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Chornobyl's legacy in Ukraine: Beyond the United Nations reports

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May 3, 2011, 5:56 p.m. | Op-ed — by David Marples

People hold placards during an anti-nuclear protest march in Vilnius, Lithuania, Tuesday, April 26, 2011. Several hundred people marked the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and to protest Belarus' and Russia's plans to build new nuclear power plants close to the Lithuanian borders. The placard reads, " No nuclear power plants" (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

David Marples

Special to Kyiv Post

The Chornobyl disaster of April 1986 continues to elicit debate. Twenty-five years later there is no consensus on its medical and social consequences but their impact continues to affect more than 2 million people in Ukraine and 1.8 million in Belarus who are officially listed as “victims.” Why is this the case? Although several factors can be postulated, the chief among them is the near monopoly on public discourse of two closely linked UN agencies: the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Several UNSCEAR reports have been issued, the most recent of which appeared in 2008,1 while the IAEA has monitored the consequences of the disaster and safety of the Chornobyl plant since 1986, having first been invited to the Soviet Union a year earlier. That country was one of the founding members of the organization and its first civilian nuclear power station at Novovoronezh came into operation in 1964.

The World Health Organization (WHO), theoretically independent, has collaborated closely with the IAEA on Chornobyl issues and was partly responsible for the Chernobyl Forum Report issued prior to the 20th anniversary of the accident, which elicited angry responses, partly because of a press release that appeared to downgrade the health consequences of the disaster—an alternative version of the situation was presented by Greenpeace. Alongside the IAEA, UNSCEAR, and several other UN agencies, it also participates in the UN Action Plan on Chernobyl to 2016, a program for recovery of the affected areas. Nonetheless, the reports released by these agencies, and particularly UNSCEAR and the IAEA, have served partly to obfuscate the impact of the 1986 accident.

For example, Volume II, Annex D of the 2008 UNSCEAR Report focuses on health effects due to Chornobyl radiation. Suffice it to list two statements concerning overall casualties. The first notes that 19 ARS (sufferers of Acute Radiation Syndrome) survivors had died by 2006 but from different ailments “and usually [my italics] not associated with radiation exposure.” The second can be found in its General Conclusions:

To date, there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure (p19).

The use of the adverb “usually” and adjective “persuasive” are typical devices of these pamphlets, which appear determined to assuage any remaining doubts readers might have had of problems other than those outlined in the Report, namely some 56 Chornobyl-related deaths to date, 6,000 thyroid gland cancers among those under 10 at the time of the accident, resulting in 15 deaths by 2005, and 4,000 future cancer deaths linked to radiation from the 1986 accident.

On April 21 in Kyiv, the IAEA participates in a conference on Chornobyl hosted by the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who has already accepted Russia’s proposal to finance and complete two new reactors at the Khmelnytsky nuclear power plant (3 and 4, VVER-1000s) and to maintain until 2050 the 50% share of nuclear power in national production of electricity, a ratio that will require significant expansion.

Yanukovych has also stated his government’s intention to re-cultivate the contaminated agricultural lands, most likely with technical crops, following the example of his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka several years earlier. The point is that the two leaderships, UNSCEAR and the IAEA have a strong vested interest in the development and expansion of nuclear power. As in 1986 with the Soviet Union, the industry is also a key means of future integration of the three republics, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The Russian Federation is not only building the new nuclear power stations and new reactors in Belarus and Ukraine, it is also financing them. Energy development is thus a key form of cooperation between the Slavic states of the former Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the Ukrainian government has yet to release its 25th anniversary Report. But it is still worth consulting the 20-year report on Chornobyl and its effects produced by Ukrainian scientists under the general editorship of Viktor Baloha, formerly chief of staff for President Viktor Yushchenko (cited hereafter as Ukraine Report), which have not been widely disseminated and have not penetrated the Western media.2

The Ukraine Report notes that in 2006, 2,293 villages and towns in Ukraine remained contaminated, with a population of around 2.6 million. (In the former Soviet Union overall, the number of “victims” has been estimated at 7.1 million.) It points out several critical errors that occurred after the disaster—unrelated to those conducting the rash experiment on an unstable graphite-moderated reactor on the night of April 25-26, 1986.

First, the accident was concealed from the public on orders from Moscow and specifically the Ministry of Medium Machine Building (sredmash), i.e. the ministry responsible for nuclear weapons, which had responsibility for the Chornobyl station, as the original purpose of the RBMK graphite-moderated reactors was linked to weapons production before they were modified to the civilian program. The ostensible reason for official silence, repeated ad nauseam by Soviet officials, was to prevent panic. Yet news of the evacuation of Pripyat (April 27) and Chornoby (May 6) soon filtered through Ukraine.

