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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chernobyl's Toxic Cloud Still Darkens the Future

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Three doctors struggled to save the little girl, just 2 1/2 years old. Motionless on the operating table with her toes pointed like a ballerina, she had collapsed at home only weeks after a tumor operation.

Around her three tiny babies in incubators fought their own battles.

Andrei, 1, his abnormally large head lolling above spindly, yellow limbs, was typical of a post-Chernobyl child, showing debilitating respiratory and intestinal disorders, said Vladimir Boloshenko, the doctor in charge of intensive care at the Children's District Hospital in Gomel.

"It is difficult to say whether it is connected to Chernobyl, but after 1985 the number of sick children has doubled," said Nadezhda Savik, deputy head doctor of the hospital.

The children of Belarus are the first casualties of the world's worst nuclear explosion 10 years ago to really alarm world medical experts.

The Belarussian Health Ministry has recorded a 161 percent increase in birth defects in babies born between 1986 and 1993. In Gomel, only 10 percent of children are healthy and 29 percent suffer from chronic illnesses.

Living just across the border from Ukraine, the people of Belarus were caught in the direct line of the mile-high radioactive cloud that poured out of Chernobyl's fourth reactor after it exploded and caught fire in the early hours of April 26, 1986.

The reactor burned out of control for six days, spewing tons of lethal radionuclides across the surrounding countryside, while the authorities failed to warn people of the dangers and delayed evacuating villages for fear of creating panic.

Ten years later, World Health Organization doctors have linked new, highly aggressive forms of thyroid cancers found in children younger than 15 years old to Iodine-131, a short-lived but very dangerous radionuclide, emitted from the burning reactor.

Cases of children with thyroid cancer have increased one hundredfold in the Gomel region since the accident. While before the accident the annual incidence of thyroid cancer in Belarus was one per million children, in 1994 it reached more than 100 per million.

Although the condition is not fatal if detected early, children who have had their glands removed have to live on medication for the rest of their lives. Several thousand children are expected to be hit by thyroid cancer over the next decades, the United Nations estimates.

Disorders of the nervous system, sensory organs, blood circulation, bone and muscle tissue and urinary system, as well as incidences of malignant tumors, increased by between 30 percent and 40 percent from 1990 to 1994 among children, Unicef, the United Nations agency for children, reported last year.

The UN estimates 9 million people have been affected by the Chernobyl disaster in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Some 400,000 are refugees, who were forced at a minute's notice to leave their homes in the 30-kilometer area around the station. They can never safely return.

Meanwhile, nearly 1 million people continue to live in seriously contaminated areas. Their forests and farmlands are poisoned with the radionuclides caesium, strontium and plutonium, which will take decades at least to decrease even partially. The most lethal radionuclide -- plutonium, the tiniest particle of which is enough to cause cancer -- has a half-life of 24,360 years.

Some 150,000 square kilometers of land, some of it the best farming land in the former Soviet Union, are contaminated. In Ukraine, an area the size of the Netherlands has been deemed unsuitable for agriculture by the government.

In Belarus, nearly a quarter of the farmland is contaminated, but, with the least reformed economy in the former Soviet Union, the country is farming most of it by necessity.

Bragin, on the very edge of the 30-kilometer zone, was ordered evacuated, but it still has a population of 4,500, two thirds its original size. More a large village than a town, it is the district center of the hardest hit area of Belarus.

On a recent visit to Bragin, every third house on the main street was deserted and boarded up, but young women were pushing prams down the street to market. The authorities at first banned children from living so close to the station but later the law was changed, said Vladimir Klimenko, 39, the energetic mayor of Bragin.

Nina Kavalyuk, 27, a mother of two, moved to Bragin four years ago when her husband was offered a job as technical director of the farm factory. "It is difficult to find good work and this is well paid," she said, explaining his move.

Others who have settled here are refugees from wars in Tajikistan, Georgia and Moldova, said Klimenko, who was born in the area and lives in Bragin with his wife and two children.

"There is no conception of safety but of survival," he said. According to Dr. John Gofman, one of the discoverers of plutonium and a leading U.S. expert on the effects of low-dose radiation, those who have moved back to contaminated areas are running an increased risk of cancer in the long term.

Gofman has estimated that altogether about 475,000 people across Europe, Scandinavia and the former Soviet Union will die of cancer over the next 50 to 70 years from Chernobyl's low-dose radiation exposure.

But studies have so far failed to track the extent of the danger because they have not been based on sufficiently large groups of people, Gofman said, speaking from his home in San Francisco. Nor has a comprehensive study been carried out on the 835,000 workers who cleaned up after the disaster, who offered an obvious opportunity for research, he said.

