Chernobyl: the problems won't go away


By Irina Glushchenko

MOSCOW — "I'm standing before a sign: Construction Administration of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The name of this modest little town is to be transferred to one of the giants of nuclear power generation ... The fittings for the reactor chamber are now being installed, and the electrical transmission lines are being strung out. In the settlement, a dry cleaning establishment and laundry have been opened, gardens and lawns are being laid out, and sporting and leisure facilities are being readied. The builders are setting a high standard, working conscientiously with an eye to the future."

That was Literaturnaya Gazeta in October 1973. Thirteen years later the name "Chernobyl" did, indeed, become known around the world.

Chernobyl turned out to be the beginning of the end for the Soviet epoch, demonstrating the problems the system was encountering with modern technology. The worst nuclear disaster ever, and the first to occur in a heavily populated region, the Chernobyl catastrophe proved just how dangerous nuclear power really is. Evidence is still emerging to show that the problems are not only unsolved, but are continuing to accumulate.

The disaster was caused not only by technical failures, but also by the inefficiency, bureaucratism and irresponsibility of the Soviet system. Subsequent experience in Russia and the Ukraine shows that, under the new order, things have not improved.

The Russian State Chernobyl Committee was founded in September 1990 to work at the state level to overcome the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. But instead of trying to deal with the material and human fallout from the catastrophe, the committee's president and staff used state funds to set up a range of commercial structures.

Millions of roubles in budget allocations,

humanitarian aid and charitable contributions were spent in uncontrolled fashion. The Chernobyl tragedy became not just a feeding trough for indolent bureaucrats, but also a gold mine for corrupt functionaries and for the "new business" entrepreneurs linked to them. Scandals followed one after another. One of the more notorious concerned the "children of Chernobyl"; in this scandal, the children of fund administrators were sent for holidays abroad.

Chernobyl also became a battlefield in the propaganda war between Kiev and Moscow. Although both sides condemned the "communist past", the statements from Kiev did not neglect to note that the cause of the tragedy was Moscow's "colonial policy" with regard to the Ukraine. The Russian media in turn recalled that many of the decisions leading to the disaster (for example, bringing the fourth reactor block into operation in time for the May Day holiday) were taken in Kiev. To this day, some of the people responsible for these decisions hold important posts in the independent Ukrainian Republic.

The Russian authorities are trying to calm public opinion by arguing that the worst is behind and that the problems are solving themselves. The State Chernobyl Committee recently published a "Concept" in which it contends that there is no direct link between soil contamination and the radiation dose received by the population. The authors of this document argue that "a rapid process of natural self-cleansing" has been taking place. "Even in regions of Bryansk province with high levels of primary contamination", the document states, "the reliably measured doses are now relatively small, and are diminishing rapidly."

This is highly questionable. In one of the villages, instruments showed a radiation level of 1130 microroentgens per hour — 100 times the natural background radiation.

During April, Fedor Gosporyan, the chairperson of the Subcommittee on Radiation Dangers of the Russian parliament's Committee on the Environment, published an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. In Gosporyan's view, the State Chernobyl Committee hopes

to declare free of radiation a huge zone in which the soil has caesium-137 contamination levels of between 1 and 5 curies. The residents would thus be deprived of benefits, and the committee's work would be substantially reduced. "In practice", Gosporyan stated, "this means only one thing — an attempt to rob the victims of Chernobyl of the few crumbs they have been promised".

More than 2.5 million people live in the areas of Russia affected by the disaster. "They are there to this day", an article published in Izvestia during April observes. "And not only grandparents, but also young people ... Has anything changed in the thinking of our bureaucrats, if the local shops are mostly empty, if medicines are unavailable and if radiation dosage meters and batteries for them aren't distributed?"

Despite the obvious danger, many Byelorussian families have remained with their children in zones from which they are supposed to have been compulsorily resettled. In Mogilev province there are approximately 2500 such people.

According to an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta in April, the expected increase in genetic anomalies in the first generation of people affected by the Chernobyl disaster is from 1200 to 8300 cases for all the countries contaminated, and from 480 to 3300 cases in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

However, the risks from small doses of radiation may have been seriously underestimated. More and more evidence is emerging that low radiation doses have a so-called supralinear effect. The increase in genetic anomalies and cancer cases resulting from low exposure appears to be much greater that the figures that are suggested if one simply extrapolates back from the effects of large doses.

"The use of a linear model leads to an underestimate of the effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe", Nezavisimaya Gazeta continues. "An analysis of the materials ... shows that according to several indices of genetic changes (the levels of chromosomal aberration, congenital abnormalities) for the most heavily contaminated

regions in 1987-1991, there is a real rise above the levels observed before the accident."

Despite this, it is being argued more and more often that small doses are not so dangerous. Some people are describing them as "a new factor in the selection process". Others profess not to see any danger in them for people's immune systems, while still others go so far as to argue that "low levels of radiation have a homoeopathic effect on organisms".

The health of the population in the regions contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster is steadily deteriorating. A particularly alarming sign is the increase in the rate of thyroid gland cancer among children. Since the accident this rate has increased by seven times in Belarus as a whole and by 22 times in Gomel province. The rate of thyroid gland cancer among children in Belarus during the years from 1976 to 1980 was 0.04 cases per 100,000 individuals. Between 1986 and 1990 this rate was 0.4 for all of Belarus, 0.9 in Gomel province and 1.0 in Mogilev province.

What is now happening in Chernobyl, and what is the condition of the fourth reactor block, in which the accident occurred? A study by German experts has shown that the sarcophagus is beginning to deteriorate, and that its lid is not tightly sealed.

The situation elsewhere in the plant is scarcely more encouraging. "Almost none of the requirements of fire safety have been fully observed", Izvestia reported in May. "Instead of an all-metal barrier against fire, there is an ordinary wall with a glass door. No plan has been worked out for immediate action in the event of a fire, electrical cables are inadequately shielded, and the fire brigade is inadequately briefed and trained."

The German experts conclude that the Chernobyl plant ought to be temporarily shut down. But the Ukraine is not about to do this, since it sells electricity to Austria for hard currency.

The new authorities inherited terrible problems from the old regime, but with their inefficiency and

neglect, they have deepened these problems still further. If the Chernobyl explosion became a symbol of the collapse of Communism, what is symbolised by the inability of the new authorities to put the situation right?