March 2, 2001
The Nuclear Accident in Chernobyl
The main door, almost blocked by overgrown bushes and weeds, rattles in the cold Ukrainian wind. The former day-care center’s rooms are a mess of abandoned dolls, stuffed animals, tiny shoes, and broken glass. Water from melting snow on the roof drips through cracks in the concrete ceiling. Between rows of metal cribs, child-size gas masks peer up from the floor where they fell during the rushed evacuation, over a decade ago. Can you imagine going back to this horrible setting? Luckily, we didn’t have to experience it in real life, but people like Maria Shobkuta, and Vasil Herashchenko did, and after the evacuation, they moved back.
The day-care center was located just two miles away from Chernobyl, a nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine. Today there is an off-limits area of 38 miles in diameter, officially called the “Zone of Alienation,” surrounds the day-care center, and the rest of the town, which had a population of roughly 50,000.
The nuclear accident was the worst civilian disaster in the history of nuclear energy-and as scary as it seems, it could be repeated. Two of Chernobyl’s four reactors remain in use, despite continuing safety problems. Severe cracks have been reported, yet thousands of people continue to live and work there. Get this, roughly five hundred of them have been moved back into their old homes inside the zone! Why, you ask? The Ukrainian government simply explains, “it can’t afford to close the plant and permanently seal the sarcophagus with out billions in Western aid.” I personally think there must be ways around the financial part of it. If I was a leader of their country, there is no way I would even think of re-opening the plant. It is too hazardous and risky to the health of the Ukrainian’s.
Doctors say the 1986 accidents caused thousands of deaths from the lingering effects of radiation exposure. But at a conference in Minsk in March of 1996, medical researchers were shocked at the results of a European health study. The study said that Chernobyl’s toll had been “wildly exaggerated.” Although 760 children in the radiated regions have developed thyroid cancer, the study stated only 3 died as a result. The study found no local increase in cases of leukemia, and one of the researchers dismissed as “very implausible” the notion the Chernobyl’s radiation has caused significant numbers of deaths from other diseases.
Local scientists insist the deaths-and dangers are real. Yet in and around Chernobyl, people carry on a semblance of normal life. I say they are crazy. About 12,000 people work at jobs inside the zone. The nuclear complex’s 5,000 employees commute daily from Slavutych, a town just outside the perimeter. I just don’t understand how anyone would want themselves, or their families exposed to the radiation, but Nikolai Lebakh, the editor of the local paper says, “You can’t think too much about this danger or you’ll go crazy.” I wonder if he’s ever thought perhaps it’s the radiation making him crazy?
Even though the population is now mostly elderly people, and workers at the plant, local doctors are more concerned about the kids. “We are seeing a weakening of the immune system in children,” says Dr. Oleksandr Urin, the director of Pediatric Hospital 14 in Kiev. At local hospitals, the rate of birth defects has more than doubled, which is very common with babies whose parent was exposed to radiation. Doctors have also seen a few small patients suffering from liver and rectal cancer, malignancies not common in the very young. “These are isolated cases so far, but they are warning signals about what may follow,” says Dr. Urin. The full magnitude of the problem could take another decade to emerge, he believes.