Second, information on health, radiation levels, and areas of fallout was officially classified. It would be three years before many residents of Ukraine discovered they were living on contaminated lands. Moreover, deaths and severe illnesses among cleanup workers were not attributed to high levels of radiation. Once the USSR Ministry of Defense took over the decontamination operation, it maintained a veil of silence concerning those who had fallen ill and died. Only the families of these reservists, and subsequently pioneers of Glasnost such as the magazine Ognonyok and the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti paid attention to this lack of information. In this way the death toll from radiation remained at 28 or 29, and overall short-term casualties from Chornobyl at 31, an astonishingly low figure for an accident of such magnitude.

Third, radiation fallout outside the evacuated zones proved more dangerous than anticipated. The migration of Cesium-137 through the soil was much higher in northwestern regions of Ukraine that lay outside the chornozem region or clay soil areas leading to the contamination of meat and milk in Rivne and Volyn especially. Cesium contaminated over 80% of Ukraine’s forests. Other pervasive and harmful radio-nuclides included Strontium-90, Iodine-131, and Plutonium-239. Some, like Iodine, had short half-lives before they began to decay—in this case 8 days; others, like Plutonium, could not be absorbed by the soil and had a half-life of 24,000 years.

Fourth, the close cooperation between the Ukrainian government and the scientific community, evident at the outset of the accident, disintegrated. There was a natural divide at 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the inheritance of a mammoth and highly expensive Chornobyl program by the new Ukrainian government, which quickly entered the throes of an acute financial and currency crisis. The Soviet government in late April and May 1986, it should be added, also rejected all outside aid other than that of UCLA’s Dr Robert Peter Gale, a protégé of Soviet friend Armand Hammer, the US industrialist, who carried out bone marrow transplants on the most severely affected firemen and first-aid workers. All but one of these patients died.

The accident

Let us look at some of the events in more detail. The Chernobyl plant had been built in the 1970s based on graphite-moderated RBMK reactors following the prototype of this model of station at Leningrad. The reactors were built in twins, and unit 4 came on line in December 1983. The fifth and sixth units were incomplete at the time of the accident and located some distance from the earlier reactors. An experiment was conducted to see how long a spinning turbine would keep generating power during a period of shutdown before the emergency generators came into operation. It was the sort of issue that should have been resolved at the design stage, but nuclear power, like any other segment of Soviet industry, was on a tight schedule and certain steps were bypassed.

Even today, accounts of the events on the night of April 25-26 are not well known. Safety devices were dismantled in order to prevent the reactor shutting down, but an operator made an error that caused power to drop below the 30% needed for the experiment. The reactor went down to 1%, power began to rise because of coolant boiling, and at 1:23:40, he decided to drive in the emergency rods to shut down the reactor, which was by now very unstable. The subsequent power surge resulted in two explosions that blew the top off the reactor, scattering graphite and fuel, and starting more than 30 fires, including the asphalt roof. Fire crews came to the station from Pripyat and later from Kyiv, and firemen and first-aid workers were the main early casualties of the disaster. Of the 29 official deaths in the early stages, and using the Soviet measurement in rems (roentgen equivalent in man; one rem = 0.01 sieverts or 1 sievert = 100 rems), 21 had received so-called fourth-degree radiation levels of 600-1,600 rems, 7 between 400 and 600, and one between 200 and 400 rems.

The two explosions at the Chornobyl-4 reactor on April 26, 1986 led to the evacuation of people living in a 6-mile radius around the reactor. It was expanded to 18.5 miles after the situation became better known, and after the visit of two Politburo officials, Nikolai Ryzhkov and Yegor Ligachev, to Chernobyl on May 2. Subsequently, some 116,000 people (90,784 from Ukraine) living in the expanded zone around the unit were evacuated. Initially, however, they moved in the same direction as the enormous radiation cloud that contaminated lands through rainfall, and many had to be re-evacuated. Many took their livestock with them, compounding problems if the family consumed milk contaminated with radioactive iodine.

There followed a sustained effort to cover the reactor and eventually to construct a “sarcophagus” or “Shelter” over the fourth complex. Cleanup workers or liquidators had to remove graphite from the reactor roof and then decontaminated the topsoil throughout the zone. Most sources concur that about 600,000 took part in this work, first on a volunteer basis and later using military reservists.

Units 1 and 2 reactors at the Chornobyl nuclear power station were restored to operation by the fall of 1986, and unit 3 by December 1987. Despite a litany of problems, and a belated decision by the IAEA to declare the station “dangerous” in 1994, the plant continued to operate until December 15, 2000, when it was closed on the orders of President Leonid Kuchma. In the interim a new town had been built for Chornobyl workers and their families at Slavutych (Chernihiv Oblast), some 40 miles east of the nuclear plant, with a rail connection to their workplace that crossed Belarusian territory.

