The REAL facts of Chernobyl

The Ir.Times journalist, Kathy Sheridan, bases her report on her own recent fact finding mission to this troubled region. And those facts she has unearthed are devastating. The images that accompany her article are equally horrifying but being unavailable on the online edition of the Irish Times, I can't send them along.

I am also forwarding you (attachment) the Cork based Chernobyl Children's Project International Rebuttal Statement to the IAEA'S Chernobly Forum's Report as I've sought and been given permission to publicise it.

//tinyurl.com/zhpr5

Kathy Sheridan's final part of her series--her interview of Professor Yuri Bandazhevsky--points up very clearly just what can happen to the career of an eminent scientist from the area who exposes the truth about the health consequences of the radiation fallout, so I have placed that first. (I have also repeated it in its correct placement at the end of the series.)

Best, Imelda, Cork, Ireland


'To want more nuclear power rather than less is insane' Kathy Sheridan

In a tiny apartment in a grim Minsk tower block, a scientist garlanded with honours, a member of five academies of science, a prodigy once given his own university to run at the age of 34, places another jar of hamster foetuses on a cheap coffee table.

He holds the jar up to the light, where the skeletal structures are clearly visible through the flesh. He points out those with no eyes, or no brain, or under-developed brains, or no skull-bones. Dozens, strangely, have a cleft lip and palate. There are 200 in all, none of which appear to be normal.

The foetuses' mothers, he explains, had been injected with proportionate, comparatively "quite low" doses of caesium-137 (C137), a radioactive element which featured in vast amounts in the Chernobyl fallout. C137 has a nuclear half-life (the time it takes for half of it to radioactively decay away) of 30.07 years. Hamsters were chosen, he says, because they have a genetic print similar to humans and "because they're easier to feed, not as smelly as mice and you can keep them on the balcony". His wife, Galina, smiles fondly and murmurs wryly, "and he has lots more of them".

This, then, is what remains of Prof Yuri Bandazhevsky's professional and personal world. Within Belarus, colleagues who once lionised him now shun him. He is unemployable but has no permission to leave. In 2001, he was arrested at his medical institute in Gomel and jailed for eight years with hard labour, on trumped-up bribery charges. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, but by the time he was released, in 2004, his health had been severely affected. His real crime was to go public on the effects of C137, after noting an alarming increase in heart and birth defects among children after Chernobyl.

The medical university he founded in Gomel in 1990 was in the heart of the most contaminated area and was therefore a natural laboratory for research into the effects of radiation.

"We proved that C137 is very dangerous - and most dangerous as an energetic killer of the body," he says. "The problem with C137 is you have no symptoms. So you just get some infection and you die and everyone will say you died from an infection. But, in fact, the immune system has been so weakened that you cannot fight it."

His thesis is that even low-level radiation is dangerous and that up to 24 years before Chernobyl, large parts of the world, including Europe, were already being contaminated with fallout from nuclear tests by China, the US, the Soviet Union and France. Russia, he adds, "was a nuclear dump". Pre-Chernobyl radiation maps, provided by French colleagues, bear this out. Chernobyl simply heaped on the agony and distributed it more widely.

The Chernobyl Forum report - which ascribed much of the population's morbidity to poverty, lifestyle diseases and mental health problems rather than radiation - is "an insult", he says.

"Can you imagine how the Belarussian people who live in those areas must feel, reading that? . . . Calling them drunkards, saying they don't want to work, that they're only waiting around for handouts. They are hard-working people. I'm not sure that any of those people who signed that report spent enough time trying to understand what is going on in that area. But I was there. My family was there. I saw the people, I worked with the people. I know the physical and psychological problems. I saw people not only dying from thyroid cancer, I saw other young people . . . So many of the doctors who worked on that research are dead."

He goes to a bookcase, laden with medals, and fishes out a small hardback book called Clinical and Experimental Aspects of the Effect of Incorporated Radionuclides Upon the Organism, by Yuri Bandazhevsky et al, dated Gomel 1995. The foreword was written by the Belarussian minister for health.

Another foreword, by AS Shaginyan, vice-president of the International Academy of Engineering and the Belarussian Academy of Engineering, takes a swipe at the scientists who skirted the issues in the early days and are now writing from their ivory towers.

"Regretfully," he writes, "the problems of the disaster have been and still remain the subject of political commercialism and career promotion. Even the belated manuscript by the Academician LA Ilyin, The Realities and Myths of Chernobyl, resembles an essay created in a cosy and quiet Moscow library room and written for self-exemption and self-redemption rather than to achieve a profound scientific result . . . The present manuscript is the first kernel of the objective scientific information on the radionuclides effect upon the organism."

Bandazhevsky's wife, Galina, also a scientist, is among the 15 contributors to the five-year study. But she too has paid a high personal price for her work, having had both her thyroid and her womb removed, due to cancers her husband attributes to the disaster.

Bandazhevsky looks at the growing nuclear bandwagon with horror.

"To want more nuclear power rather than less is insane," he says. "I wish I could show those people what I see in mortuaries here and the horror of what my experiments show."


