On Wednesday, April 26, 2006, at 08:14 AM, Phil Gasper wrote:
> Hell on Earth
> Chernobyl was the world's worst environmental disaster. Twenty years
> on, John Vidal reports on the clean-up, the false medical records, the
> communities that refused to leave and the continuing cost to people
> and planet
> John Vidal
> Wednesday April 26, 2006
> Twenty years ago today, Konstantin Tatuyan, a Ukrainian radio
> engineer, was horrified when Reactor No 4 at Chernobyl nuclear power
> complex exploded, caught fire, and for the next 10 days spewed the
> equivalent of 400 Hiroshima bombs' worth of radioactivity across
> 150,000 sq miles of Europe and beyond. He was just married, and he and
> his young family lived in the town of Chernobyl, just a few miles from
> the reactor.
> Like 120,000 people, the family was evacuated, but Tatuyan volunteered
> to become a "liquidator", to help with the clean up, believing that
> his knowledge of radiation could save not just him but many of the
> 200,000 young soldiers and others who were rushed in from all over the
> Soviet Union. "We felt we had to do it," he says. "Who else, if not
> us, would do it?"
> Tatuyan spent the next seven years in charge of 5,000 mostly young
> army reservists - drafted in from Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Chechnya,
> Kazakhstan and elsewhere in what was the Soviet Union - working 22
> days on, eight days off, digging great holes, demolishing villages,
> dumping high-level waste, monitoring hot spots, testing the water,
> cleaning railway lines and roads, decontaminating ground and
> travelling throughout some of the most radioactive regions of Ukraine,
> Belarus and southern Russia.
> He survived the worst environment disaster in history, he says,
> because he knew the danger and could monitor the radioactivity that
> varied from yard to yard and from village to village depending on
> where the plume descended to ground level, and on where the deadly
> bits of graphite from the core of the reactor were carried by the > wind.
> He took precautions but he also kept meticulous - albeit illegal -
> records of his own accumulating exposure. Every year the authorities
> told him he was "fit for duty", and when he left Chernobyl they gave
> him a letter saying he had received just under the safe lifetime dose
> of radiation. He knew he had received more than five times that > amount.
> What he saw in those years, he says, appalled him: young men dying for
> want of the simplest information about exposure to radiation; the
> wide-scale falsification of medical histories by the Soviet army and
> the disappearance of people's records so the state would not have to
> compensate them; the wholesale looting of evacuated houses and
> abandoned churches; the haste and carelessness with which the concrete
> "sarcophagus" was erected over the stricken reactor; and, above all,
> the horror of seeing land almost twice the size of Britain
> contaminated, with thousands of villages made uninhabitable.
> It was sometimes surreal, he says. He had people beg him to leave
> their homes or villages contaminated because that would guarantee them
> a pension; he recalls how several carriages of radioactive animal
> carcasses travelled for five years around the Soviet Union being
> rejected by every state, returning to Chernobyl to be buried - train
> and all. He helped fill a 4 sq mile dump with radioactive lorries,
> cement mixers, trains and helicopters. He knows where the Chernobyl
> bodies are buried, he says, because he was the grave digger. "We made
> up the response as we went along," he says. "It was hell."
> Tatuyan has now retired, an invalid. He says he surely saved many
> lives and made great parts of the Ukraine semi-habitable, but the
> price is a heart condition, an enlarged thyroid, diabetes, pains in
> the right side of his body, breathing difficulties and headaches. But
> he is optimistic and, like several million people across Ukraine,
> Belarus and southern Russia, says he now looks at his life in terms of
> the time before and after Chernobyl. Most of his team of liquidators
> are dead; the rest, like him, are ill.
> Tatuyan is now 56, and his children and country are proud of him. For
> him, the effect of the radiation on the environment was shocking. "The
> first thing we noticed was that many miles of trees in the forest
> turned red," he says. "They had to be cut down and buried. All the
> animals left. The birds did not come back for four years. It was
> strange not hearing them.
> "In the winter of 1986/87, there was an infestation of mice because
> the crops had not been harvested. So the population of foxes
> increased. Most of them had rabies, and hunters were called to come
> and kill them. The wild pigs came back first. Then the wolves. Because
> people were evacuated, thinking they would be gone for only a few
> days, they left their dogs. But the dogs then crossed with the wolves
> and were not afraid of humans. It was very dangerous."
> Today, the forest is moving in on the modernistic town of Pripyat,
> built for the reactor workers just a few miles from the plant.
