Chernobyl disaster still looms large over strife-torn Ukraine
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.
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.