April 26, 1996 in Nation/World

Malignant Legacy Chernobyl Disaster Still Spreading Fear Across Generations

Neely Tucker Detroit Free Press
 

The sarcophagus is painted black now, disguising the cracks in the 24-story concrete tomb that holds the destroyed nuclear reactor and 10 tons of radioactive dust and fuel.

Downwind of the Chernobyl nuclear power station - 10 years after an explosion blew the No. 4 reactor to pieces at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986 - Geiger counters still go screeching into the red.

“The sarcophagus isn’t airtight,” said David Kyd, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

That scares the hell out of the 70 million people of Ukraine, Belarus and the western fringe of Russia who live in or near areas affected by the radioactive fallout from the world’s worst nuclear accident.

The Chernobyl explosion sent more than 180 tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere, exposed 5 million people to radiation and spread traces over the entire Northern Hemisphere.

In the past decade Chernobyl has been turned into the world’s foremost symbol of technological disaster.

The blast - and the Soviet Union’s attempt to cover it up - changed the world’s view of nuclear energy, helped topple a superpower, caused 300,000 people to flee their homes forever and left a malignant scar over 10,000 square miles of land.

Estimates of the number of dead range from the atomic energy agency’s 45 to the 150,000 quoted by a group of former plant workers known as the Chernobyl Union.

Because of Soviet-era misinformation and the chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991, exact numbers will never be known.

But more than 70 interviews with a range of nuclear experts, doctors, scientists, former Chernobyl workers, hospital patients, farmers and business people, along with a survey of thousands of pages of documents, shows something concrete: The legacy of Chernobyl is fear, illness, a low-level mass hysteria and depression.

In terms of political significance and economic dislocation, its impact ranks with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

More than 800 children have contracted thyroid cancer since the accident, a rate 200 times higher than normal, and radiation experts say about 5,000 more will develop it.

Cases of leukemia, a far more deadly blood disease, are expected to explode in number. Radiation experts estimate that at least 5,000 people will die from some form of Chernobyl-induced cancer. Today, more than 48,000 people in Ukraine alone are considered invalids from the accident, too sick to work. They live on pensions of $50 to $90 per month.

People residing within hundreds of miles of the Chernobyl plant have seen their communities destroyed, their farmland ruined, their cities spiraling downward into a black hole of poverty and neglect. For them, the black sarcophagus is a monolith that holds sway over their lives. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people are convinced they, and their children, absorbed deadly radiation in those last days of April 1986, and no matter what they do, some insidious form of cancer will soon kill them.

“The more years pass, the more people fear Chernobyl,” said Yuri Saenko, a Kiev sociologist at the National Academy of Sciences. “Joseph Stalin killed hundreds of thousands or even millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s, but people today think Chernobyl is worse than Stalin.”

Problems had arisen before at the V.I. Lenin Power Station, Chernobyl’s Soviet-era name, but no one paid them much mind. The plant had begun producing energy in 1978 and was quickly named by the government as one of the best and most efficient in the Soviet Union.

When reactor No. 4 came on line in April 1984, the plant was on its way to becoming the largest nuclear reactor complex in the world. More than 6,000 people worked there. The Soviets built the model city of Pripyat within sight of the plant as home to 49,000 people, mostly plant workers, their families and support personnel.

Chernobyl was an example of Soviet scientific expertise, Soviet-designed living, the Soviet model of an industrial society. Doubt was heresy.

But the reactors were disasters waiting to happen. They never could have been opened under the safety standards of the United States and Western Europe.

Most Western reactors use water to moderate the amount of atomsplitting within the reactor. When the water flow is increased, nuclear activity speeds up. When water decreases, nuclear activity slows.

But the Soviet-designed reactors use graphite as a moderator. The graphite surrounds vertical tubes that hold the nuclear fuel and water that will be boiled into steam.

The designers apparently did not realize that when the amount of water in the reactor is dramatically decreased, the graphite control rods have virtually no impact on the nuclear activity. Worse, unlike Western nuclear power stations, the Soviets, either through arrogance or neglect, did not encase their reactors in massive concrete and steel containment domes to minimize any radiation spills.

Just after 1 a.m. on Saturday, April 26, 1986, engineers began testing emergency systems in the No. 4 reactor. They cut the power to the reactor by 75 percent. There was no water to slow the nuclear activity inside the reactor core.

The explosion blew open the reactor and the 1,000-ton cover. Fire raged out of control. Radioactive gas flew into the atmosphere. Radioactive fuel began leaking.

The blast woke people in Pripyat. Some went onto their roofs to watch the fire. Workers and firefighters rushed to the plant.

No one told them that lethal doses of radiation were spewing into the air.

“We were told there was an explosion at the plant, and it was a great patriotic deed to help put out the fire,” said Vladimir Khrebtovich, then a Russian army officer and now a chronic bronchitis patient. “Morale was very high. Everyone wanted to go.”

Thirty-one people were killed in the cleanup, nearly all of them firefighters felled by acute radiation sickness.

It took 48 hours - long after tons of radioactive iodine had soaked the surrounding area - before Soviet officials evacuated Pripyat. They said it was a temporary measure. On the Saturday of the explosion, with radioactive debris spewing from the damaged plant, 19 weddings - most of them outdoor affairs - took place. Government officials permitted youth soccer league games to be played as if nothing had happened.