These so-called "liquidators," many from the armed forces, as well as firemen, metro construction workers and transport workers, received high doses of radiation when drafted to fight the blaze in the reactor and then clear up contamination.

Soldiers, with little protection, ran onto the damaged reactor's roof in 15-second bursts to shovel pieces of the lethal fuel back into the smoldering core.

Helicopter pilots flew over the blaze, dropping tons of lead, boron and sand in a fruitless effort to put out the fire. Other workers bulldozed forests, villages and land, burying the radioactive top soil.

These liquidators have since dispersed across the former Soviet Union and their fate is largely unknown. Ukraine has announced that 6,000 of its liquidators died between 1988 and 1994.

Vyacheslav Grishin, a liquidator himself who heads the Chernobyl Union of Russia, which helps former liquidators, said one in 25 had died and one in ten was too sick to work.

In the village of Chernobyl, 18 kilometers from the plant, firemen were building a monument last week for the anniversary of their colleagues who died. Of 300 volunteers who went into the blast zone on the night of the explosion, 31 died within a week, Grishin said.

Sasha, a major, survived and still heads the fire service in Chernobyl. Watching the builders smoothing the cement, he said the firefighters had had the idea themselves and were financing it out of their own pockets.

Inside the Chernobyl plant itself, the hulking iron and cement sarcophagus that encases the damaged fourth reactor looks more like an aging oil tanker than an atomic installation. Some 50 meters high, it is a conglomeration of cement walls and layers of iron sheeting bolted together, propped up by thick iron supports. A metal ladder and walkway run higgeldy-piggeldy over its roof. Newly painted a dark gray, the sarcophagus still bears long rust marks down its sides.

On the ground below, a group of men and women, neatly dressed in raincoats and hats, chatted happily together.

Ignoring the high level of radioactivity still being emitted from the reactor, they had gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of working at Chernobyl.

Their unit built the plant in the 1970s and then worked to save it during the most dangerous months after the accident. "It was a fire in our own home, we had to put it out," one woman said.

They built the sarcophagus and brought the other reactors back on line within six months of the accident. But now they are paying for their patriotism. They were all sick already and lived on invalid pensions, said Nadezhda Petrovskaya, former head of the building unit.

"No one said anything about how dangerous it was, no one talked about that," Petrovskaya said. "It is not safe, it is like a shelter. It has no capacity to keep in radiation," she said, gesturing at the rusting bulk of the reactor behind her.

Valentina Kobernik, 55, a technical engineer who worked until 1991 in the third block adjacent to the fourth, said, "Just yesterday I fell down unconscious. I carry tablets in my handbag. I take them all the time."

The state of the sarcophagus, which contains 200 tons of radioactive fuel and some 2,000 tons to 3,000 tons of highly radioactive water, is another source of international concern.

Riddled with kilometers of cracks and holes -- flocks of birds have even been seen to fly through it -- it is threatening to collapse on itself, sending up another huge cloud of dangerous dust or even causing further nuclear fission among the materials inside, according to Konstantin Rudy, special adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry for Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety.

Paul Seaman, a spokesman for the British Nuclear Forum who recently spent several months at the plant, believes it is good for five years but said decisions on the long-term safety of the destroyed reactor must be made soon.

Safety standards at the plant, tightened and scrutinized after the accident, have slipped in recent months, largely because of low morale among the 6,000-strong workforce whose future is so uncertain, he said. In January, workers received their pay two weeks late, something that has never happened before and that dealt a huge blow to confidence in the future, Seaman said.

In November, a worker received a lifetime's limit of radiation when a fuel rod was left out and spilled irradiated pellets in the control room.

Sergei Parashin, the station's general director, said the incident was minor and could happen at any station. Those responsible had been disciplined, he told journalists at the plant recently.

Ukraine has long been reluctant to agree to close the plant without substantial pledges of aid from the West: Five times closure dates have been set and passed by. However, at this weekend's nuclear summit in Moscow, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma reluctantly reaffirmed an agreement to close the plant by 2000 in exchange for Western aid, currently totalling some $3 billion.

"The general view among nuclear safety experts is that it would be better if it were shut by 2000. It is a running sore," Seaman said.

But even then, the decommissioning and dismantling of the working reactors would take decades. No one has begun to think how to remove and store safely the thousands of tons of radioactive material inside the damaged reactor. If left, the material will work its way downward into the water table.

"It is a myth that with closing it the problem goes away," Seaman said.