On April 27, the Office for a Democratic Belarus in Brussels, in cooperation with Hanse-Office (Germany), organized an information evening dedicated to the 21st anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
The evening attendees also had a chance to see two documentary films on Belarus—“Once Upon a Time” (2006, 10 min) and “As Is Their Wont” (2006, 20 min) (director Galina Adamovich).The discussion that took place after the movies’ screening was dealing with various aspects of the Chernobyl problem and the current situation in Belarus in general.
The discussion and the exhibit presentation were followed by a slide-show on the Chernobyl March in Minsk on April 26, 2007, which is a yearly opposition rally.
Office for a Democratic Belarus
Chernobyl nuclear power plant is situated in Ukraine, in its northern part, right near the border with Belarus. The disaster happened on April 26, 1986 at 01:23 a.m. It is regarded as the worst accident ever in the history of nuclear power.
There are two conflicting official theories about the cause of the accident. One blames the power plant operators. Another one blames the construction of the nuclear power plant.
In fact, both versions seem to be true.
The dreadful truth is, that the explosion happened as a result of a test.
What needed to be tested? Basically, the idea was to check whether the reactor will be able to produce enough energy, if the external electric power is lost.
Why was it needed? In first place, to see if the reactor will be able to produce energy to empower its safety systems all by itself. Some speculate that this check was also an attempt to produce cheap energy by pushing the reactor safety system to its limits.
I would not annoy you with all the technical details of the accident. I will just say that the test was postponed and left to be done by the night shift of the plant. The crew was not familiar with all the peculiarities and followed the standard test procedure, which proved to be a fatal mistake.
All attempts to keep the reactor under control failed, and it exploded, throwing a cloud or radioactive dust and ashes into the air. The fire broke out, and the radioactive smoke continued to spray radiation high into the atmosphere.
The radioactive pollution as a result of the explosion was equal to 500 nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima.
THE IMMORALITY OF THE SOVIET SYSTEM
It is striking, how poorly people were prepared for tackling such a catasrophe. In fact, nobody knew anything in the beginning.
Even after the explosion the plant workers didn’t realize that they were in deadly danger, because they were not able to measure the high level of radiation with dosimeters they had. None of them wore any protective cloth. Most of them died from radiation exposure within three weeks.
Now we also know, that Chernobyl nuclear plant was not safe from the very beginning. The Security Ministry of Ukraine has recently made public some secret KGB materials. According to them, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had numerous technical flaws. In first place, it was built with minimum expenses--the Soviet government saved money risking lives of millions of people.
The Chernobyl disaster had tremendous impact on the people’s life and health, but it also played a huge role in showing how immoral and ineffective the Soviet system was.
The government committee formed to investigate the accident, led by Valeri Legasov, arrived at Chernobyl in the evening of April 26. It didn’t take long to realize the scale of the disaster. However, the Soviet government decided it would be better to conceal the disaster from the population. Valeri Legasov managed to persuade the authorities to order immediate evacuation of the nearby city of Pripyat. In order to reduce baggage, the residents were told that the evacuation would be temporary, lasting approximately three days. However, all other attempts of Legasov to break the silence were resisted by the Soviet officials. In 1988 he committed suicide.
I can remember the moment of the Chernobyl catastrophe very well. My father was listening to the so called “voices” – foreign radio stations, broadcasting to the Soviet union. This was how we learned about the disaster shortly after it happened. The Soviet radio or television said nothing.
RALLY 1st MAY
However, the vast majority of people didn’t listen to the “voices” and had no idea what was going on. There were only some rumors. The traditional rallies on the 1st of May were organized as usual, with crowds of people walking under the waves of polluted dust.
The very first days were vital to lessen the impact of the radiation. Have the government ordered people to take the simplest measures of precaution and organized a campaign of iodine prophylaxis, people wouldn’t have absobed so much radioactive material in their bodies.
EUROPE POLLUTION MAP
Meanwhile, the radioactive cloud was spreading all over Europe. It was not the Soviet Union, but Sweden, which raised the alarm. The Soviet authorities acknowledged the disaster only after it was already pointless to conceal it.
In the next couple of years 135,000 people were evacuated from the area, including 50,000 from Pripyat. The resettlement was often poorly organized, with people settling in the areas, as polluted as the place of their origin. On the whole, 336,000 people had to be moved.
According to Soviet estimates, between 300,000 and 600,000 people (they were called liquidators) were involved in the cleanup of the 30-km evacuation zone around the reactor. My father was one of the liquidators. It seems like the war has begun – one night a military officer rang at our door and ordered my father to pack his things. He spent three months in the polluted area, basically washing the machines, which were used there for burying radioactive-polluted soil under the ground, so that the wind wouldn’t spread the radioactive dust.
The work of liquidators was also organized according to the Soviet standards. They had more or less proper equipment and protective wear, but many neglected using it, and the commanders didn’t enforce it. At some points, the stupidity of the orders they received was simply unimaginable. The unit of my father was stationed in the so-called 30-kilometer zone, surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant. One day the unit was lined up and the commander told them, that those who have worked the best would have a chance to go on the obligatory excursion to the Chernobyl nuclear plant itself. With no special goal – just to see it, for the sake of “political education”, as they called it in the Soviet army. My father was one of the so called “chosen”. A soldier standing nearby asked my father if he could come instead of him, because he was very curious to see the plant. The commander did not object, and this man went instead to see the station. Most of the people, who went on this trip, got a lot of problems with their health in the next years and many have even died already, including his person, who went there instead of my father.