After Pripyat was emptied, they drew a circle 18 miles around the plant and evacuated all 85,000 people.

Only two weeks later and under enormous pressure from governments demanding more information, did Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledge there had been an explosion, but he greatly downplayed its severity.

The seeds of fear and distrust were sown. Today they are coming to harvest.

Radiation sickness, like fear, ripples outward, like circles from a rock dropped in a pond. You might say 12-year-old Konstantine Parshukov is at the center of that circle.

He is a thyroid cancer patient, one of more than 800 to be detected since the explosion. This rarely fatal form of cancer, which causes enlargement of the thyroid gland, is so far the most visible form of Chernobyl-generated disease.

“I feel OK, just a little scared,” he said, fingering the gauze bandage on his neck. He was operated on two days earlier. “I want to go home and play basketball.”

No one questions that the radioactive iodine released in the Chernobyl explosion has caused the 200 percent jump in pediatric thyroid cancer cases in northern Ukraine and southern Belarus in recent years.

Further, of the 200,000 people who were cleanup workers in the two years following the accident, about 20,000 received about 30 percent more radiation than most people absorb in a lifetime, the atomic energy agency estimates. Perhaps 10,000 others received more than three times the lifetime dosage. And several dozen received doses that could kill in a few years.

But there the certainty ends. Although scientists at a worldwide Chernobyl symposium held in Vienna, Austria last week greatly downplayed the danger of Chernobyl radiation, almost every hospital patient in Ukraine, doctors say, attributes his or her illness to Chernobyl fallout. The phenomenon is especially severe among those who worked on the cleanup.

Somebody who loaded sand in a truck to be taken to the reactor during the fire comes down with bronchitis 10 years later and - voila! - a Chernobyl illness.

The phobia has a pragmatic underside. The pension for a retired worker in impoverished Ukraine is the equivalent of about $50 per month. For Chernobyl victims, it’s about $90.

But the doubt is worse for children with serious diseases. Consider Zhenya Kononenko. The 10-year-old with the beguiling smile lives in southern Ukraine. In January, she was diagnosed with leukemia - the most feared fallout disease.

The problem is that southern Ukraine got little, if any, radiation.

“Leukemia in Ukraine is up about 20 percent in the past few years, but most of it comes from southern Ukraine, where there was little radiation,” said Evgeni Lifschitz, Zhenya’s doctor. “It’s likely due to industrial pollution. But we can’t be sure, and you certainly can’t convince the parents of that.”

Zhenya’s mother, Irene, is torn by doubt.

“I don’t know if she’s sick because of Chernobyl or not,” she said. “Zhenya was perfectly healthy until this year, when she got pale, weak and sickly. They say this is when leukemia from the accident starts taking effect. All I know for sure is my baby has leukemia and she might very well die of it.”

Across Ukraine and Belarus, previously healthy adults who enjoyed the heavily subsidized living costs of Soviet days see children like Zhenya and worry.

Health and hygiene standards are dropping dramatically, but how much is due to Chernobyl?

Radiation is invisible. It carries no scent, no smell, no taste. Further, Ukraine is no longer part of a world superpower, but is a somewhat backward nation with severe pollution and sanitation problems, beset by a crumbling economy. The average wage is just less than that of South Africa. It is a European nation on the edge of Third World status.

The death rate has increased from 12.1 per 1,000 residents in 1985 to 13.4 in 1995 - a 10 percent jump. The birthrate has dropped from 15 per 1,000 residents to 11.4 during the same time. The overburdened health care system owes doctors and nurses the equivalent of $70 million - and this on an average salary of about $80 per month. Patients must bring their own medicine. Doctors often don’t show up for work because they haven’t been paid. Cholera, dysentery and anthrax have broken out in recent months.

It adds up to a national neurosis - with Chernobyl the scapegoat.

Saenko, the Kiev sociologist, and colleagues from Western countries have detected an interesting phenomenon: People are so scared of Chernobyl-related fallout they are literally making themselves sick.

In one study, 45 percent of those who lived in irradiated areas considered themselves to be suffering from a radiation-triggered illness. Thirty percent of people who lived in absolutely clean areas nearby also considered themselves sick because of Chernobyl.

The massive numbers of headaches, stomach ulcers, fatigue cases, excessive smoking and other illnesses that plague the region are caused by stress, not radiation, said Terence Lee, a British psychologist who has studied the region for years.

In Hospital 27, the overburdened 260-bed clinic in Kiev reserved for those who worked on the cleanup - a kind of Chernobyl veterans’ hospital - deputy director Valentina Lastovenko struggles to get by on government funding that supplies 30 percent of what she says the hospital needs. “It’s likely we’re giving patients irradiated food and irradiated water,” she sighed. “We can’t track where these things come from. We don’t have the money to buy it somewhere else. Some days it is difficult to feed everyone.”

In a small apartment in Kiev, 80 miles south of Chernobyl, where thousands of plant workers were relocated and given grimy apartments as compensation, the fear lingers, as real and deadly as cigarette smoke.

“Chernobyl has ruined my health and shortened my life,” said Valentina Zastavnaya, 59, a former Chernobyl worker who had to retire seven years ago because of the headaches, dizziness, disorientation and nervous system disorders that have cursed her since the accident.

“In the end, Chernobyl will kill me. The question is when will I die.”

3 Graphics: 1. Menace of Chernobyl present 2. Nuclear incidents 3. Chernobyl’s radiation damage


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