[PART 1 OF 3]

THE IRISH TIMES, SAT, APR 08, 06

NEWS FEATURES

"HUMAN FALLOUT

Standing their ground: Lena Muzychernko (78) and husband Ivan (74), with their son Sasha (40), who refuse to leave Bartolomyeuka, a deserted village once populated by 1,000 people in the exclusion zone of Vetka district, Belarus Photograph: Bryan O'Brien

The huge devastated area around the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor will never again be fit for human habitation, yet thousands of people are still working there. Kathy Sheridan enters the 'zone of alienation'.

In Chernobyl, nature has re-asserted her dominion. Free of man's interference for 20 years, wolves, bison, lynx and moose roam the fields and forests around the decommissioned reactors. Massive wild boar lumber along the roadside and sometimes on to the streets of Chernobyl town, excavating the orchards of empty homes. Families of elk wander the empty, rutted roads.

Sergei, our guide, remarks that spring here is very beautiful.

"Nature thrives," he says. "There is so much greenery . . . so many berries and mushrooms and wild flowers."

He talks about the fabulous size of the fish in the river and how the eagles have returned, "huge eagles, with wings spanning a metre to a metre and a half in the air". Later we hear that birds even nest inside the sarcophagus of the wrecked reactor.

But like a dark fairy tale, nothing here is as it seems. The bountiful berries and mushrooms are poisoned, soaked in radiation. Only a fool would eat the fat fish shimmering in the Pripyat River. The wild boar use their snouts as a hoe in the contaminated soil, making them the most radioactive of animals, shot and eaten at the poachers' peril. The wolves prey on the sickest animals, feeding on radiation.

Viktor, a former militia man once responsible for controlling entry into the so-called Exclusion Zone, tells us that when he and his mates found animal corpses in the forests, they used to perform "little experiments".

"When we cut them open, you'd find the liver was almost gone," he says.

The name of the zone, literally translated from Ukrainian, is "zone of alienation". About the size of Greater London, it is unfit for human habitation and will remain so forever.

Given a choice, Sergei himself would not be here. Like many of the 3,800 workers who earn a living in and around the reactor, he was forced here by high unemployment. Here, there is not only a job but a 20 per cent wage premium, commonly referred to as "coffin money".

For others, such as Julia Marusych, head of information in the visitors' centre, the attraction was the ready availability of an apartment in Slavutych, the company town built 50km away from Chernobyl after the catastrophe. A special train brings workers three times a day from Slavutych, crossing into Belarus and back into Ukraine. This train has no stops, no customs, no radiation checks, in sharp contrast to the interminable searches and questioning endured by ordinary visitors at Belarussian border crossings.

Marusych probably has one of the most unattractive roles in PR history. A former teacher, her job is to interpret the Chernobyl disaster for punch-drunk visitors fresh from stumbling through the eerily empty boulevards of Pripyat, Slavutych's predecessor, less than a kilometre away, the town abruptly abandoned by nearly 50,000 souls 20 years before; or from seeing how Chernobyl town, an ancient, once-lovely settlement, has been reduced to a radioactive research laboratory closed to all but a few scientists, shift-workers and wildlife.

But she pulls no punches. In a small viewing room overlooking the destroyed reactor, the only exhibit is a large model of No 4, which opens up like a sinister doll's house to reveal what lies inside the gunmetal grey monolith next door. The detail is precise, down to the tiny figurines of workers and piles of debris. The central, and largest, component, resembling a circular hairbrush with a deep handle, is the upper reactor plate, what Marusych calls "the technological channels".

"It weighed 2,000 tons, now it stands almost vertically," she says, demonstrating how it was lifted and turned on its side by the explosion. "Its position is not stable."

In fact, there is little that is stable in No 4. Where the model's floor-to-ceiling columns seem to be buckling, this is an alarmingly precise representation of what is happening inside the reactor. Shifts in metal plates mean that even the undamaged western wall is no longer stable.

"There is a threat of local collapse," Marusych says. Meanwhile, the immense "elephant's foot" of melted radioactive fuel below is cracking, emitting tonnes of radioactive dust.

"The chance of a spontaneous chain reaction inside is very low," Marusych adds, "but it is not zero."

For many of the workers in Chernobyl, the task is to maintain the other three decommissioned Chernobyl reactors, still with their nuclear fuel in place, still with their safety and cooling systems in operation, despite the closure of the last one in 2000. This process could take anything up to 150 years. The question of where to store the spent fuel will remain long beyond that.

But even more challenging is the task of stabilising reactor No 4. The desperate and heroic mission of the "stabilisation teams" is to prevent an even greater disaster than 1986. Ninety-seven per cent of the reactor's radioactive material remains inside the wreckage. To put that in context, the 3 per cent that escaped 20 years ago was enough to make a wasteland of parts of northern Ukraine and to contaminate 70 per cent of Belarus, a country with no nuclear plant of its own. Even now, 20 years on, no one knows for sure what secrets lie within the reactor. According to Marusych, only 25 per cent of the "inner rooms" are accessible; in the other 75 per cent, there is either restricted access or none.

The southern spent-fuel pool emits about 3,400 roentgens (units of ionizing radiation) per hour.

"It has no water inside . . . It is one of the most hazardous and least investigated rooms," says Marusych. Some 200 tonnes of fuel lie under the reactor rooms, "and they are the most hazardous and most inaccessible".

At the core, radiation levels are 300 million times greater than normal safety margins.

