Chernobyl: Fact and Legacy
April 26 this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, when tests at the power plant there went calamitously wrong.
Then in the Soviet Union and now in Ukraine, the consequences for Belarus have been disastrous. The accident occurred a generation ago, yet it continues to blight lives today. Future generations will find little respite.
The facts: a night of horrors
In the early hours of 26 April 1986, safety tests to the fourth reactor at the nuclear power plant adjacent to the city of Pripyat (population 43,000) caused a power surge. A steam explosion ensued leading to a fire, a further series of explosions and then nuclear meltdown. The core of the reactor was totally destroyed and the roof blown into the sky.
Chillingly, survivors who watched from apartment balconies in Pripyat itself, just two kilometres away, reported that the deadly pall billowing from the roofless reactor actively glowed. Yet none of the onlookers had any idea of the mortal danger they were in from this spectacular pyrotechnical display.
The state’s response: ‘What explosion?’
In the immediate aftermath the State responded by saying and doing very little. The concerns of the international community were met with silence and denial.
Other than the commencement of evacuation from the immediate area, little was done in terms of measures to address the effects of radiation on the general public, who received no information about what had happened.
The authorities had little idea of what they were dealing with. A massive clean-up campaign subsequently began, largely involving the sluicing-down of buildings and other structures. But the major consequence of this was to wash the radiation down into the ground, increasing the level of contamination.
The impact: questions without answers
Land covering approximately 20% of the territory of Belarus (most of it in the south-east) continues to be affected by radioactive fallout. Thirty years on, accessing reliable information as to the impact of this in terms of hard statistics continues to offer something of a challenge.
Statistics can always be selectively presented to ‘prove’ a particular point, and perhaps it comes as no surprise that conclusions in high profile reports published by the energy and green lobbies differ extravagantly.
One side of the debate claims that only 28 people died from acute radiation exposure. The opposite side attributes thousands of deaths to the explosion, with many thousands more apparently identified as suffering from carcinoma and related conditions.
Visits to ‘hot spot’ areas where rain dumped larger doses of radioactivity are only permitted with the prior approval of the authorities, and then only when accompanied by officials. Here, signage displaying the international warning logo is everywhere to be seen, though the extent to which the authorities continue to control access is subject to question.
Whole villages stand abandoned to the elements. Once a year the bereaved are permitted to visit cemeteries to honour the dead, on the occasion of Radaunica (Ancestors Remembrance Day), a public holiday that falls on the ninth day after Orthodox Easter.
Over time, a number of people (particularly the elderly) have returned to homes that are still capable of habitation. No reliable studies exist as to numbers or the extent to which risk to health remains.
The impact: indisputable fact
Some issues are beyond ambiguity, not least the stark reality of fallout 400 times greater than generated by the bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945, and 16 million times greater than the accidental release at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1978.
Around 135,000 people were forcibly moved from the immediate area. The town of Pripyat itself stands as an abandoned wasteland, crumbling, frozen in time and left to the mercies of the elements. Wildlife rules events here.
As the scale of the catastrophe began to emerge, the circle of evacuation widened. The State moved many hundreds of thousands more from their homes in towns and villages further afield (including my own adoptive family living 236 kilometres away in Vetka).
Between 300,000 and 600,000 people were engaged in the decontamination of the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the plant (known as ‘liquidators’).
In the years that followed the explosion, instances of thyroid cancer rose dramatically amongst those living in the area or under the path of the radiation cloud, particularly children and teenagers.
Over 500,000 people in Belarus alone present thyroid problems to this day resulting from absorption of radioactive iodine into the thyroid gland. In my own circle of acquaintance in Belarus, I personally know more than a dozen people so affected. Yet swiftly administered doses of non-radioactive iodine on the part of the authorities would have significantly reduced the absorption of this radioactive isotope.
Today, almost two million people continue to inhabit areas within Belarus that remain subject to radioactive contamination, largely from caesium-137. When this and other noxious elements fell on the ground and into the watercourses they entered the food chain, perpetuated still by the circle of life.
Caesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years. So on this thirtieth anniversary of the disaster, the concentration of contamination from this isotope has reduced by just 50%. It will be another 30 years and another generation before it halves again.
Outside the Church of St Simeon and St Helena in Minsk (the iconic ‘Red Church’) stands the poignant Nagasaki Memorial Bell erected in September 2000, a powerful symbol uniting two communities ravaged by the elemental power of nuclear energy gone wrong.
On the day of the anniversary itself I shall be in Vetka for the annual service at the memorial stone and adjacent church bell, deliberately and symbolically cracked when cast, fatally flawed forever.
The pain remains visceral, though acts of remembrance extend beyond commemoration of loss into areas of practicality.
In the whole of Belarus, Homiel region suffered the worst contamination of all. To assist with the mitigation of the explosion’s consequences, the State established the Paliessie Radiation and Ecology Reserve in the region to study the effects of exposure to radioactive material and to develop long-term contingency planning.
As for the stricken reactor itself, the concrete sarcophagus erected in 1986 has exhibited cracks for many years, in all probability causing more radioactive material to leach into the surrounding ground and the waters of the River Prypiać, one of the largest expanses of free-flowing water in this part of Europe.
The international community has come together to design a more sophisticated tomb on a massive scale, this time made of steel. Still under construction adjacent to the reactor, the new arch will be painstakingly wheeled into place some time in 2017 and the ends sealed.
The legacy: never again?
