Approaching the 22nd anniversary of the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in northern Ukraine, which will be commemorated in Belarus by the opposition with a march through Minsk on Sunday, two Belarusian scientists have firmly reiterated the official government position that irradiated territories no longer pose a problem for inhabitants; on the contrary, the key task is now to overcome “radiophobia” among the local population, which is hindering the full re-cultivation of land.
Anatol Skryabin, who is head of the laboratory for radiation hygiene with the Republican Scientific-Practical Center of Radiation Medicine and Ecology of the People, announced that people living in contaminated territories are today receiving an insignificant dose of radiation that does not approach even the natural background level. He added, however, that some people had refused to relinquish the views and mentality about the disaster that they adopted 20 years ago. The average natural background radiation levels are said to be 3-4 millisieverts (msv) per year, but the dose being received by Belarusian residents is reportedly 0.15 msv per year.
These comments are bolstered by those of Deputy Chairman of the Permanent Commission on the Problems of the Chernobyl Catastrophe and Parliamentary Deputy Mikola Serhienka, who believes that nuclear power stations are no more dangerous than other industrial enterprises and who had responded to local opposition to the newly proposed nuclear power plant in Belarus by stating that it is necessary to combat “radiophobia” with a clear and methodical informational program about the situation today in formerly affected regions.
Serhienka notes that in 2008 about 4 percent of Belarus’s budget is being spent on measures to minimize the consequences of Chernobyl, much of which is taken up with capital investment in contaminated regions (Homel’ and Mahileu oblasts are the most affected), as well as in agricultural production on lands that were irradiated. In his view, all the territory has now been successfully rehabilitated and there is not a “square kilometer of land that cannot be cultivated.” He also anticipates the possibility of constructing new industrial factories in the contaminated zone, which, he says, will be able to apply the same sanitary norms as enterprises in “clean zones.”
These comments merit reflection. About one-fifth of Belarusian territory was contaminated by radioactive cesium and strontium in the 1986 disaster. These have half-lives of up to 30 years. In addition, about 85 percent of the republic was subjected to the fallout of radioactive iodine, which resulted in alarming levels of thyroid cancer among those under the age of five at the time of the accident. Altogether in the first two decades after Chernobyl, this illness was diagnosed in more than 12,000 patients in Belarus. About 1.8 million people, including more than 400,000 children, live in the affected regions and require regular medical check-ups.
The European Parliament has also called on Europeans to provide assistance to continuing relief efforts to combat problems in Belarus that were caused by the accident. The comment follows warnings from Dr. Yuri Bandazhevsky, the former director of the Homel’ Medical Institute, who was working on problems arising from the disaster. Incensed at the results of Bandazhevsky’s earlier research, the Belarusian authorities sentenced him to eight years in prison in 2001, allegedly for accepting bribes from parents of his students. He was released in 2005 and currently resides in Lithuania. Bandazhevsky has been very critical of official reports and investigations of the health impact of the nuclear accident. The European Parliament welcomed a proposal to found a research and development center in Lithuania that would help former cleanup workers who worked in the Chernobyl zone.
For the Belarusian authorities, however, Chernobyl has become mainly a political issue that is associated with activities of the opposition. Virtually all non-government NGOs dealing with assistance to the victims of the accident have been disbanded or forced to re-register with the authorities, subjected to audits, and/or obliged to move their premises. While Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko visited the Chernobyl region on the eve of the anniversary to inaugurate a new nuclear waste and storage processing center, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is not expected to note the occasion. He is, however, eager to raise agricultural output and recently dismissed Minister of Agriculture Leanid Rusak, replacing him with Syamon Shapira. Agriculture has been the weak link in what is officially described as a booming economy, not least because of the loss of arable land through radioactive contamination.
In addition, the commissioning of the Belarusian nuclear power station–considered essential to resolving the country’s energy dilemma–has also been hindered by the continued attention to problems caused by the Chernobyl disaster. Blaming the population for “radiophobia” overlooks the onset of very serious medical problems caused by radiation fallout, as well as alarming mortality rates over the past fifteen years. No doubt, the Belarusian public is fearful of the effects of radiation and may incline to attribute a variety of medical problems to the now distant disaster, yet few observers would accept that Belarus has successfully overcome its consequences. Banning or restricting public commemorations and harassing scientists who uncover disturbing information is tantamount to sweeping the disaster “under the carpet.” Today in Belarus, people are not dying from radioactive fallout, but land remains contaminated and medical problems persist (Belorusy i Rynok, April 21-28; www.sciencedirect.com, Sept 6, 2006; UNIAN (Kyiv), April 23; www.charter97.org, April 18, Belorusskie novosti, April 18).