All this made it obvious, that the Soviet Union was ruled by men, who saw no value in lives of their people. It was discovering the truth about Chernobyl disaster, which made the criminal character of the soviet regime clear.
WHAT IT’S LIKE LIVING UNDER CHERNOBYL?
Chernobyl had major consequences not just for the people’s health, but also influenced their way of life and their psychology.
People had to get used to living with the radiation. You can not see or smell it, and it is really hard to comprehend, why, for example, a forest, which looks perfectly fine, is poisoned.
Chernobyl created a huge polluted area, the alienated zone in the south of Belarus. Vast territory around this zone is polluted as well, but many people still live there. My grandparents, the parents of my father, still live there. When you go to these territories, you have no peace of mind. When you eat, you never know, how harmful the food is. When you return back to your allegedly „clean“ Minsk, you have to throw away your shoes, because you never know, how much radioactive dust they have collected. Mentally, this is exhautsing.
With Chernobyl explosion, huge areas of Belarus were lost for people. And these are some of the most beautiful places in Belarus. Palessye, the southern Belarus, was always a source of inspiration to Belarusian writers; many of them were born in this region.
One of the symbols of this loss is a museum of folk culture in Vetka, a small town in the polluted area. The museum is full of beautiful things, and it is especially famous for its collection of the beautiful icons, the pictures showing God. But – everything, including the religious icons, is polluted by radiation. Seeing the picture of God, which is poisoned – this is, undoubtedly, a true symbol of the Zone.
At the same time, there is another side of the coin – the nature in these southern areas is flourishing without people interfering in its life. This area is now a huge park, which is closed for the public.
CHERNOBYL AND THE CURRENT BELARUSIAN REGIME
In the early 90’s, when Belarus was still a relatively democratic country, the government tried to deal with the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe. When Lukashenka came to power in 1994, he acted like a true populist. He sensed that people in Belarus were overwhelmed with the Chernobyl problem, it was almost too much for them to bear. And he offered a very simple decision – by saying that there is no problem at all.
Of course, his wish was not only to please people. It is financially profitable to use the polluted areas, pretending that they are clean.
People, especially those living in the polluted areas, eagerly embraced this illusion. Lukashenka likes to fly to the polluted area in a helicopter and meet people in towns, assuring them that everything is fine, and this place is a good place to live.
Many students who graduate from the state universities, especially doctors and teachers, are obliged to go to work in the polluted areas.
Polluted soils are being used in agricultural sector again. Products in Belarus are not marked by the place of their production, which makes it impossible to see, whether they were produced in the polluted areas. There is a concealed practice of mixing dirty products with clean ones. The system of checking products for radiation, created in the late 80’s in the aftermath of the disaster, has been practically destroyed.
Today, polluted territories are being used by more than 600 Belarusian enterprises.
The flow of the foreign humanitarian aid is strictly controlled and limited. The same applies to helping children from polluted areas, who go abroad to spend vacations in better ecological conditions – these trips now are much more difficult to organize.
Lukashenka practically cancelled all the privileges for the liquidators.
Doctors are being “discouraged” by the government from linking the illnesses of their patients to radiation.
There is an urgent need to have the nation-wide measurement of the radiation level in Belarus by independent experts. However, they are not allowed to do so.
In fact, Lukashenka has returned to the immoral soviet policy towards major problems – that means, ignoring them. Even more – he suppresses any attempts to address Chernobyl issues.
All the major research of the radioactive pollution in Belarus is postponed, and the scientists are discouraged from making their results public.
If they do not comply, they may even end up in prison, like professor Bandazheuski, who researched the influence of small doses of radiation. He spent almost 4 years in prison for allegedly taking bribes. After his release, he was awarded the status of a political refuge in France.
Alan Flowers, a British scientist who was one of the first Western scientists allowed into the area to examine the extent of radioactive fallout around Chernobyl, said that the population in Belarus was exposed to radiation doses 20 to 30 times higher than normal as a result of the rainfall, causing intense radiation poisoning in children. Mr Flowers was expelled from Belarus in 2004 after claiming that Russia had seeded the clouds. He said: "The local population say there was no warning before these heavy rains and the radioactive fallout arrived."
Recently, BBC interviewed Russian pilots, who confirmed, that they indeed used chemical substances to eliminate the clouds, full of radioactive particles, settling them on the Belarusian territory before they could reach Moscow or other Russian cities.
Now, after Russia had refused to provide Belarus with cheap gas and oil, Lukashenka unveiled a new plan to build a nuclear power plant in Belarus. There is no unilateral opinion about it among the democratic opposition members. Some oppose nuclear energy, other say, that it is the only opportunity for Belarus to become relatively independent from energy supplies from Russia.
But, the major problem is, that Lukashenka want the plant to built cheap and fast. And the procedure of choosing a country, which will help Belarus to build such a plant, is not transparent. Will it be France or will it be Russia? Will it be the country, who builds the safest nuclear power plant, or will it be a country, who builds the cheapest one?
Yesterday in Minsk the traditional annual opposition march took place – Charnobylski Shliah, “the Chernobyl March”. This is not an anti-nuclear rally in the first place, but a rally against Lukashenka policy towards Chernobyl, this is the rally against the government, which is lying to its people exactly the way the Soviet government did.