News Liz O’Donnell

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Chernobyl disaster still looms large over strife-torn Ukraine

Published 15/03/2014 | 02:30

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Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol. Photo: Reuters
Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol. Photo: Reuters

Ukraine, a country of 45 million, has loomed large recently – primarily as the theatre for bellicose threats and sabre rattling between NATO powers and Russia over an alleged breach of Ukraine's sovereignty by Russia. Russia claims it is acting to protect Russian citizens and ethnic Russians in Crimea at cultural risk by the change of government in Ukraine, which Putin considers an unconstitutional coup by fascists and ultranationalists.

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In an exercise of dubious democracy, a referendum will be held in Crimea tomorrow to determine whether Crimea is part of Russia or Ukraine. Regardless of the outcome, and despite the best efforts of European powers to mediate a compromise package of proposals to bring parties back from the brink of war, the situation is extremely dangerous with armed conflict a real possibility. The crisis is regarded as the most serious threat to international security since the end of the Cold War.

For many people Ukraine is an unknown quantity. Its size and population is a shock to most. The last time it made headlines was in 1986 when a sudden surge of power during a reactor systems test destroyed unit 4 of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl. Ukraine was at that time part of the Soviet Union. The accident and fire that followed released massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment, causing unknowable damage and affecting millions of people living in Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. Because of Soviet isolation and secrecy and a lack of sophistication and expertise, the outside world struggled to engage or assist to help stem the environmental damage.

Apart from the initial casualties of the accident, 400,000 people became environmental refugees and 2,000 towns and villages around the plant were evacuated and bulldozed to the ground. A huge contaminated zone was depopulated. Only 3pc of the reactor's lethal material was discharged into the atmosphere at the time of the accident; 97pc or 216 tons of uranium and plutonium remains within. In order to stop further leakage of radiation from the damaged reactor a temporary cover or "sarcophagus" was built to encase the reactor. Twenty-eight years later this is leaking and radiation levels around the plant remain high. The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has pulled together funds from UN donors to rebuild the sarcophagus in what is a massive engineering project, to make it safe for the next 100 years. This is currently under construction after many false starts and delays.

Because of the clout of the nuclear power industry, the story of Chernobyl and its apocalyptic potential has been minimised. Given the Soviet-style repressed media in Ukraine, the world and indeed the population of Ukraine are kept in the dark on the issue.

Irish people are more informed due to Adi Roche's tireless work in Belarus and Ukraine over the last 25 years. Her humanitarian work through Chernobyl Children International (CCI) has kept a focus on the appalling environmental health and economic effects of the nuclear explosion. Thousands of Irish families and volunteers have worked with children through rest and recuperation programmes here in Ireland and in healthcare programmes in Belarus.

Ukraine in particular, has benefited from a significant engagement with CCI by way of a long-standing cardiac surgery programme.

More than 6,000 babies are born in Ukraine each year with a congenital heart defect called 'Chernobyl Heart', caused by chronic radiation.

Ninety-seven lifesaving operations were funded by CCI last year. Only half of the children who have this condition will receive surgery, the rest will die within a few years if not operated on.

But part of the CCI programme involves training local surgeons to carry out the operations, thereby building local Ukrainian capacity.

Belarus, which was most seriously affected by the explosion because of the wind direction that day, is the site of most of CCI's operations.

These two former Soviet countries retain the classic features of communist culture – political and media repression. It is a challenging setting for delivering humanitarian assistance and for advocating rights for children with disabilities many of whom languish in degraded institutions.

THIS week a new book is being launched by first-time Irish novelist Darragh McKeon called 'All That Is Solid Melts into Air'. By all accounts it is an ambitious epic story set near Chernobyl at the time of the accident in 1986, which captures ordinary lives forever altered.

Twenty-eight years on, as the EBRD-funded rebuild of the sarcophagus goes ahead at a cost of €1.54bn – and due for completion in October 2015 – the politics of the region is shifting. Instability or conflict in Ukraine poses a threat to world security in more ways than one, with the most unsafe nuclear site in the world 60 miles from Kiev. The next Chernobyl could be Chernobyl itself.

Irish Independent

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