Chernobyl still poisons bodies
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
STRELECHEVO, Belarus -- Long ago, this sleepy farm hamlet ringed by
vast stands of birch and pine near the Ukrainian border stopped
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
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
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
"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.
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
"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.'"