Until Japan’s own nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011, the environment affected by Chernobyl was like no other on earth, affording a unique opportunity to study one of the most significant issues facing the future of the planet.
The fact that Fukushima happened at all suggests that by 2011, the lessons of Chernobyl had still not been heeded. Even today, questions about nuclear safety continue to arise.
The government of Belarus has commissioned a new power plant close to the border with the European Union, just 50 kilometres from Vilnius. ‘Unsafe,’ cries Lithuania. Belarusian submissions of observance of the strictest international standards are met with counter-allegations that international requirements are not being met.
While the debate rages, Chernobyl radioactive isotopes with half-lives of tens of years remain present in the land and waters of Belarus, and symbolically within the national psyche of its people.
Thirty years have now passed and the insidious consequences of the calamity show little sign of abating. In 2016, there remains significant ‘fallout’ still.
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.
Belarus between EU and EEU, New Opposition Strategy – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
Over the past month analysts discussed continuing rapprochement of Belarus with the West and potential Russia’s responses to it. Meanwhile, influenced by Russian propaganda, Belarusians favour Eurasian integration over European, although official Minsk finds its result unsatisfactory.
Belarusian opposition changes its strategy in relations with the authorities and plans to push them to negotiations with backing of mass street pressure. However, a Ukrainian sociologist predicts that democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years and conditions for a Maidan do not exist there. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.
Belarus in the EAEC: a Year Later (Disappointing Results and Doubtful Prospects) – This report was presented in Minsk on March 22, by the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The report is devoted to the analysis of the first year of existence of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) for Belarus. Among the key findings is that Minsk had great expectations from this association, but now finds it unsatisfactory.
Europe’s Last Dictator Comes in From the Cold – Artyom Shraibman, for Carnegie Moscow Center, notices that Lukashenka’s fortunes have changed. Once known as “Europe’s last dictator,” he has won friends in Europe, while antagonizing his traditional ally, Russia. It’s a situation that has left the Kremlin in a difficult position: should it punish Belarus for its pro-Western tendencies? Or should it continue to prop up the Belarusian economy rather than risk further unrest in the region?
Belarus-Ukraine Relations Beyond Media Headlines – Yauheni Preiherman, in Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that media narratives often distort the reality of Belarus-Ukraine relations. Some observers explain this by the absence of a “strategic vision for a long-term relationship”. The author sees this a typical feature of inter-state relations in the post-Soviet space, where politics is mainly about tactics, and fighting protectionist trade wars is part of the political culture.
Belarusian Opposition Comes Up With New Strategy: Negotiations With Authorities Due to Protest Pressure – Politicians and leaders of the mass protests discuss the lessons of "The Square-2006". The new strategy is likely to depart from the revolutionary approach to power change and focus on evolutionary approach, by changing relations between the authorities and the opposition through negotiations, backed by mass street pressure.
Ukrainian Sociologist: Maidan will not be in Minsk – Democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years. This will happen only when society is ready for this. Artificial imposition of liberal values does not work, as well as there are no political or social preconditions for Maidan of the Kyiv scenario in Minsk, according to Ukrainian sociologist, Professor Eduard Afonin.
Public opinion polls
Majority of Belarusians want to keep death penalty. According to the March national poll conducted by IISEPS, 51.5% of Belarusians do not agree with the idea to abolish the death penalty; opposite opinion is shared by 36.4%. Women are less in favor of abolition of the death penalty than men – respectively 55.3% and 46.9%. Belarus is the only country in Europe and on the post-soviet space, which still applies the death penalty.
Belarus Between EU and EEU. Nation-Wide Poll – The ODB Brussels commissioned a survey about perceptions, preferences, and values Belarusians attribute to the European Union (EU) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to the study, Belarusians have a high-level understanding and appreciation of the EU, a clear opinion that the EU and EEU are competitors while public reasoning is currently swayed in favor of economic cooperation with the EEU.
Peculiarities of Public Opinion in Belarus – Grigory Ioffe overviews the key results of a fresh national poll by IISEPS and an alarming reaction of official sociologists to the results, namely, the decline in Alexander Lukashenka’s electoral rating. Siarhei Nikalyuk, an associate of IISEPS, suggests that independent sociologists who are de facto allowed to work in Belarus are playing the role that jesters did in medieval Europe. After all, only a jester was allowed to speak the truth to the monarch, who actually appreciated that.
Advocacy Sector in Belarus: CSO Experience – The study analyses the actual practices of advocacy in Belarus for the recent five years. The researchers see the key factor of success/failure of any campaign in its capacity for politicisation, i.e. whether authorities perceive a campaign political or not. The study was commissioned by OEEC in a series of sectoral studies aimed at summarising data on the development of specific sectors of civil society in Belarus. The presentation was held on March 24.
How to Make Minsk a Cycling City? – Pavel Harbunou, the Minsk Bicycle Society, shares the results of an annual monitoring on bicycle traffic on the Minsk streets, which shows that the number of cyclists has increased significantly in the city. The activists tells what can be done to make Minsk comfortable for all road users. Namely, the Bicycle Society launches a new campaign Street Bike Supervisor aimed to provide a regular feedback on the conditions of Minsk streets.
Ghetto for Each. Why Minsk Art Spaces Live Separately From Each Other – Belarusian Journal online describes the existing art spaces in Minsk, both mainstream and alternative. While a growing number of cultural spaces is a positive sign, it is too early to talk about the impact of these spaces for culture in general. It is more a question of the formation of separate subcultural groups, the original "ghetto" that arise, rather against the wishes of the state.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.