For workers in No 4, the daily "permitted" radiation dose is around 10 times the norm. Ordinary Ukrainian tradesmen such as welders and builders, contracted to work inside the reactor, sign agreements to work in "intense radiation". They wear special overalls, carry respirators and dosimeters and undergo medical tests before and after every 15-day spell of work. As well as radiation training, they undergo "psychological training".

"Not everyone is prepared for this kind of work," says a clearly sympathetic Marusych. "Conditions inside are very risky. People work in very small areas. The worker is given only 10 minutes to do his welding activity and is then replaced by another who has to be ready and psychologically prepared to carry out his activity in just 10 minutes."

Given the levels of radiation, a man might complete only one or two such sessions before reaching his maximum permitted daily radiation dose.

For workers on the roof of the so-called "sarcophagus", the allotted time is a minute. They must run. When the sarcophagus was built in 1986 to bury No 4 and contain its radiation, experts said it would have to outlast the Pyramids of Egypt, such was No 4's monstrous potency. Instead, massive openings have appeared in the roof, gaps that extend to about
100sq m, according to Marusych.

Rain floods in, damaging and corroding the concrete and metal inside, dropping on to irradiated fuel, before evaporating and rising again in the form of radioactive dust, coughing its lethal cloud on to prevailing winds. No one can say that Chernobyl is "over".

The story of what happened here 20 years ago is told on the centre's video. It ends with the message: "The Chernobyl problem is still unresolved."

A new shelter is finally on the drawing board, after years of argument about design and money.

"It's only a concept design," says Marusych.

It cannot even begin until the stabilisation phase is complete. Whenever it materialises - which could be 15 years - it will be the largest movable structure in the world at 100m high by 250m wide, assembled 200m from No 4 and slid into place. It should last for 100 years, they say.

What then? The message is clear. Man currently does not know enough to make this nuclear plant safe. The cream of international expertise can only try to make it sufficiently safe until our children or grandchildren find a solution. Maybe there is no solution. Maybe by then they will have learned to equal the vision of the pharaohs.

In the viewing room, it is difficult to tear one's eyes from the forbidding grey building next door. The flickering red numbers on the digital panel outside the viewing room window record the radiation levels around us. At between 1.1 and 1.2 milli-roentgens, we should hardly be worried, should we, someone asks tentatively. There are no false assurances. It's still about 100 times more than the average natural level of background radiation, says Marusych, who has been working in the plant since 1997.

Does she worry about her own health? She lowers her head for a long moment before answering slowly and carefully: "What I believe is that everybody should know exactly what the situation is where he works . . . especially those inside the sarcophagus."

At 4.30pm, workers stream out of the building and board the waiting buses for the station and the train home to Slavutych. Nearby stands an incongruous monumental sculpture of a beautiful youth, holding what we are told is a symbol of flame and energy. It was transplanted here from the town of Pripyat.

Ours is the only car on the road as we drive towards Pripyat, a kilometre away.

"Like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pripyat was conquered by the atom," said the narrator in the video.

Some compare it to an atomic-era Pompeii. But Pripyat was only 16 years standing when nuclear fallout forced its sudden abandonment - and not before nearly 50,000 men, women and children had been criminally exposed by Soviet authorities more intent on saving face than saving lives. In Kiev's Chernobyl Museum, a video shows one of the six weddings that took place in Pripyat on Saturday, April 26th, hours after the explosion.

The rusting hulk of a huge, yellow Ferris wheel still dominates the great square. It was due its inaugural spin a few days later on May Day 1986. The nursery school still has its little bed-frames lining the walls, small shoes, dolls, a class photograph album. Books are scattered on the library floor, some stamped April 26th, 1986. Rain now streams through the roof of the vast, marbled Palace of Culture while, backstage, enormous paintings of mighty political leaders and military men still wait to be raised in triumph in the great May Day parade.

We climb to the top of a 16-storey apartment block, where evidence of ordinary lives remains: piles of shoes, an old sofa, peeling murals. On the roof, a large wall-painting of a menacing male figure is as vibrant and disturbing as the day it was executed: cruel features, sinister eyes, mouth cast in shadow, dark jacket, red shirt and tie.

Above each block, crowning the buildings around the square, stand immense, electrified hammer-and-sickle signs, bringing to mind Shelley's lines : "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and tremble . . ." Now the only ones who tremble are the television crews. Some arrive dressed, head to toe, in full anti-nuclear/biological/chemical regalia, all the better to impress the folks back home.

Fifteen kilometres away, through silver birch and pine forests, past large snow- covered mounds signifying hurriedly buried homes, farm buildings and villages and a series of signs warning of radiation hot-spots, we reach the ancient town of Chernobyl.

Its lovely old painted wooden houses are derelict or, in a few cases, used for radiation experiments. Local administration buildings have been put to use as hostels for shift workers, mostly male, who pass the evenings in the gym or playing table tennis, missing girls and normality.

Alex Pyzhovsky, a 21-year-old physics student from Kiev is here to work on research involving mice and low-dose radiation. On his videophone, he grins boyishly at pictures of grossly deformed animals and foetuses.

"I never want to see a mouse again when I finish here," he says firmly.

He wants to open a shop.

