Deutsche Welle, April 7, 2011
|April 26, 2011 marks the 25th year|
since the accident at Chernobyl
Parallels are invariably drawn between the Fukushima nuclear crisis and the 1986 meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The situations are different, but Chernobyl gives insight into the realities of a nuclear 'exclusion zone.'
Although the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986 in the Ukraine, 70 percent of its fallout landed in neighboring Belarus. Twenty-five years later, the consequences there are obvious: 7,000 square kilometers (4,300 square miles) are an exclusion zone where radioactive contamination is too high for humans to live, and surrounding areas suffer from increased cancer rates.
The main road passing through the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Gomel region of southeastern Belarus is open for transit between Russia and the Ukraine. But to the left and right of it, abandoned and decaying houses and farms can be seen. Warning signs posted between trees read: "Radioactive danger. No trespassing."
It's not permitted to stay in the zone for long. In just a couple of weeks, one would be exposed to the maximal radiation dose allowed for an entire year.
A few hard-liners
|Despite being evacuated, some|
residents of the exclusion zone
Wind and rain brought radioactive fallout to Yelena Muzhichenko's wooden, yellow house when Chernobyl's Reactor 4 exploded. Today, she still lives there.
"It was a mistake to chase the people away," she told Deutsche Welle, while feeding her ducks. "They destroyed everything: The collective farms, the factories... everything."
Muzhichenko, her husband and their adult son were among the 135,000 people in Belarus forced to leave their homes two years after the catastrophe. From their village of Bartholomevka, they were resettled in community housing in the city of Gomel.
They didn’t like it, and decided to return home.
"They told us that we had to leave and chased us away," Muzhichenko said. "When we were back they told us to leave again. But I said: 'I will never leave my home.' For my part, I eat what I grow in the garden, and the mushrooms I collect in the forest."
Police patrols guarding the area now tolerate the old woman and the couple of neighbors living in the houses next door. None have electricity or running water.
The city of Gomel is located some 40 kilometers south of the exclusion zone, and 100 kilometers away from Chernobyl. It has half a million inhabitants, making it the second-largest Belarusian city after Minsk.
Squarely in the middle of the town is its thyroid center, where more than 160,000 patients have been treated thus far. The region's population was racked by cases of thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl catastrophe, says Maria Tulupova, the center's head physician.
|Thyroid cancer cases for children|
in Gomel multiplied after Chernobyl
"The groups that were mainly at risk include those who at the time of the accident were either inside the womb, or younger than 16 years old," she told Deutsche Welle. "The thyroids of those patients absorbed more of the radioactive iodine that had contaminated the atmosphere and the food."
The German Otto-Hug Institute in Munich has supported Gomel's thyroid center since 1993 with expertise and up-to-date medical devices. According to statistics from German radiation experts, the number of children in Gomel suffering from thyroid cancer leapt 45 times after Chernobyl. Meanwhile, the number of grownups diagnosed was six times higher.
Natasha Koravaeva, who is now 26 years old, was treated as a child.
"After Chernobyl, we children were sent to medical check-ups regularly, and they saw there was something wrong with me," she told Deutsche Welle. "I had my first surgery when I was three years old, and they took a part of my thyroid away. At the yearly check-up, it was decided I needed another surgery. And then everything was alright until 1994, when I had my third one."
Since then everything has been well, but she still goes to the thyroid center for regular check-ups. The news from Fukushima brings back both memories and fear, she said.
"I am not only scared for Japan, but for the whole world," Koravaeva said. "Radiation is a danger for everyone. We saw that: it happened in Ukraine and we - the people of Belarus - got ill."
The party line
Shortly after the nuclear catastrophe, a state-run institute for radiology was founded in Gomel to deal with all scientific and bureaucratic questions concerning long-term effects. Director Viktor Averin's office is adorned with a framed photograph Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic leader of Belarus.
|Lukashenko says the threat from|
Chernobyl is under control
When it comes to the question of Chernobyl, Lukashenko likes to spread optimism that everything is under control. Averin agrees with him.
"Thanks to the great cooperation of our president, scientists, local government and the people, we managed to solve the problems with high efficiency," Averin said. "We have very good medical services for the people in the affected regions. And concerning food pollution, we can say that our norms and laws are stricter than in most other countries."
Statistics from the Otto-Hug Institute in Germany, however, suggest that people still are suffering from the effects of Chernobyl. Not only has the number of thyroid cancer cases risen in the region, but three times more people have been diagnosed with prostate cancer since 1985, and a significance rise in Leukemia and other cancer types has been observed.
On top of that, the population of the Gomel region has been decreasing faster than in other parts of Belarus. Since 1986, the mortality rate has grown and many young people have moved away.
Author: Mareike Aden (sjt)
Editor: Gerhard Schneibel