Under Chernobyl's shadow

23 years later, Ukraine is building nuclear plants once again.

chernobyl 248.88 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
chernobyl 248.88
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
PRIPYAT, Ukraine - From a distance this city looks much like any other Soviet-era metropolis. Enormous 1970s-style concrete buildings adorn the skyline, with tall trees growing in between and Russian-language billboards and symbols standing almost as high. However, once inside - a short drive along the main Lenin Boulevard - it quickly becomes clear that Pripyat is not quite what it seems. Overgrown flower beds, peeling paint, cracked and broken windows are evidence that no human hands have touched this city for more than 23 years. Pripyat is a ghost town. Just two kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear power station, Pripyat - once home to some 48,000 people working at the nearby plant - was evacuated forever in less than three hours when Reactor No. 4 exploded, filling the air with deadly radioactive fallout. Within 24 hours of the explosion on April 26, 1986, the entire city was emptied, with residents being told to take only essentials. No one has returned to live here since. Although eerily empty, Pripyat still remains a symbol of one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in history and the repercussions of Chernobyl, both medically and environmentally, still resonate strongly not just for former residents but for the Ukrainian people in general. A report released by Greenpeace on the 20th anniversary of the accident, with new data based on cancer statistics in neighboring Belarus, estimated that approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancers in the area were caused by Chernobyl. Additionally, demographic data from the previous 15 years showed that 60,000 people died in Russia as a result of the fallout and the total death toll for Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000 indirectly. Radiation from the accident has also had ongoing effects on survivors, including damage to immune and endocrine systems, accelerated aging, cardiovascular and blood illnesses, psychological problems, chromosomal aberrations and an increase in fetal deformities. Despite these horrific aftereffects and even as many Ukrainians still come to terms with what happened, officials in Kiev are actively seeking to expand the country's nuclear energy capabilities, even if it comes at the risk of another Chernobyl. The move to enhance nuclear energy, which can power the country's large cast iron and steel industries, as well as individual homes, is justified today, say officials, because of the growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia. The crisis, which started in March 2005 over the transit of Russian pumped gas through Ukraine, reached a peak earlier this year when Russia cut supplies being transported via Ukraine to some 18 European countries. The move brought many communities to the brink of a humanitarian crisis as thousands of people struggled without electricity and heating for up to three weeks during the heart of winter. "THIS CRISIS only supported our earlier beliefs that without developing the nuclear sector, we will not be able to meet the energy needs of our country," explains Yuriy Nedashkovskiy, president of the State Enterprise for National Nuclear Energy Generating Company (Energoatom), the official operator of Ukraine's 15 atomic power units at four plants countrywide. According to Nedashkovskiy, Ukraine has already legislated plans to build an additional three or four nuclear power plants by 2030. "I know this is a sensitive issue for Ukrainian people - it's only been 23 years since the Chernobyl disaster and memories are still strong - but as an expert I can assure you that during this period of time much has been done to secure the new power stations," he says, adding that Ukraine works hard to follow all the international safety regulations for new plants. In addition, says Nedashkovskiy, a special law now exists stating that the local community around any proposed nuclear power plant must be in agreement before it is built. "From our own public opinion polls and surveys, we see that public opinion is slowly changing in this area and support for developing Ukraine's nuclear energy program is growing," he adds. "I'm confident that with our public awareness campaigns we will gain the public support that we need." "People here cannot forget Chernobyl," says Christina Laschenko, a resident of Kiev, roughly 170 km. from Chernobyl. "We are, of course, worried about pollutants and the health of newborn babies, but on a day-to-day level people are more concerned about things that affect them directly, such as unemployment and whether we will have enough heating in the winter time. In Kiev, there are many other types of pollution anyway, from chemical factories and other industries; today the damage from Chernobyl is the least of our worries." IN FACT, the former nuclear power plant in Chernobyl is now used for researching ways to stop radiation fallout and improve methods of nuclear waste disposal, according to Julia Marusych, an employee in Chernobyl's International Department. "Experts work at the site to get knowledge on how to prevent this from happening again," she says. "We run 22 projects that are integrated into a global program with the basic aim of learning how to transfer and dispose of the toxic fallout. In addition, we are still working to minimize the risks of the destroyed reactor." Marusych is one of hundreds of people employed at the contaminated site; many of them live just outside Chernobyl's exclusion zone, which covers a 30-kilometer circumference around the disused station, in a town called Slavutych. "No place on earth is free from radiation," says the Russian-born mother of two. "Even in Israel there are levels of radiation and when you take an [airplane] flight you are exposed to it." Workers in the power plant, she says, take extreme precautions against the high levels of radiation that still emanate from the broken reactor, with people closest to the toxic building working in shifts of several minutes or less. In addition, says Marusych, the international community, including Israel, has been active in funding and supporting Ukraine to construct a sarcophagus around the building to contain the radiation inside. "There are holes where the radiation seeps out," she says, adding that the new structure designed to contain it will improve work undertaken immediately after the accident. "Did I worry about raising my children near Chernobyl?" says Marusych. "I worried as much as any mother worries about her children, but this is my motherland and today my children are grown up, healthy and studying in university, so for me it is fine." IN THE meantime, even though the European Union is working to smooth relations between Russia and Ukraine, and has been involved though its energy advisory body INOGATE in standardizing gas measuring systems, Ukraine is focusing on atomic energy rather than taking the chance that its gas will be cut or that prices will shoot up. "In the mid-1990s, British researchers produced a report advising Ukraine to construct modern up-to-date heating power plants using natural gas to substitute the loss of Chernobyl," comments Vadym Dykanov, from the Foundation for the Development of Environmental and Energy Markets, a Kiev-based think tank. "At first this seemed like a sound decision, especially given the low prices of natural gas, but now we know that it is good Ukraine did not follow this recommendation because today we know that it would have been stopped. "We often read about clean energy, green or totally environmentally safe energy. However, I have to emphasize that any type of energy generation is to a degree harmful to the environment and to the population. You cannot process any type of fuel - coal, oil or nuclear - into energy without waste. "All these types of waste are harmful to nature and the only distinction between them is whether they are harmful today or more severe in the future." Dykanov claims that nuclear power plants are actually more environmentally friendly than heating power plants, but the main issue is that "we do not know what to do with nuclear waste. I just hope that our children will be able to invent a way to dispose of this waste."