Chernobyl's beautiful old synagogue, acquired long before 1986 by the Soviet police, still stands, a poignant place of pilgrimage for visiting Jews from Canada and the US. It is said that Jews were massacred here in Chernobyl, many of them buried alive.

Further along, the 500-year-old Orthodox Church of St Ilya has been gloriously restored, in an astonishing burst of hope, turquoise and gold. A locally born priest makes the 160km trip from Kiev every Saturday to conduct services.

At the edge of the virtually deserted town, near the war memorial to those who fell recapturing the town from the Germans in 1944, stands another more recent concrete monolith, dedicated "To Those Who Saved the World".

It is a monument to the heroic "liquidators", the firefighters, miners and ordinary working men who died or risked their lives in the battle to tame the raging reactor. By the end, they numbered around 600,000. In a design unloved by some, it nonetheless tries to convey the fragility of the earth and the awesome destructiveness of nuclear power, and carries the names of fallen liquidators, including those who had died by 1996, followed by another 200 in 2001. A large, empty space has been left for the many more to come.

A few kilometres away in Rozsokha village, a "nuclear graveyard" stands as another kind of memorial to the liquidators. This is where some 10,000 fiercely radioactive vehicles, including helicopters, fire engines, armoured personnel carriers, oil tankers and buses, were neatly parked and abandoned after the battle. Now parts are being removed for "recycling", according to our guide.

Meanwhile, poisoned cargo ships and boats, used to carry sand and cement from Belarus during the battle, lie rotting at Chernobyl port, several miles from town on the Pripyat River. Their radiation levels remain too high to be considered for recycling.

They should be buried, but the challenge for Ukraine is finding new burial sites where groundwater will not be contaminated. Anyway, there are other priorities. Twenty years on, more than 500 (more than half) of the burial sites used hurriedly for radioactive waste have still to be found, still less analysed. God alone knows what is entering the groundwater already.

That night, we stay at the state-run Chernobyl Hotel in the town, a cream-coloured pre-fab imported from Finland 20 years ago. A radiation dosimeter inside the door checks us out and declares us clean. The hotel is basic but clean and warm, and the welcome hot food is said to be "safe" (ie, brought in from Kiev). The bread rolls are even wittily disguised as porcupines, complete with peppercorns for eyes. There is no alcohol on offer despite the widespread belief that vodka is good for combatting radiation.

Upstairs, we pass a black-banded picture of Rima Kiselitsa, a 49-year-old mother and a popular, well-respected Chernobyl guide. Underneath is a spray of flowers and the message "we will never forget you". Rima died suddenly two weeks ago from a brain haemorrhage.

Like so much else, her untimely death may have nothing or everything to do with Chernobyl. Her daughter and colleagues doubtless find little reassurance or consolation there.

Chernobyl Factfile

At 1.23am on April 26th, 1986, in nuclear reactor No 4 in the Chernobyl complex, 80 miles north of Kiev, a series of control-room errors and safety violations, allied to fundamental design flaws, triggered several catastrophic hydrogen explosions, which exposed the core, blew the 1,000-tonne cover off the top of the reactor and killed 31 people instantly. The 800 tonnes of graphite in the core burned for 10 days in a radiological inferno.

Some 70 per cent of the radiation fell on neighbouring Belarus, a country with no nuclear power plants. Contaminants, including plutonium isotopes with a half-life of 24,360 years, were blown across the globe, depositing cloud-borne radioactive material in the lakes of Japan and the hill farms of Wales and Ireland. It was the greatest man-made disaster - the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs.

Twenty years on, the level of fallout in human suffering is still debated. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organisation say that only 50 deaths can be attributed to the disaster, that 4,000 people at most may eventually die from it, and that most of the illnesses among the five million people contaminated are down to poverty and lifestyle.

However, new research commissioned by European parliamentary groups, Greenpeace International and medical foundations suggest that half a million people have already died, that infant mortality has increased by 20 to 30 per cent and that among the 600,000 who took part in the clean-up, the rate of cancer deaths was nearly three times higher than the norm."

© The Irish Times


[PART 2 OF 3]

THE IRISH TIMES, MON, APRIL 10, 2006

Neglected inheritors of a toxic legacy The extent of the genetic damage caused by radiation can be seen in the suffering of children throughout the region, writes Kathy Sheridan in Chernobyl, in the second of a three-part series >> FULL TEXT

"NEGLECTED INHERITORS OF A TOXIC LEGACY

Poisoned life: eight-month-old Vlad, a patient in the intensive care unit of Gomel Children's Regional Hospital

The extent of the genetic damage caused by radiation can be seen in the suffering of children throughout the region, writes Kathy Sheridan in Chernobyl, in the second of a three-part series

Vyacheslav Klimovich is the director of what Belarussians call a "children's mental asylum", a place that, to many volunteers working for Adi Roche's Chernobyl charity, resonates with both horror and triumph. The radical renovation work, teacher training and modern equipment funded by the Children of Chernobyl Project International (CCPI) are slowly turning Vesnovo into a bright, enlightened haven. But for The Irish Times, on a tight schedule, it's fair to admit that it is no more than a stop on the long road between Minsk and Chernobyl, and the interview with the director no more than a courtesy call.

