Chernobyl’s legacy: No likely return to normality

Twenty five years on from the world’s worst nuclear accident, the number of cancers is rising, there are still restrictions on tens of thousands of square kilometres of land, and Ukraine and Belarus, the two countries most affected, are saddled with costs which they will continue to bear for thousands of years.

The full legacy of the 1986 explosion is still not clear, but a new study by international scientists for the National Institutes of Health, the US government’s medical research agency, has found exposure to radioactive iodine-131 from Chernobyl fall-out is likely to be responsible for thyroid cancers that are still occurring among people who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. The researchers say they found no evidence to suggest that the increased cancer risk to those who lived in the area in 1986 is decreasing over time.

According to the Chernobyl Forum, made up of eight UN bodies as well as the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, about 9 000 eventual deaths from cancers are expected, but these figures are fiercely disputed by other scientists who have estimated far more.

Less disputed is the social, environmental and economic legacy. More than five million people lived in the 200 000 square kilometres of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia that were classified as “contaminated”, and more than 330 000 people were moved.

According to the forum, poverty in the affected areas is now acute and far greater than in other areas of the former Soviet Union. The forced removal of the population proved traumatic and has scarred people for generations. “Even when resettlers were compensated and offered free houses, many retained a deep sense of injustice. Many are still unemployed, without a place in society and have little control over their lives. Some older resettlers may never adjust”, said the forum in its most recent study.

The accident is said to have economically crippled those areas most affected by the fall-out. Ukraine and Belarus have had to spend more than $12-billion each on Chernobyl measures so far. This, says the forum, has created an “unsustainable” and continuing burden on the two countries.

Farming has continued to suffer heavily. More than 785 000 hectares of land was taken out of service for years and timber production halted over another 700 000 hectares. As contamination declines, farming has resumed, but it costs more to grow food in affected areas, says the UN, because more fertiliser and additives are needed. In addition, the stigma of Chernobyl has made it harder for farmers to sell their food.

There are still widespread bans or restrictions on collecting or hunting mushrooms, berries, and game in many areas where high concentrations of caesium-137 are still found. Countries as far away as Britain, Sweden and Norway have still not lifted all restrictions on the sale of milk and other products. High contamination levels are still found in reindeer in Scandinavia and more than 300 hill farms in Wales still have to have their milk and animals tested before sale.

In Germany, the government paid out $555 000 in 2009 to hunters in compensation for wild boar meat that was too contaminated to be sold. In some areas this is more than 7 000 becquerel per kilogramme, compared to the 600 bequerels which is considered safe.

New research by Greenpeace International suggests that many Ukrainians are still eating foods with unacceptably high levels of radiation. Samples taken earlier this year of milk, berries, potatoes and root vegetables grown in two Ukrainian regions showed levels well above normal.

There is little likelihood of there ever being a full return to normal life in the 30km exclusion zone around the reactor. A few hundred people still live there, with others moving in, but radiation levels are still extremely high. Ironically, the area is now a haven for wildlife which has benefited from the absence of people. –

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