> According to ecologists, weathering, decay and the migration of
> radionuclides down the soil have already led to a significant
> reduction of the contamination of plants and animals. Some scientists
> are upbeat. Biodiversity, says the Institute of Ecology in the
> Ukraine, has increased due to the removal of human influence. Moose,
> wild boar, roe and red deer, beavers, wolves, badgers, otters and lynx
> have all been reported in the area, and species associated with humans
> - rats, house mice, sparrows and pigeons - have all declined. Indeed,
> of 270 species of birds in the area, 180 are breeding.
> But it is not as simple as that. Other scientists report mammals
> experiencing heavy doses from internally deposited Caesium-137 and
> Strontium-90 radioactive fallout. One study has found mutations in 18
> generations of birds; another that radioactivity levels in trees are
> still rising. Contamination has been found migrating into underground
> Levels of Caesium-137 are expected to remain high all over Europe for
> decades, says the United Nations. In parts of Germany, Austria, Italy,
> Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and Poland, levels in wild game, mushrooms,
> berries and fish from some lakes are well over a safe dose, as they
> are in all the most affected regions of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
> In Britain, there are still restrictions on milk on 375 hill farms,
> mainly in Snowdonia and the Lake District. Meanwhile, tens of
> thousands of square miles of agricultural land still cannot be used
> for farming until the soil has been remediated.
> Humans have fared badly. In the past few weeks four major scientific
> reports have challenged the World Health Organisation (WHO), which
> believes that only 50 people have died and 9,000 may over the coming
> years. The reports widely accuse WHO of ignoring the evidence and
> dismissing illnesses that many doctors in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus
> say are worsening, especially in children of liquidators.
> The charge is led by the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, which
> last week declared that 212,000 people have now died as a direct
> consequence of Chernobyl. Meanwhile, a major report commissioned by
> Greenpeace considers the evidence of 52 scientists and estimates the
> deaths and illnesses to be 93,000 terminal cancers already and perhaps
> 100,000 deaths in time. A further report for European parliamentarians
> suggested 60,000 deaths. In truth no one knows.
> More than 500km from Chernobyl, the peasant farmers of the village of
> Boudimca, one of the most affected in Ukraine, refuse to leave,
> despite the fact that many of their children are suffering from acute
> radiation diseases. Every child in Boudimca has a thyroid problem -
> known as the "Chernobyl necklace". The villagers are attached to the
> land. "We would prefer to die in our own land rather than go somewhere
> else and not survive," says Valentina Molchanovich, one of whose
> daughters is in hospital in Vilne with radiation sickness. "We
> understand the paradox, but we prefer to stay."
> Though they live simple lives - each family has a cow, ducks and a few
> chickens - they suffer all the ailments of stressed out western
> executives: high blood pressure, headaches, diabetes and respiratory
> problems. They know that the berries and the mushrooms they have
> always lived on are contaminated. "We are just so used to living
> here," says Molchanovich. "My parents lived here. We build our houses
> together. We are a very tight community."
> But others are, literally, dying to leave the village. Mikola
> Molchanovich, a distant relation, is the father of Sasha, a 12-
> year-old girl who this month was also being treated for constant
> stomach aches in a children's hospital in Rivne. He says: "My wife is
> in hospital giving birth, my son is in another hospital being treated
> for radiation sickness. My sister has 30,000 becquerels [units of
> radioactivity] in her body. Some people have 80,000, or more.
> "This is our community; my parents lived and died here. We used to be
> able to collect 100kg of mushrooms a day - the whole village would
> collect them. Some of our cows have leukaemia. The people who moved
> away from the village are healthier and better. I would go if I had
> the chance. But I am trapped. I cannot sell my house because it is
> contaminated. People are becoming weaker. We cannot feel it, we cannot
> see it, yet we are not afraid of it.
> Situation worsening
> "Everyone who helped on the clean up is now ill," says Tatiana, a
> senior doctor at the Dispensary for Radiological Protection at Rivne.
> "The situation is worsening. In 1985, we had four lymph cancers a
> year. Now we have seven times that many. We have between five and
> eight people a year with rare bone cancers, when we never had any. We
> expect more cancers, and ill health. One in three pregnancies here are
> malformed. We are overwhelmed."
> A doctor in the local region's children's hospital says: "The children
> born to the people who cleaned up Chernobyl are dying very young. We
> are finding Caesium and Strontium in breast milk and the placenta.
> More children now have leukaemias, and there has been a quadrupling of
> spina bifida cases. There are more clusters of cancers. Children are
> being born with stunted growth and dwarf torsos, without thighs. I
> would expect more of this over the years."
> Tatuyan is now an environmentalist, convinced that nuclear power is no
> answer. "I go to the forest with friends to care for the deer," he
> says. Tonight, he and the other liquidators will meet and celebrate
> the 20 years. "When we meet we make the same toast. We say: 'Let's
> meet again alive.'"