Then a casual question elicits the information that the dignified Klimovich was once a physics teacher. He knows enough about what lies in the soil around highly contaminated Vetka, his wife's birthplace, and around Gomel, their subsequent home in southern Belarus, to fear it.

He has a son aged 13, a child with no particular disease, he says slowly, "but he hasn't good health either. He is very weak and gets tired very quickly. He runs temperatures for no reason. We try to give him clean food and vitamins . . ."

Klimovich is so fearful of radiation that the couple have decided not to have a second child.

According to many Belarussian doctors and ordinary families to whom we talk, his description of his son's health and reasons for having an only child could apply to nearly every family in the Gomel region.

Klimovich's case is not dramatic, and his son's unexplained lethargy and temperature spikes will not feature in any statistic. But it's one reason why an eastern European cry of rage greeted last September's Chernobyl Forum report from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). It stated that only 50 deaths could be directly attributed to the disaster, that
4,000 at most would eventually die from it and that the majority of illnesses among the estimated five million contaminated in the former Soviet Union are attributable to growing poverty and unhealthy lifestyles.

Dr Michael Repacholi, manager of the WHO Radiation Programme, is quoted in the summary: "The sum total of the Chernobyl Forum is a reassuring message."

Another series of reports, however, are on the way, according to the Guardian newspaper, which will tell a radically different story. These are also from leading scientists and doctors and take into account 50 published scientific studies in estimates from researchers commissioned by European parliamentary groups, Greenpeace International, and medical foundations in Britain, Germany, Ukraine, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

The forthcoming estimates will suggest that at least 30,000 people are expected to die of cancers linked directly to severe radiation exposure in 1986 and that up to 500,000 may have already died in Ukraine alone. The deputy head of Ukraine's National Commission for Radiation Protection says: "We have found that infant mortality increased 20 to 30 per cent because of chronic exposure after the accident. All this information has been ignored by the IAEA and WHO. We sent it to them in March last year and again in June. They've not said why they haven't accepted it."

The IAEA report has attracted much criticism for its tendency to concentrate on numbers of deaths while virtually ignoring the incidence of morbidity, such as chronic illness and the ongoing suffering of those who have managed to survive life-threatening disease. For example, the report states that nine children have died from thyroid cancer and that 4,000 have been found to be affected, but notes that the survival rate is around 99 per cent. The livid "Belarus necklace", the scar which marks such victims for life, and their lifelong dependence on medication, rates no mention.

AE Okeanov, head of the cancer registry in Belarus for many years and now working at the Clinical Institute of Radiation Medicine and Endocrinology Research in Minsk, published work in the Swiss Medical Weekly in 2004, showing that cancerous "affections" (women undergoing mastectomies, for example) had increased by about 52 per cent in the Gomel region. The rate for the whole of Belarus was up by 40 per cent. His study also showed that the peak incidence rates of breast cancer had shifted to younger women between 45 and 49 years of age.

IN THE RIVNE region of Ukraine, 310 miles west of Chernobyl, doctors are also reporting an unusual rate of cancers and mutations.

"In the 30 hospitals of our region we find that up to 30 per cent of people who were in highly radiated areas have physical disorders, including heart and blood diseases, cancers and respiratory diseases," says Alexander Vewremchuk, of the Special Hospital for the Radiological Protection of the Population in Vilne. "Nearly one in three of all the newborn babies have deformities, mostly internal."

In Belarus, Dr Vyacheslav Izhakovsky, the chief doctor at the Gomel Regional Children's Hospital, which treats 12,000 children a year, says that, factoring in the plummeting birthrate, the hospital has seen the rate of genetic damage in newborns increase by 16 times since 1985.

"We're at a time when women who were aged between one and three in 1986 are giving birth . . . No more than 16 to 17 per cent of all newborn babies are completely healthy," he says. "The cause behind 60 per cent of these is the mother's sickness during pregnancy. Twenty years after Chernobyl, you have to take into consideration radiological problems. I and many doctors believe that 50 per cent of illness is rooted in ecological problems. But we can't prove it because we have no time to do research. I can tell you though, that the problems are only starting . . ."

Dr Irina Kolmanovich, the paediatrician who runs the newborns' intensive care unit, points to several babies with genetic problems. They include eight- month-old Vlad, who was born with damage to his muscle and nervous system. He can still move his legs and hands but no one is prepared to give a prognosis. Vlad lies opposite three-year-old Masha, who was born with a similar condition and mobility, but has been deteriorating steadily during her short life.

Vlad's mother is in the bracket of girls who were aged between one and three in 1986.

"It's all genetic," says Dr Kolmanovich, "You can read it when the damage is ecological."

In Gomel, in particular, people like Vyacheslav Klimovich drew their own conclusions by not risking a second child. Quite apart from a "demographic doomsday" being discussed by some researchers, the result can be unspeakably tragic. Lena Pogorelova, a maths teacher in Gomel, took the "risk" of having a child five years ago. She had always worried about what is called the "Chernobyl effect" and had heard about the low number of healthy newborns. She gave birth to Diana, now aged five, who seemed normal but slowly manifested enough symptoms to fill three handwritten pages, the main ones of which are cerebral palsy, a heart defect, eye problems and anaemia.

