fallen on its land and people.

Mr Vladislav Ostapenko, head of Belarus's Radiation Medicine Institute, told a recent press conference that "science cannot yet completely assess the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, but it is plain that a demographic catastrophe has occurred in our country.

"We are now seeing genetic changes, especially among those who were less than six years of age when the accident happened and they were subjected to radiation. These people are now starting families."

Medical research has shown that radioactive elements (primarily caesium 137 and iodine 131) cross the placental barrier from mother to foetus, contaminating each new generation. Faced with soaring levels of infertility and genetic changes, the gene pool of the Belarussian people is now under threat.

The rates of thyroid cancer have increased by 2,400 per cent in the 15 years since the disaster and this figure is expected to continue to rise. There has been a 1,000 per cent increase in suicides in the contaminated zones and a 250 per cent increase in congenital birth deformities.

With 99 per cent of the land of Belarus contaminated to varying degrees, the people of this stricken country are forced to live, eat, drink and breathe radiation.

Ms Adi Roche, executive director of the Chernobyl Children's Project, which has initiated 14 aid programmes for the stricken regions, has travelled on many humanitarian aid convoys to Belarus. She has found it to be "a country on its knees, struggling to fight against the invisible enemy of radiation, an enemy that is slowly destroying its people".

The Chernobyl disaster has financially crippled Belarus. It has cost the country 25 per cent of its annual national budget and it is estimated that by 2015 the fallout from the accident will have cost Belarus $235 billion.

Because there is no international law governing an accident such as that which occurred at Chernobyl, Belarus has received no compensation for the damage to it from either Ukraine or Russia.

In a vicious and toxic cycle, the country cannot afford to minimise the effects of the disaster because it is so economically crippled as a direct result of it.

Within the world's most radioactive environment, some 2,000 towns and villages lie eerily silent and empty. These towns were evacuated in the weeks and months following the disaster because of the extremely high levels of radioactivity.

Yet, in a very worrying development, the Belarussian authorities are attempting to change the existing laws relating to the protection of citizens suffering from the disaster to reduce the financial burden on the state.

Prof Nesterenko is a Belarussian scientist who carries out independent research into the effects of the contaminated land. His research is crucial to all aid work relating to the disaster carried out in Belarus.

He has warned that the authorities are propagating a return to living in contaminated zones instead of giving objective information to the population about the dangers to health of living in contaminated areas.

In spite of such a large-scale tragedy, the issue has been largely forgotten or ignored by the international community and the voices of the victims remain largely unheard.

Fifteen years after the disaster - at a time when its full consequences have not yet peaked - there is a growing complacency within the international community about it.

There is an urgent and vital need for the Chernobyl issue to be placed back at the top of the international agenda.

Most of the aid to the affected regions is collected and distributed by international non-governmental organisations. If the problems are to be correctly tackled, it is imperative that increased financial commitments be given by UN member-states to the relief effort. Every government and every country has a crucial role to play.

Although the Chernobyl power plant was finally closed down last December, it is by no means the end of the problem. An omnipresent threat of nuclear apocalypse still hangs over much of Europe.

Within the last few weeks, a former director of security services in the Chernobyl region, Mr Valentine Kupny, has warned that radiation is still seeping from the entombed reactor.

Speaking in last week's German weekly *Focus*, he alerted people to the fact that the steel casing entombing the nuclear reactor was crumbling and in imminent danger of collapse. When this casing collapses, much of what will happen will depend on the wind.

Mr Kupny has said that nobody knows exactly what is happening inside the reactor. "In September 1996 we recorded the last atomic chain reaction but it is very possible that something is happening now. We don't know."

Mr Kupny was dismissed from his post shortly after his interview for the article. Many people do not want to hear the truth.

Isn't it about time that we did?

Eugene Cahill is press officer of the Chernobyl Children's Project.*

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