Radioactive iodine, dispersed widely across north and western Ukraine and most of Belarus in the first days after the explosions, caused thyroid cancer to develop among several thousand children by 1989. About 3,400 children in Ukraine had surgery between 1989 and 2004. In the 21st century, the illness has not disappeared and there are regularly some 300-400 new cases each year. By 2004, 11 children had died (the figure in Belarus was 19).

Thyroid gland cancer was also 9 times higher among liquidators and 13 times higher among females who worked in the zone. In addition, the incidence of breast cancer among female liquidators was double that of the rest of Ukraine Adults living in contaminated areas have seen a 400% rise in thyroid cancer.

In addition to the cited 11 thyroid gland cancer deaths in Ukraine, 5 liquidators have died from leukemia. In addition, Ukraine reported 26,000 deaths of those who worked in the zone (a further 18,400 deaths have been reported among Russian liquidators). Also in Ukraine, 19,109 families in different areas of the country were receiving benefits in 2005 as a result of the loss of the family breadwinner “whose death is related to the Chornobyl accident” (Ukraine Report, p. 53).

Whether or not the evidence is “persuasive” enough for the contributors to the UNSCEAR Report, simple math shows that in addition to its official toll of 56 deaths, one has at the least a further 19,125 in Ukraine alone, along with an unspecified proportion of the 26,000 liquidators who have died prematurely. In Belarus the toll is likely to be at least as high. In addition one would need to calculate the impact in the area of high radiation fallout in Bryansk region of Russia, and in most areas of Europe—the latter are not even included in the calculations of the UN agencies, yet significant Plutonium fallout has been discovered as far away as Sweden.

Moreover, Chornobyl’s impact is not only reflected in the death toll. The level of illnesses among the families suffering from Chornobyl has long been cause for alarm. The proportion of healthy liquidators had fallen from 67.6% in 1988 to 7.2% by 2005. Among evacuees the healthy ratio declined from 67.7% to 22%. Mental health among evacuated women has declined sharply. The incidence of chronic diseases has increased significantly, especially those of the cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous systems.

Social problems linked to Chornobyl persist. In Slavutych, where 10,000 people lost jobs in 2000 because of the Chornobyl plant’s closure, 71% of the town’s 24,365 residents are categorized as accident victims. Over 53% of those who died in 2004 were between the ages of 18 and 59, and HIV, alcoholism, and drug addiction were reported as key problems, a bitter irony in what was originally intended to be a model town for the 21st century.

In the so-called Exclusion (18.5 mile radius) Zone around the Shelter, most of the so-called samosely (self-settlers, i.e. returned evacuees) are dying out. In 2007, there remained 314 scattered throughout 11 villages, with an average age of 63. In 1986 there were an estimated 1,200. Ten villages were bulldozed in the zone and others are in a state of decay. The 1986 disaster has destroyed settlements and patterns of life that date back to medieval times. Of those moved from the Exclusion Zone, only 3% were employed in 2003 (though some had retired by then).

Finally the remains of Chornobyl-4 are to be reburied under a new Shelter, according to a contract between Ukraine and the French company Novarka, a project estimated to cost $550 million to erect a roof that will be higher than both the Statue of Liberty (93 meters) and the Motherland monument that towers over Kyiv (102 meters). The goal is to keep the surrounding area safe for another 100 years, burying the damaged fuel from the fourth reactor unit. Twenty-eight countries have contributed to the cost of this edifice—it is well beyond the means of Ukraine’s budget—and the current structure has an estimated lifespan of 12 more years. Construction started last August and is supposed to be completed by 2013.

Chornobyl was a Soviet-era accident, but its legacy is still being felt in Ukraine and Belarus today. It began with an official cover-up and censorship of health information and radiation fallout. A quarter of a century on, it is still difficult to ascertain accurate information about its health effects in particular, mainly because of the close control over data of agencies that wish to minimize its impact and assure the public that outside those who suffered from ARS, it has had little discernible health consequences.

However, UNSCEAR and the IAEA hitherto have needed to produce materials only on significant Chornobyl anniversaries. After Fukushima, their task has been made much more difficult, as world attention is once again focused on problems linked to the “peaceful atom.” Arguments pro or anti-nuclear power aside, one can only hope that more profound attention is once again focused on the continuing ramifications of the 1986 tragedy.

This article appeared originally in The Ukrainian Weekly, 24 April 2011. David R. Marples is author of Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine (Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2008).
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