Diana is now confined to a special chair, is subject to terrifying convulsions and seizures, and is almost impossible to calm at any time. The only saviours for Pogorelova are her mother-in-law, who acts as carer while Pogorelova goes to work, and the hospice nurses of the CCPI.

Pogorelova's husband, a plasterer, finds work where he can, in a region where jobs are scarce, so Pogorelova's income is vital. But she can hardly find a minute even to prepare her lessons.

Diana remains the Pogorelovas' only child. Her mother sees no hope, no future.

She will not attribute Diana's condition to Chernobyl. She blames herself for being an "old" mother (35 when Diana was born). But she does believe that there is a sickness in the population. Many of her female teaching colleagues have unexplained spinal problems, for example. Sheobserves that children are much "weaker" now than before, that they get tired far more easily and that even psychologically there are changes.

"Radiation doesn't only affect the liver," she says."It affects different systems in the body and changes them, and we never know where it's going to strike."

THE OTHER CATEGORY which rails against the IAEA's Chernobyl Forum report is the "liquidators", the 600,000 heroes of the Soviet Union who battled the radioactive inferno in 1986, working in radioactive hot spots, clearing up the debris around the plant, disposing of vehicles, suppressing dust, demolishing villages and controlling the populations.

The forum summary asserts that "as of mid-2005, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004".

Contrast this with what the deputy head of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine told the Guardian: "[ Studies show] that
34,449 people who took part in the clean-up of Chernobyl have died in the years since the catastrophe. The deaths of these people from cancers was nearly three times as high as in the rest of the population."

Few dismiss out of the hand the forum's assertion that some illnesses in the population are attributable to growing poverty and unhealthy lifestyles or that under-reporting in previous years might be a factor in percentage increases.

"Of course there is some truth in this," says Dr Izhakovsky of Gomel Regional Children's Hospital. "We accept there has been a certain percentage of under-reporting but believe it is minor. And of course we have social problems now. But there is no huge gap between living conditions then and now, other than a small percentage.

"The disaster was a difficult situation for any republic, although Belarus was left facing all the problems and hadn't enough money. You can say it's just a socio-economic problem, but on the other hand we didn't have the money to deal with it. Go to Vetka and see what people are eating there, where radiation is three times higher than it should be. Traditionally, Belarussians go to the woods for food, and that food is not being checked for radiation. Fifty per cent of all the effects are environmental - you cannot get away from that."

"WHERE DID THE IAEA do its research?" he adds angrily, pointing out that no one consulted him, although he has been a doctor here since 1982. "Why don't they do some real research work?"

He castigates those responsible for keeping the people in ignorance in 1986, for not evacuating people quickly enough, for failing to give out iodine. The politicians thought they were gods, he says, but they couldn't "influence the chemical processes". And as for the academics who helped to hide information at the time and are now handing it over when it's too late: "Where were you back then?"

© The Irish Times


[PART 3 OF 3]

THE IRISH TIMES, TUESDAY, APRIL 11, 2006

"IS IT GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN?

Staring into a void: graffiti on a rooftop in the empty city of Pripyat, Ukraine, evacuated permanently after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien

With Belarus planning a new nuclear plant just 25 miles from the zone contaminated by Chernobyl, Kathy Sheridan, in the last of a three-part series, looks at the 'nuclear renaissance' and, below, hears the views of a Belarussian scientist who refused to be silenced

Chernobyl is over. That is basically the message of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Chernobyl Forum, the British nuclear industry and the Belarussian government. People died, but not many; the industry made mistakes, but it's all part of the "historical legacy" which the industry has bravely put behind it - so the message goes.

And the whole affair has given the Belarussian government such insights into nuclear power that it plans to build its own plant just 25 miles from the contaminated zone, a plan which has attracted surprisingly little comment from western democracies. Belarus, after all, is "the last dictatorship in Europe", according to Condoleezza Rice, a place where independent voices have systematically been silenced.

If Iran is suspect, why not Belarus? Belarus is simply tapping into what is being called a "nuclear renaissance", an apt term given that it is being led by France, a country with 59 reactors rolling out nearly 80 per cent of its electricity. Its slick marketing and expertise has been given weight by prominent environmentalists such as Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, and James Lovelock, who have switched sides in the belief that nuclear plants could help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions while satisfying voracious energy demands.


Finland is building the first new reactor in western Europe since 1991. Italy and the Netherlands are talking about the option. With memories fading of the near-catastrophic partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania 27 years ago, the Bush administration has also felt able to make a pitch for nuclear energy.

Across the world, some 25 reactors are under construction according to Associated Press, adding to the network of 440 commercial nuclear power plants, spread out over 31 countries, that supply 16 per cent of the world's total electricity.

By contrast, Sweden and Germany are choosing to shut down their nuclear options. But just across the Irish Sea, the handsome €82 billion to be forked out by the British taxpayer, merely to write off the British nuclear industry's liabilities, has failed to dampen official ardour for nuclear power. With the last of Britain's nuclear power stations due for closure in 2035, Tony Blair has clearly signalled his wish to build a new generation of them.

In a scathing piece in this newspaper in February, the Minister for the Environment, Dick Roche, recalled that Sellafield (aka Windscale) was the site of the world's first significant nuclear accident. The 1957 fire "marked an early example of the nuclear industry's reluctance to make information available to the public and to deal with issues in an open and transparent manner".

