Wednesday 24 May 2017

Chernobyl 25 years on: Children were worst affected

Grainne Cunningham

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, the world experienced its worst-ever environmental disaster, with the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

As events were held across Europe to mark the anniversary yesterday, a Ukrainian nuclear scientist visiting Dublin warned that the risk from the unstable site remained high.

When the accident happened, it was a full week before the Soviet Union confirmed the catastrophe. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev admitted at a ceremony yesterday that the delay was wrong.

The radioactive material that was released polluted 80,000 square miles of land across Europe. Radioactive rain spread as far as the northwest of this country.

But it was the images of children who had been physically disfigured by tumours and other cancers that had the greatest impact here.

With the founding of Adi Roche's Chernobyl Children International (CCI) and other organisations, the Irish, more than any other nation, opened their hearts, homes and pockets.

Since April 1986, we have donated €90m in aid, while 21,000 children have travelled to Ireland for rest and recuperation over the summer holidays. Such breaks improve their quality of life and lengthen their life expectancy.

While the early efforts saw convoys of trucks laden with goods and medicines wind their way to the affected areas, the focus has changed over the years.

Ms Roche said that in the course of the next five years, CCI plans to build 20 'homes of hope' in Ukraine. These will provide an alternative to institutionalised care for affected children, who are often placed in orphanages because their parents can't cope.

Fifty cardiac missions, with paediatric surgeons trained to cope with 'Chernobyl heart' (multiple holes in the heart) will travel to Ukraine to save the lives of children.

CCI has also set itself the ambitious target of raising €15m over the next five years.

Ms Roche and Professor Alexei Nesterenko met Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore yesterday and spoke of the risk from the unstable sarcophagus/shelter built to encase the reactor. The structure is crumbling, with an estimated five more years of effective life.

A 16-year fundraising effort by the Ukrainian authorities has raised less than half the $2.2bn needed to replace it.

The new sarcophagus will be 35 stories high and will be the greatest engineering feat of modern times.

Speaking after yesterday's meeting, Mr Gilmore said that he had agreed to act as an advocate at European level to work towards the development of a safer nuclear industry.

"The Chernobyl issue is back on the agenda as a result of what happened in Japan," he said.

Mr Gilmore added that while nuclear energy was at risk from natural disaster, accidents and terrorist attacks, there were also risks associated with dismantling nuclear plants.

Irish Independent

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