Two decades have passed since the world’s worst nuclear disaster erupted in a plume of radioactive fallout and fire at the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986. Hundreds of firefighters, workers and citizens died in the first few days, trying to control the disaster. Deadly waves of radiation, equal to the effect of 20 nuclear bombs the size of those dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, spread from the Ukraine to Russia and then the rest of Europe, even reaching the eastern United States and Canada. The Soviet government suppressed critical information about the disaster, trying to hide the extent of the damage. The public was given few details about the catastrophe. Only after emissions were registered in Denmark, Sweden and Finland did officials begin to reveal the full magnitude of the disaster.
On that critical day, my family and I were at home in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, about 300 kilometres from Chernobyl. I was two years old and my mom was pregnant with my brother. The following May 1 long weekend we travelled to Oster, Ukraine, my dad’s hometown, only 52 kilometres from the reactor. A short announcement on the news about a small accident at the nuclear power plant assured people it was nothing to be concerned about. Unsuspecting families turned out in great numbers for the parades and marches in honour of the international day of labour, a national holiday in the former USSR. They unwittingly exposed themselves to the most dangerous fallout in the first few days after the disaster. My great-uncle, a schoolteacher at the time, tried to convince the school board not to let the children outside for the celebrations but his concerns were brushed off as cowardly.
My dad’s cousin, Alexander (Sasha) Verkhovsky, was sent in as a military reservist for the special duty of liquidating Chernobyl. With no preparation or safety equipment, men wearing only gloves and coveralls were sent into the fourth reactor to shovel out solid reactor waste. The following winter he was sent in again, working at times just one wall away from the explosion’s epicentre. He recalls being given a thin gauze mouth-mask to protect him from radiation. The workers were measured for their levels of radiation exposure, and sometimes all of his clothes had to be thrown out because they were completely contaminated. It was widely suspected that the Geiger counters were inaccurate, and that maximum exposure standards were changed shortly after the explosion. Of his crew of 40 men, Uncle Sasha is one of two who are still alive.
Over time many people died, but connections weren’t made between their slow, painful deaths and the effects of radiation. Uncle Sasha believes the government behaved in an absolutely criminal way. He nearly died from radiation poisoning himself, and his health started to improve only after he emigrated to Israel. Speaking to me softly as though I were still the six-year- old niece he remembers from the last time he saw me, he says, “Allochka, you have to understand that the Soviet government didn’t think that human life was worth anything at all.”
My parents recall the difficulties in finding safe food after the disaster. Dairy products absorbed the most radiation, and most major crops were also heavily contaminated. Label-reading became the new national hobby. The international community was outraged at the corruption and inadequacy of the disaster response. To quell the controversy, the Soviets encased the entire reactor building in a reinforced cement sarcophagus.
Despite all this, my family was lucky; we were eventually able to leave the area and none of our close relatives died, although some came frighteningly close. My brother’s teeth grew in marbled black. My cousin Olga, born in 1985 with a heart problem, was a true child of Chernobyl, weak and prone to illness, only growing stronger after moving to Israel a few years ago. One aunt had serious thyroid problems; I developed a chronic auto- immune disease. No conclusive studies have been conducted about the health effects of the disaster other than cancers and thyroid problems. My dad’s hometown, once a bustling agricultural centre and prime vacation spot on the Desna River, 96 kilometres from Kiev, turned into a ghost town. Every year my father receives word that another of his classmates has died of cancer or other health problems exacerbated by environmental contamination and poor living conditions.
My parents, brother and I came to Canada in 1992 to join my mom’s family. The rest of our relatives emigrated to Israel. Like the invisible, omnipresent radiation that became the silent killer of a generation, Chernobyl has loomed at the back of our minds as a constant reminder of the corruption and disregard for human life in the former Soviet Union.
Wanting to make sense of the disaster that has left an indelible mark on my family and undoubtedly on all of the people in the former Soviet Union and beyond, I have waded through the complex and often conflicting information about Chernobyl. A new report by the UN Chernobyl Forum, which includes the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the governments of Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia, was released in late 2005. The report claims to offer the most conclusive findings of the long-term effects of Chernobyl. It states that the official death toll is expected to reach 4,000 people, and that the greatest damage to human health has been psychological. This contradicts previous reports which claim that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of the nuclear disaster.
Dr. David Marples, North America’s foremost Chernobyl expert, is a professor at the University of Alberta, working out of the Institute for Ukrainian Studies. He agrees that the information about the true cost of Chernobyl may never be uncovered. Marples is skeptical about conclusions reached in the UN report, taking issue with several of the findings as well as the general optimism throughout. He thinks that one of the biggest problems is that the monitoring at Chernobyl was incomplete. Marples hopes that the world’s focus will be brought back to Chernobyl for the 20th anniversary, but he is uncertain for how long. He says that the UN report upset many people because it downplayed the disaster’s effects.
Every summer, hundreds of international programs sponsor approximately 3,000 children from Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine to travel abroad in the summer when radiation levels are the highest. Albertans have given strong support to the victims of Chernobyl. In 1993 the Hinton Association for the Children of Chernobyl registered as a charity with the goal of bringing children from the area to this small town in Alberta. Barbara Madsen was instrumental in starting the group, and has been involved ever since, hosting children for the past 11 years. Working with a Belarussian charity, they provide an eight-week stay for the young visitors, including dental and eye checkups and English lessons. In the summer of 2005 the group hosted 12 children and an interpreter from Minsk.
Since the Madsens first opened their home to the children, Barbara has travelled to Belarus several times. She and Marples follow what’s going on there, and they are concerned about Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic rule. Belarussian authorities have tried to declare the Chernobyl disaster officially over, and are attempting to recultivate and repopulate the land in the contaminated zone. The government recently announced its intention to build another nuclear power station in a region within 25 miles of the old plant. The Lukashenko government has systematically silenced opposition to its plans, muzzling the media and all independent voices in Belarus.
In the aftermath of Chernobyl, scientific studies and personal experiences could have been a source of deeper understanding of the event. But these have been swept under the rug of world history, partly by the communist governments of the former Soviet republics, partly by the people involved who have been afraid to acknowledge the effect the disaster has had on their lives.
In my search for information about Chernobyl I made long- distance calls to my aunts and uncles in Israel. They were surprised that I wanted to open up old wounds. Uncle Sasha was reluctant to speak at first, saying he hadn’t yet spoken in detail about what he experienced, not even to his wife and children, not wanting to burden them with any more sorrow. Now that two decades have passed, and the next generation of children is growing up in the Chernobyl zone, the events may be fading from general consciousness. But those who were directly affected know that the invisible radiation will persist for hundreds of years, wreaking unknown damage indefinitely.
Alla Guelber was born in Minsk and moved to Calgary 14 years ago. She is completing a public relations degree at Mount Royal College.