Chernobyl, Twenty Years Later
A Public Health and Environmental Assessment
Almost twenty years has passed since I last traveled to Ukraine, a mere six months prior to the terrible Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986. In the fall of 1985, no one in Kiev appeared concerned about the four reactors just seventy miles away – and yet after that fateful day their lives would be forever altered.
At Chernobyl, a routine twenty-second shutdown of the RBMK-1000 reactor #4 created a surge resulting in the release of 100,000,000 curies of radiation into the atmosphere. The explosion spread contamination over parts of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and throughout Europe. Chernobyl’s radiation was further distributed throughout the world due to global trade winds.
According to official reports, thirty one people died immediately and 600,000 “liquidators” involved in fire fighting and clean-up operations were exposed to the high doses of radiation. Over 8,400,000 people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia alone were exposed to high doses of radiation.
The nuclear industry continues to downplay the devastation of the Chernobyl nuclear fire. Yet the costs cannot be denied. According to the United Nations, “Massive radioactive contamination forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the affected region during 1986, and the relocation, after 1986, of another 200,000 from Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
Some five million people continue to live in areas contaminated by the accident and have to deal with its environmental, health, social and economic consequences.”1
Agriculture and forestry are forbidden in wide areas, yet poverty has forced many people to eat contaminated berries, mushrooms, game and fish, and to feed contaminated hay to their cattle and burn radioactively contaminated firewood in their stoves. Many of those living in the affected areas are ignorant of the risks that they face, or have adopted an apathetic and fatalistic attitude.2
The sarcophagus covering Chernobyl’s nuclear coffin is today leaking. A new cover is set to be in place in three years. In the meantime, radiation is being released into the environment.
Returning to Ukraine
Last September, I returned to Ukraine, joining representatives from other countries to remember this life-altering travesty.
Since my last visit in 1985, Ukrainians have gone from denial to a new skepticism that the government will effectively stop the radiation from leaking in their lifetime.
As a result of this international meeting, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility and Physicians for Social Responsibility- Los Angeles, Students Physicians for Social Responsibility-UCLA and UCLA Institute of the Environment will hold a commemorative event at UCLA on April 23.
Today, in light of the Bush Administration push to revive nuclear power, the tragedy of Chernobyl must not be forgotten. Please join us to remember Chernobyl on April 23.
1. Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and Their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience Report of the UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group “Environment” (EGE), August 2005.
2. The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident A Strategy for Recovery A Report Commissioned by UNDP and UNICEF with the support of UN-OCHA and WHO 25 January, 2002 Final: 25.01.02.