Between 1950 and 1976, there were 177 incidents grave enough to warrant investigation. In 1980, the UK safety regulator determined that safety at the site had deteriorated to a level which "should not have been allowed to develop, nor should it be permitted to occur again". In 1999, there was the notorious falsification of data at Sellafield's MOX Demonstration Facility.

Last year, at the Thorp plant, there was a leak of 83,000 litres of highly radioactive liquid from a tank into a concrete containment cell. A report on the incident referred to a failure by staff to act appropriately; a culture of complacency; failure to act on information; a prioritising of production over planned inspections; and ambiguous operating instructions.

It is worth remembering that the Soviet authorities only admitted to the Chernobyl disaster after the radiation was detected in Sweden.

The industry has still to produce a credible, environmentally sustainable solution to the problem of radioactive waste, which must be nursed for thousands of years.

MEANWHILE, THERE ARE many who question the current benign thinking on the effects of low-level radiation. Michael Meacher, the British MP who set up the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters, has pointed out that such thinking is based on "the known effects of external bomb-blast radiation [ie, Hiroshima], not on the less well- studied effects of swallowing radionuclides which then discharge radioactivity into key body organs".

As well as its own home-grown problems, Britain is still coping with the after-shock of Chernobyl. Emergency orders imposed in 1986 still apply to 375 farms in the UK, 355 of them in Wales. The British Department of Health has admitted that more than 200,000 sheep graze on land still poisoned by the fallout. No sheep can be moved out of these areas without a special licence. Those showing higher than permitted levels of radioactive caesium are marked with a special indelible dye and must spend months grazing on uncontaminated grass before they are declared fit for market.

David Ellwood, a Cumbrian farmer, told Britain's Independent that before taking sheep to auction, they take them off the fells and put them in the fields for a couple of weeks, "so readings are usually low. But the odd one gets a high reading if it comes straight in off the fell, and has to be slaughtered".

In the Republic, a spokesman for the Radiological Protection Institute (RPII) says that no farms are now or were ever restricted here, because our "management practices" are different from those in the UK. Here, sheep from the contaminated uplands are brought down to the lowlands for grazing before being sold and "as caesium-137 has a biological half-life of 10 days, the sheep excreted all this before going to the mart". In England, the spokesman says, "all sheep are sold straight from the uplands".

He also points out that sheep here are monitored in the marts rather than on the farms, so there is no need to restrict the farms. Now, Department of Agriculture vets use in vivo monitors on one sheep in every 10 going to marts.

There have been cases where flocks have failed the test and been returned to the lowlands "for maybe 10 days, but it would be a long time ago since that happened," he adds.

It's the RPII's view that the British "made a mistake of bringing in the restrictions". Farmers such as David Ellwood in Cumbria were told the emergency order could last about three weeks, but the agriculture officials were only guessing. According to the RPII, the UK is now "artificially stuck" with restriction orders and is unable to release the farms.

DATA FROM THE institute show that the two biggest contaminants in Irish foodstuffs in 1986 were iodine-131 and C137. While virtually all of the iodine had disappeared by the end of May that year, the C137 lingered much longer. During the first two weeks of May, the mean C137 concentration in milk was 120 becquerels per litre; it was September before this had declined to two becquerels per litre. According to the RPII, Ireland, "in line with most other European countries, adopted an intervention level for foodstuffs of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram as the level of contamination at which control measures would be considered. During the six months following the accident, this was only exceeded in one sample and so it was considered unnecessary to restrict the sale or consumption of foodstuffs produced within Ireland".

The institute estimates that Chernobyl resulted in "an approximate 3 per cent increase in radiation exposure to the average Irish person" in the following 12 months. It also estimates that in the 70 years following 1986, "approximately 18 fatal cancers are likely to occur in Ireland as a result of the accident. These cancer deaths will, however, be indistinguishable among the 450,000 cancers caused by other agents in the same period".


'TO WANT MORE NUCLEAR POWER RATHER THAN LESS IS INSANE' Kathy Sheridan

In a tiny apartment in a grim Minsk tower block, a scientist garlanded with honours, a member of five academies of science, a prodigy once given his own university to run at the age of 34, places another jar of hamster foetuses on a cheap coffee table.

He holds the jar up to the light, where the skeletal structures are clearly visible through the flesh. He points out those with no eyes, or no brain, or under-developed brains, or no skull-bones. Dozens, strangely, have a cleft lip and palate. There are 200 in all, none of which appear to be normal.

The foetuses' mothers, he explains, had been injected with proportionate, comparatively "quite low" doses of caesium-137 (C137), a radioactive element which featured in vast amounts in the Chernobyl fallout. C137 has a nuclear half-life (the time it takes for half of it to radioactively decay away) of 30.07 years. Hamsters were chosen, he says, because they have a genetic print similar to humans and "because they're easier to feed, not as smelly as mice and you can keep them on the balcony". His wife, Galina, smiles fondly and murmurs wryly, "and he has lots more of them".

This, then, is what remains of Prof Yuri Bandazhevsky's professional and personal world. Within Belarus, colleagues who once lionised him now shun him. He is unemployable but has no permission to leave. In 2001, he was arrested at his medical institute in Gomel and jailed for eight years with hard labour, on trumped-up bribery charges. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, but by the time he was released, in 2004, his health had been severely affected. His real crime was to go public on the effects of C137, after noting an alarming increase in heart and birth defects among children after Chernobyl.

