Chernobyl still poisons bodies and minds
20 years after the world's worst nuclear accident, millions have sunk into an apathy that lets them eat yields of land they know is tainted

By Alex Rodriguez
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published April 23, 2006,1,6770857.story?track=rss&ctrack=1&cset=true

STRELECHEVO, Belarus -- Long ago, this sleepy farm hamlet ringed by vast stands of birch and pine near the Ukrainian border stopped fighting back.

After the April 26, 1986, explosion that blew the roof off Reactor 4 at Chernobyl in what now is northern Ukraine, Strelechevo and hundreds of villages like it dutifully steeled themselves from the fallout of history's worst nuclear accident. Villagers routinely scrubbed outside walls and roofs, and had their milk, wheat and potatoes checked for radioactive contamination. They skimmed off contaminated topsoil around schools and relied on radiation maps to discern where mushroom-picking in nearby woodlands was ill-advised.

But as years passed, their resolve wore away and resignation took root. Many in the region refer to the small stipends they receive from their respective governments as "funeral money." The crops, milk and meat yielded by their farms is tainted with radioactive cesium, but they still put it on their dinner tables.

"We know this food is contaminated--we simply have no other choice," said Svetlana Gretchenko, 35, a milkmaid at Strelechevo's collective farm and a mother of three. "At night when I go to bed, I thank God and ask him to give me and my children the chance to wake up in the morning."

The malaise that shrouds Strelechevo reflects what many researchers say is the biggest challenge facing communities coping with the fallout of Chernobyl 20 years later: the psychological damage wrought by disaster on 5 million Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians.

"The psychological impact is now considered to be Chernobyl's biggest health consequence," said Louisa Vinton, a senior project manager for the United Nations Development Program, which helped produce a comprehensive study of the accident's impact. "People have been led to think of themselves as victims over the years, and are therefore more apt to take a passive approach toward their future rather than developing a system of self-sufficiency.

"There's a sense of waiting for rescue from a rescuer that never comes," Vinton said. "It's a real impediment to people being able to take charge of their lives again."

The breadth of Chernobyl's impact is vast. Radioactive fallout carried by the wind appeared in reindeer meat in Sweden and in rain in the Pacific Northwest. Regions in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine can expect to remain contaminated with cesium-137 for decades. Economically, the disaster cost the former Soviet Union hundreds of billions of dollars.

The toll on physical health remains a fiercely debated topic. A study by eight UN organizations, including the UNDP and the International Atomic Energy Agency, concluded that past estimates of a death toll in the tens of thousands were grossly exaggerated. Instead, the September 2005 study put the number of past and future deaths that can be attributed Chernobyl at 4,000.

Greenpeace: Toll much higher

That figure have been hotly disputed by Greenpeace and other organizations, which estimate that as many 93,000 people may die of cancer and other illnesses associated with Chernobyl. Greenpeace, which opposes nuclear power, accused the UN study of "whitewashing" Chernobyl's health impact.

However, even critics of the UN study agree that dealing with the psychological, social and economic toll Chernobyl took on millions of Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians is a priority that until now has gone largely ignored.

That toll is readily seen in Belarus, which absorbed 70 percent of the disaster's fallout and is home to more than 2.5 million people living on contaminated land. A host of factors--fear of radiation illness, the production and consumption of contaminated food, government neglect--combined to embitter many Belarusians and impede recovery.

"Their emotions have deteriorated into an advanced form of apathy," said Tamara Belookaya, director of a Belarusian non-governmental organization called Children of Chernobyl. "They don't trust their government or each other, and they don't consider themselves a community."

The seed for that distrust was planted within hours after a botched experiment led to a huge explosion at 1:23 a.m. April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet authorities hushed up the accident as best they could, saying nothing about it on state television and radio and waiting three days before beginning to evacuate nearby populations.

For 10 days, more than 50 tons of radioactive gases and nuclear fuel particles spewed from the rubble of the reactor. Thousands of workers known as "liquidators" were dispatched to the site to join plant employees in cleanup work. Vilya Prokopov, then a 46-year-old engineer at the plant, had the task of helping disconnect all of the wiring in the plant's control center. He worked without protective gear, wearing only the white jumpsuit assigned to Chernobyl workers.

By the second day, his throat was raw from radioactive iodine in the air.

"My throat was burned," said Prokopov, 66, who now lives in Slavutych, a small city in northern Ukraine built for Chernobyl liquidators. "I couldn't speak. I just whispered."

Radioactive iodine-131 from the explosion was responsible for a sharp rise in thyroid cancer in the region. The UN study put the number of Chernobyl-related thyroid cancer cases at 4,000; Greenpeace's report, released earlier this month, predicted as many as 60,000 such cases linked to the disaster. However, iodine-131's short half-life, eight days, made it less of a long-term threat than other contaminants released in the explosion, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, which have half-lives that last decades.

Creating dependency?
After the accident, Soviet authorities resettled more than 350,000 people outside the region's most heavily contaminated areas. They also established an extensive system of social and medical benefits that included 7 million people. The UN study argued that the system cast too wide a net, creating a culture of dependency that hampered the region's recovery.

"The number of people claiming Chernobyl-related benefits soared over time, rather than declined," the report stated. "As the economic crisis of the 1990s deepened, registration as a victim of Chernobyl became for many the only means of access to an income, and to vital aspects of health provision, including medicines."

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, ambitious rehabilitation projects in contaminated areas, such as the construction of new gas pipelines to farming communities in Belarus, were abandoned. Younger Belarusians and villagers with a trade or profession moved away, depleting the labor force in their communities and skewing the balance between each village's birth and death rates.

"In many villages, up to 60 percent of the population is made up of pensioners," said Vasily Nesterenko, director of the Belrad Radiation Safety and Protection Institute in Minsk, Belarus' capital. "In most of these villages, the number of people able to work is two or three times lower than normal."

Though cesium-137 from the explosion poisoned roughly a fourth of Belarus' farmland, President Alexander Lukashenko's administration has pushed hard to renew farming in contaminated areas.

At some collective farms, the Belarusian government has tried to minimize the risk of producing tainted crops and fodder, instituting steps such as soil tilling to bury radioactive particles beyond the reach of crop roots. However, most farms have yet to adopt such measures, said Children of Chernobyl's Belookaya.

Villagers are all too aware that they are tending contaminated crops and livestock and consuming tainted food.

"Where can we buy clean food? Nowhere," said Maria Bordak, 70, a field worker at Strelechevo's collective farm. "So we have to eat this. What is destined to happen, will happen to us."

That kind of fatalism worries researchers who have studied Chernobyl's impact.

"That's where we think public policy should be directed," said UNDP's Vinton. "Let's help people get back their own fates and destinies. You don't have to sit there and say, `We're doomed because of radiation.'"