x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 September 2017

Sarcophagus plan: a bid to bury Chernobyl's deadly legacy

In Ukraine, relocated families recall a life that is gone, but not forgotten.

A displaced villager visits his childhood home in an abandoned hamlet near the exclusion zone around Chernobyl on Monday for Radunista - a holiday in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Every year residents, who left after the Chernobyl blast, gather at the cemeteries to visit the graves of relatives and to meet former friends.
A displaced villager visits his childhood home in an abandoned hamlet near the exclusion zone around Chernobyl on Monday for Radunista - a holiday in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Every year residents, who left after the Chernobyl blast, gather at the cemeteries to visit the graves of relatives and to meet former friends.

LOKOTKIV, UKRAINE // Twenty six years ago tomorrow a two-sentence notice about an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor ran in the local newspaper, Lomonos Lubov recalled. It did not mention an explosion.

But two days later the village of Lokotkiv, about 150 kilometres away from the reactor, learnt that children had been evacuated from a nearby school. "Something awful had happened," said Mrs Lubov, 79, who spoke on Tuesday.

The "awful" occurred at the Chernobyl 4 reactor, which exploded on April 26, 1986, because of a fatal combination of a flawed design and operator errors. The explosion released a highly radioactive plume into the atmosphere, which spread over much of what was then western USSR and across Europe as far as the British Isles.

What became the world's worst nuclear accident spurred sweeping changes in the nuclear industry, and politics.

Estimates for the numbers of direct and indirect deaths from the disaster vary greatly.

Only 64 people were killed directly from the accident. But the Chernobyl Forum, a group of eight UN agencies, and the governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, say a few thousand people have died as a result of the effects of the explosion.

After Chernobyl, nuclear energy programmes across the world ground to a halt. The Soviet Union, its closed system cast into doubt by the accident, eventually collapsed. Doctors who had once only been able to turn to the survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima for data had a new population to shed light on the effects of radiation exposure.

Today, the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, is to inaugurate the construction of the estimated €1.2 billion (Dh5.8bn) sarcophagus to hold the remains of the dead reactor, which is now contained only by an unstable concrete shell. The 18,000-tonne metal structure will replace a container holding 200 tonnes of highly radioactive material. It is expected to be completed in 2015.

In the years before the event Mrs Lubov refers to merely as "the tragedy" or "the catastrophe," she farmed the land around her home in Lokotkiv, and her husband rode a horse from farm to farm to collect milk for the market. Only 150 people then lived in the village in the heart of what Ukrainians like to call the breadbasket of Europe.

By 1986 she and her husband had begun collecting their pensions.

"After the tragedy, all people were shocked and they didn't know what to do," said Larisa Kovachuk, who represents 1,300 people from seven villages in the area. But many of the residents stayed for years, including the Lubovs.

It was Mrs Lubov's birthplace, and she couldn't see or smell anything to fear. "We made a living the same as before," she recalled.

Six years passed. In 1992, government officials came to measure Lokotkiv's radiation levels, and found it was a hot spot. Officials loaded the Lokotkiv's 150 people on to a bus, showed them a site a couple kilometres away and asked them what they thought. Everyone in Lokotkiv, except two families, accepted the government's offer to build them new homes.

One of them was the Lubovs. Only after her husband died seven years later did Mrs Lubov leave the village.

On Tuesday, Mrs Lubov and her loved ones gathered around a picnic table near where her husband is buried to fill clear plastic cups full of Ukrainian cognac, the stinging counterpart to the light crumbly cake they had baked to celebrate Orthodox Easter. Foil-wrapped candies completed the spread, which they offered to anyone who passed by.

Mrs Lubov clung to her wooden cane and led visitors to the grave of her husband. He had died of lung cancer.

Was it because of exposure to radiation from Chernobyl? She could not say. But today, Mrs Lubov rarely returns to Lokotkiv.

From the graveyard, the abandoned homes of the town that is no more are invisible.

ayee@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters

The Facts

* The cloud of radioactive strontium, caesium and plutonium affected mainly Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus, as well as parts of Russia and Europe.

* A 30-km exclusion zone is in place round the disaster site.

* Wildlife has made a comeback in this area and there are said to be more than 60 different types of mammals living there including wild boar and elk.

* Although research continues, the first reports about long-term radiation damage have been published, and the results are that the radiation did less damage than initially feared. “There is a tendency to attribute increases in the rates of all cancers over time to the Chernobyl accident, but it should be noted that increases were also observed before the accident in the affected areas,” the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said in its summer 2010 assessments of the radiation effects in Chernobyl.

* In its conclusion, the UN report said that “the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences due to the radiation from the Chernobyl accident”.

* The report also said that the majority of the affected population in the region was exposed to radiation levels “comparable to or a few times higher than the natural background levels, and future exposures continue to slowly diminish as the radionuclides decay”.

* Reuters