Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl project ‘as vital as ever'

It’s been 25 years since explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear station; health implications facing the next generation are still serious.

Chabad Children of Chernobyl 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chabad Children of Chernobyl 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s been 25 years since the explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power station but the health implications facing the next generation are still as serious as ever, according to the main Jewish charity working with communities living in the region affected by what is considered the world’s worst man-made ecological disaster.
“Of course Chernobyl is not something that happened recently, but we still see its effects every day and need to continue helping the children living in the region labeled by the United Nations as dangerous or contaminated,” Yossi Swerdlove, director of the Chabad movements’ Children of Chernobyl project, told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday, the 25th anniversary of the fatal explosion of the plants’ reactor No. 4.
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According to the United Nation’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), Chernobyl was the “most serious accident ever to occur in the nuclear power industry,” and while it resulted in some 30 direct deaths there are estimates that close to 100,000 have died as a result of radioactive contamination. The effects on the local environment were also disastrous.
“Radiation is blind and even 25 years later it still has severe effects on the children living in the region,” Swerdlove told the Post, adding there is still poison in the air and the children ingest radiation, which means – among other health problems – that their immune system is totally shot.
Swerdlove, whose organization has brought more than 2,730 children from the affected area to Israel since it was formed in 1991, explained that once they “get to a ‘clean’ country, eat healthy vegetables and are given certain medical care then they are usually fine.”
“It is not easy to get them out, we often face a lot of bureaucracy in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia,” said Swerdlove, adding that roughly 50 percent of the children end up staying in Israel for good.
“People are not aware of how hard the situation is there and that many of the children are orphans whose parents died from complications of the radioactive fallout.”
He added: “The children also face problems with thyroid diseases, which can lead to cancer, and other health issues where it is difficult to know whether they are related to the accident at Chernobyl or not. We are still taking baby steps in understanding the effects [of Chernobyl] and no one really knows what the long-term effects will be.”
“I believe that what happened in Chernobyl and now [in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant] should be a clear lesson about the hazards of nuclear energy,” commented Sharon Dolev of the Movement for a Nuclear Free Middle East.
“People keep coming up with numbers and information but we will only know the full impact of what happened in Chernobyl in another few decades.”
Dolev said she believes that any plans to build a nuclear reactor to enhance Israel’s electricity output would be a mistake.
“We are sitting on the Syrian- African fault line, just waiting for the next big earthquake to happen and we have all seen in the last few weeks what happens when there is a big earthquake,” she said.
She noted that Israel already has two nuclear reactors “and we do not know what is really happening with them because they are hidden behind the excuse of security for [Israel’s] citizens. We have no idea who is checking their safety.”
Dr. Eli Stern, head of the Center for Risk Analysis at the Gertner Institute and a past member of at least three international committees tasked with analyzing nuclear power plants as a result of Chernobyl, said, however, that the new generation of nuclear power facilities seemed to be better designed than those in Chernobyl or Fukushima.
“I am not for or against [nuclear energy] but there needs to be some real risk assessment of the new designs and then all the information should be put before the public for them to decide,” said Stern, adding that despite the obvious risks and fallout there is an argument to continue developing nuclear energy to meet the world’s growing electricity needs.
“If it is developed in a transparent and rational way, with scientific and engineering checks, if it is based on social and scientific fairness, then it will be quite the right decision,” he said.