2. The Continuing Effects of Radioactive Contamination

Chapter 7: No More Victims
Part 1: The Future of Nuclear Power

The April 1986 explosion at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union was the worst accident at a nuclear power plant in history. The name Chernobyl became synonymous with global contamination, throwing not only the Soviet Union and the countries of Europe but the whole world into a state of panic about the dangers of radiation.

In April 1990, four years after the disaster, the Soviet government announced its plan for a new series of evacuations involving between 180,000 and 200,000 people. This was, in effect, an admission of the government's failure to take adequate countermeasures to deal with the accident.

When we visited Belorussiya in March 1989 we reported that areas to which the evacuees had been moved after the accident were in fact themselves contaminated by high levels of radiation. In spite of this, it took over a year for the government to announce plans to evacuate these areas. During that time people were needlessly exposed to larger doses of radiation than they had been already.

Belorussiya is the area which has been worst affected by the Chernobyl disaster. In March 1990 an appeal for foreign aid for Belorussiya was announced at the headquarters of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in Vienna. According to the same announcement, approximately twenty percent of Belorussiya's population, some 2.2 million people, are living within the contaminated area, and twenty percent of farmland in the state was contaminated after the accident. New areas of concentrated contamination known as hot spots are still being discovered, and in the worst-affected area 170,000 people including 37,000 children are receiving regular medical examinations and treatment. Of the total number of people living in contaminated areas, over 118,000 should be evacuated to unaffected areas immediately.

Directly after this appeal for aid, Oleg Zadero, professor of radiobiology at the University of Belorussiya, reported on conditions in Belorussiya to an academic conference in Poland: "Belorussiya is in the midst of a 'nuclear plague.' People are living on contaminated land and eating contaminated crops—several thousands of people are still in danger."

This report demonstrates how the people of Belorussiya are suffering even more than residents of the Ukraine, where the Chernobyl disaster actually occurred, because measures were not taken to minimize the threat of contamination there until much later.

On the fourth anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, Pravda reported that six provinces in the Ukraine are contaminated, and that, apart from the 92, 000 people evacuated from within the thirty-kilometer (nineteen miles) zone directly after the accident, 60,000 people are still living in restricted areas. In 1990 plans were made to evacuate only 14,000 of these. The number of people suffering from leukemia, thyroid conditions, and other radiation-related diseases is increasing rapidly in the contaminated areas. Of these patients approximately five hundred have been sent to Israel, Cuba, India, and the Netherlands as adequate treatment is unavailable in the Soviet Union. The helicopter pilot who flew over the accident site at Chernobyl was given a bone marrow transplant at a Seattle hospital on April 27, 1990, in an attempt to halt the progress of leukemia. He died on July 3 the same year. Due to the fragmented nature of information coming out of the Soviet Union, even four years after the disaster little is known about the present health of those exposed to radiation.

The Kiev center has registered 600,000 people and is carrying out medical examinations and treatment along the lines of similar programs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the practical details of this operation and the results obtained have so far not been made public. Soviet scientists and physicians who travel overseas are only able to give information about their own hospitals or regions, and even then the accuracy of their data is often questionable.

From the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was established that radiation-related illnesses such as cancer, leukemia, and thyroid conditions begin to appear in significant numbers from between three and five years after exposure. Chernobyl and the surrounding areas have now entered this phase, and a shortage of medical equipment combined with the growing mistrust of the government among the Soviet people is certain to make the situation even worse than it is now.