Living With Chernobyl 18 Years Later

KIEV, Ukraine, April 26, 2004 (ENS) - On the night of April 25 to 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Reactor Four unleashed the greatest industrial disaster in the history of humankind, releasing 1,000 times more radiation than maximum permissible by law. Today Chernobyl survivors plan to participate in a national solidarity demonstration to mark the eighteenth anniversary of the explosion that ruined their lives.

The demonstration is necessary says Yuri Andreev, president of a two year old nonprofit organization the Union Chernobyl of Ukraine, because the newly adopted state budget does not guarantee even elementary survival for Chernobyl victims. Andreev told the Pravda news organization that the Ukrainian government has provided only US$2.50 for ambulatory treatment of one victim of the tragedy.

The Union Chernobyl of Ukraine was formed two years ago in an attempt to help the people who have suffered as a result of the Chernobyl catastrophe.


Children living in the contaminated area left by the Chernobyl disaster. (Photo by Elisabeth Zeiler courtesy IAEA)
In the Kirovograd area live 17,700 people who have been damaged by the Chernobyl disaster. The Union Chernobyl of Ukraine says there are 1,127 invalids who are sick due to Chernobyl, and also 5,034 children living in the area who have been harmed by the catastrophe. The organization counts 126 children who have become invalids, and 196 who are now orphans as a result of Chernobyl.

A nonprofit organization, the Union Chernobyl of Ukraine is appealing to all people of good will for charitable help - financial assistance, food, medicine, and clothing. Contact: str. Motokrosnaya 24, 25004, Ukraine, Kirovograd, Tel: +380.522.245286

Today, on Memory Day for victims of nuclear accidents and disasters, Greenpeace activists stretched banners near the main building of the Department for Control over Radiation Safety of the Russian Federation (Gosatomnadsor) in Moscow. "No licenses for new chernobyls" and "No more Chernobyls!" the banners read. At the entrance to the building, Gosatomnadzor officials were given a new Greenpeace report "How Much is Nuclear Electricity?"

In 2003 Gosatomnadzor (GAN) revealed 51 violations at nuclear power plants, which is 12 cases more than in 2002.

"The heads of GAN know about the disastrous situations with financing nuclear and radiation safety, physical security, and the social and psychological problems of nuclear energy industry workers," said Vladimir Tchouprov, Greenpeace Russia energy department coordinator. "If something happens, Gosatomnadzor, as well as the heads of newly formed Nuclear Energy Agency are responsible."

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that today, 18 years after the Chernobyl accident, survivors in the region still live with wildly varying reports about what impact the accident will have on their families’ future health and the environment. At a forum hosted by the UN nuclear agency in March, IAEA Director of Radiation and Waste Safety Abel González, said conflicting information has caused tremendous confusion and suffering.

"People living in the affected villages are very distressed because the information they receive - from one expert after another turning up there - is inconsistent. People living there are afraid for their children," he said.

At the forum's meeting in Vienna, initial reports were presented by expert groups for health led by the World Health Organization and the environment led by the IAEA. It is expected the forum will issue its findings at an international conference to be held in 2005 or 2006.

The forum will also advise on, and help to implement, programs that mitigate the accident's impact. They could include remediation of contaminated land, special health care of the affected population, monitoring long-term human exposure to radiation, environmental aspects of decommissioning the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and the shelter, and addressing environmental issues related to radioactive waste from the accident.


"Fire Fighting," painted by Pavel Zharko age nine, is part of The Chernobyl Disaster, an exhibition of paintings by school children from Kiev. (Photo courtesy IAEA)
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, Reactor Four began to fail. Seven seconds after the operators activated the 20 second shut down system, there was a power surge. The explosions that followed were so powerful that they blew the 1,000 ton cover off the top of the reactor. Design flaws in the power plant's cooling system are thought to have caused an uncontrollable power surge that led to Chernobyl's destruction.

Declassified messages of the State Security Committee of the Ukrainian SSR say that on that night the plant operators conducted turbogenerator tests for the first time at a running nuclear plant "without official coordination with the design organization" and there were numerous violations of regulations by plant staff.

In addition to the reactor’s immediate surroundings – an area with a radius of about 30 kilometers – other regions in northern Ukraine, southeastern Belarus and along the border area between Russia and Belarus were contaminated.

International estimates indicate that between 125,000 and 146,000 square kilometers in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are contaminated with cesium-137 at levels exceeding 1 curie (Ci), an area greater than that of the neighboring countries of Latvia and Lithuania combined.

At the time of the accident, about seven million people lived in the contaminated areas, including three million children. About 350,400 people were resettled or have left these areas. However, about 5.5 million people, including more than a million children, still live in the contaminated zones.


Chernobyl's Reactor Four today, surrounded by a concrete shell. (Photo by Vadim Mouchkin courtesy IAEA)
Closed on December 15, 2000, the Chernobyl reactor still threatens the environment. To keep radioactive dust within, a concrete shell was built over the reactor by remote control when radioactivity was high.

Its guaranteed life ends in 2006, and the shell, known as a sarcophagus, has now deteriorated. The walls are showing cracks and the ceiling is sagging.

To convert the shelter into an ecologically safe facility, a new shelter has been designed with a life of 100 years. It will be built near the damaged reactor and then moved in over the first one at an estimated cost of US$758 million.

The job is being financed by the international Chernobyl Ukrytiye [Shelter] fund which will contribute $708 million, and the government of Ukraine, which is committed to spending $50 million. The project is being handled by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.