The medical university he founded in Gomel in 1990 was in the heart of the most contaminated area and was therefore a natural laboratory for research into the effects of radiation.

"We proved that C137 is very dangerous - and most dangerous as an energetic killer of the body," he says. "The problem with C137 is you have no symptoms. So you just get some infection and you die and everyone will say you died from an infection. But, in fact, the immune system has been so weakened that you cannot fight it."

His thesis is that even low-level radiation is dangerous and that up to 24 years before Chernobyl, large parts of the world, including Europe, were already being contaminated with fallout from nuclear tests by China, the US, the Soviet Union and France. Russia, he adds, "was a nuclear dump". Pre-Chernobyl radiation maps, provided by French colleagues, bear this out. Chernobyl simply heaped on the agony and distributed it more widely.

The Chernobyl Forum report - which ascribed much of the population's morbidity to poverty, lifestyle diseases and mental health problems rather than radiation - is "an insult", he says.

"Can you imagine how the Belarussian people who live in those areas must feel, reading that? . . . Calling them drunkards, saying they don't want to work, that they're only waiting around for handouts. They are hard-working people. I'm not sure that any of those people who signed that report spent enough time trying to understand what is going on in that area. But I was there. My family was there. I saw the people, I worked with the people. I know the physical and psychological problems. I saw people not only dying from thyroid cancer, I saw other young people . . . So many of the doctors who worked on that research are dead."

He goes to a bookcase, laden with medals, and fishes out a small hardback book called Clinical and Experimental Aspects of the Effect of Incorporated Radionuclides Upon the Organism, by Yuri Bandazhevsky et al, dated Gomel 1995. The foreword was written by the Belarussian minister for health.

Another foreword, by AS Shaginyan, vice-president of the International Academy of Engineering and the Belarussian Academy of Engineering, takes a swipe at the scientists who skirted the issues in the early days and are now writing from their ivory towers.

"Regretfully," he writes, "the problems of the disaster have been and still remain the subject of political commercialism and career promotion. Even the belated manuscript by the Academician LA Ilyin, The Realities and Myths of Chernobyl, resembles an essay created in a cosy and quiet Moscow library room and written for self-exemption and self-redemption rather than to achieve a profound scientific result . . . The present manuscript is the first kernel of the objective scientific information on the radionuclides effect upon the organism."

Bandazhevsky's wife, Galina, also a scientist, is among the 15 contributors to the five-year study. But she too has paid a high personal price for her work, having had both her thyroid and her womb removed, due to cancers her husband attributes to the disaster.

Bandazhevsky looks at the growing nuclear bandwagon with horror.

"To want more nuclear power rather than less is insane," he says. "I wish I could show those people what I see in mortuaries here and the horror of what my experiments show."

Series concluded.


IRISH EXAMINER, MONDAY, 10.04.2006

10/04/06 Chernobyl after-effects worse than admitted

By Ann Cahill, Europe Correspondent THE effects of Chernobyl were more far-reaching and deadly on western Europe, including Ireland, than had been previously admitted, a new report reveals.

Cancer deaths, other illnesses and the continuing effect on the food chain have been underestimated or ignored, says a study that urges more research.

It shows that almost half of Western Europe was contaminated following the accident in the nuclear reactor on April 26, 1986. This included 68% of the surface area of Ireland and 34% of Britain.

Cancer deaths in Ireland attributable to Chernobyl vary - from 370 in an OECD report looking at the first year after the accident to 1,800 according to a US government study considering the effects over 50 years.

The report suggests Ireland is particularly vulnerable because of its acid soil that holds onto and disperses dangerous radiation into the food chain, through sheep and goats especially.

About two-thirds of the collective dose of nuclear radiation was distributed to populations outside Belarus, Ukraine and Russia - more than ten times greater than official estimates.

This deadly fallout is causing between 30,000 and 60,000 cancer deaths, together with increases in eye cataracts and heart disease.

The cancer figures are up to 15 times greater than those published last year by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organisation.

The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH) was commissioned by the European Greens and prepared by two British scientists, Ian Fairlie PhD and David Sumner DPhil.

They drew on existing findings by reputable bodies including the European Commission, the US Department of the Environment, and the British National Radiological Protection Board.

They are highly critical of the IAEA, saying it was not neutral and underestimated the effects of the accident. They point out that while the IAEA report suggested 9,000 cancer deaths, its press release put it at just 4,000.

They acknowledge it contained a great deal of important information and comprehensively examined the effects in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

However, it was silent on the effects outside these countries where most of the fallout was deposited.

The IAEA quoted only that 2.3% of Europe’s surface area was contaminated by high levels of radiation and ignored that over 40% was contaminated with lower but significant levels.

There are contradictory reports on increases of thyroid cancer in the north of England and also in France. The scientists call for further work to establish the extent of thyroid cancer in all European countries."

--------

New Chernobyl Study Challenges IAEA Report on Chernobyl Consequences: Finds Death Toll Likely to be 30-60,000 //www.commondreams.org/news2006/0411-02.htm



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