Chernobyl disaster: 25th anniversary

Scientists estimate nuclear fall-out caused over 200,000 deaths

It is now 25 years since the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear station.

In the immediate aftermath and under pressure of public opinion, many countries tended to wind down their atomic energy programmes. Now, however, with oil at a high price, big business is attempting to resurrect nuclear power, arguing, that in fact the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster were not so serious after all.

George Monbiot (Guardian, 5 April 2011), a former anti-nuclear energy advocate has also now come out in favour of the nuclear lobby. He argues that there is no serious scientific evidence backing up claims of high fatality levels and even argues that the high deaths rates in the region around Chernobyl are as much due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He criticises one study to back up his claim saying that "it made no attempt to correlate exposure to radiation with the incidence of disease".

Yet such studies have been made. A report written by Russian scientists and published by Greenpeace in 2006, gave many examples, backed by scientific references. For example, they compare different regions of Belarus, the country most affected by the Chernobylfall-out. It has seen a 40% increase in cancer rates in the period from 1990 to 2000. The highest increase (52%) was seen in the Gomel region which was the most affected by the fallout and the lowest (32-33%) in Brest and Mogilev – the least affected. This report can be read in detail here.

The Russian scientists who were involved in compiling this report, who had to overcome serious political obstacles from the Russia nuclear lobby to uncover the truth, estimate that in the years up to 2006, 200,000 people died as a result of Chernobyl. Many others suffer from other illnesses.

We reprint below an article from pulished on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Svetlana, one of the authors, who at the time was a vibrant and energetic activist defending the rights of Chernobyl victims, sadly later died of cancer, barely reaching the age of 20 years.

First published 24 April 2006:

Ukraine: The rewriting of Chernobyl’s history

Corruption and despair – Interviews with accident victims

Rob Jones and Svetlana, CWI CIS

On the 26 April, 1986, the fourth block of the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded, throwing 50 million curies of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. This is 500 times more than was released when the American army dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, towards the end of WW2. In the year, following the Chernobyl catastrophe, over 200,000 people from the Ukraine, alone, were effected by the explosion (in the former USSR the figure was near 700,000). Around 3.5 million people were left living in regions with high radiation levels. Even today’s Ukraine Ministry of Health recognises that up to 80% of those people suffer some effects and require more medical treatment than would normally be the case. In the Ukraine, 643,000 children live in the affected areas, 5,500 of whom are registered invalids.

In a recent excellent article on Chernobyl, by Jon Dale and Peter Dickenson, posted on, the authors explain how, as part of the new “Is atomic energy safe?” debate, there is a clear attempt being made by advocates of nuclear power to downscale the deaths and illnesses caused by the Chernobyl disaster, 20 years ago. A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, in conjunction with the World Bank, and UN bodies (‘Chernobyl: The true scale of the accident’) claims, “A total of up to four thousand people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident”.

“As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths have been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many of whom died within months of the accident”.

Outlandish claims

An even more outlandish claim is made by Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, and now an advocate of nuclear power. He claims that only 56 deaths could be directly attributed to Chernobyl, and most of these, he claims, were people who died during the accident. He compares this figure to the over one million deaths in Africa, over the past twenty years, by people wielding machetes in various wars!

All the agencies working in the three countries directly affected by Chernobyl (Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia), however, report a completely different picture. Unlike the IAEA report, which was compiled mainly by people outside of the CIS and with close connections to the nuclear industry, another report ‘Consequences on Human Health of the Chernobyl Disaster’ was compiled using the evidence and input of dozens of health professionals working in the region. This report is backed by the research conducted by the Russian Academy of Science and which is published by Greenpeace. According to their information, over 200,000 people have died as a result of the Chernobyl catastrophe. What is immediately striking, when comparing the two reports, is that the IAEA only examines a very few illnesses and always attempts to put doubt on links between the illness and the accident. The Greenpeace report has a very thorough analysis of all the possible illnesses, backed by statistical analysis of, for example, relative illness rates between areas affected by the fallout and other areas. It is absolutely clear that the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster were horrendous and will continue to be so for decades.

The connivance of UN institutions with the cover up that is clearly being conducted by the nuclear industry is a scandal. However, there is another scandal that will probably never get much public airing in the mainstream media – that is, the pitifully low level of assistance given to the Chernobyl victims.

It is difficult to find information of funds given as humanitarian aid since the catastrophe. According to President Lukashenko of Belarus, over 200 million dollars was received by Belarus in the 15 years following the accident. If this figure is correct, it probably means that not much less than a billion dollars, in all, was granted for humanitarian aid. This is in addition to a further billion given to the Ukrainian government in technical assistance to aid the closure of the remaining power blocks at Chernobyl.

Precious little of this money, however, reached the victims, the vast majority of whom are victims of the worst forms of exploitation in the new capitalist countries that arose from the collapse of the USSR – a collapse clearly hastened by the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Victims Anna and Rustam talk to CWI

Rob Jones, from the CWI in the CIS, and Svetlana, a youth rights activist in one of the areas affected by the disaster, both recently visited Chernobyl victims in a hospital. They spoke to Anna and Rustam.

“I was a child at the time of the explosion. Now the next generation of children is going to school. Many, like my kids, are in and out of hospital. My sister’s child is permanently bald. My husband can’t get work. Yet the government is doing all it can to wipe the memory of Chernobyl from the consciousness of the Ukrainian people. But a huge bitterness remains in the minds of those affected.

“For the majority of Chernobyltsi [victims of Chernobyl] the word ‘work’ sounds great, but not many of has a job. For anyone living in one of the affected areas, a potential employer has to fill in a pack of official forms. He has to take on extra obligations to pay for sick pay and has to accept that the employee is likely to be ill more often than normal. Of course, in our new market economy, employers are not interested in taking on such people, particularly when there are so many ‘healthy’ people without work.

“And this is just the start! In this situation, people hide the fact that they are Chernobyltsi; better to be sick at work than be an unemployed Chernobyltsi. Because you can’t live on the pittance the state gives you. At least today wages and pensions are growing but the payment given to Chernobyltsi is staying the same. They say we have free places in the kinder garden for the kids. That’s true, but we then have to pay for any basic equipment they use. My niece is smart, she speaks English very well and wants to go to college – but that costs 5,000 dollars. Where will my sister find that money? The government is trying to forget about us, we just cause them embarrassment and further problems. For the new Ukrainian elite, just as in other capitalist countries, people are just lumps of meat and if they can’t make a profit out of us, they aren’t interested.

“And we are lucky; we live in one of the bigger towns. Those who live in the villages don’t see a kopeck. Many are just petrified what will happen tomorrow.

If you are a Chernobyltsi, it’s even difficult to get a driving license. All the children evacuated from the zone underwent compulsory psychological testing, and although maybe nothing was found, it is still recorded on your health record and the mere mention of a test is interpreted as a diagnosis [To get a driving license in the Ukraine and Russia, you need to pass a psychological test].

“From the government’s point of view this is great. Not only is this another means of extracting bribes, but it is a convenient let out for the government if we start to protest – ‘You know, we sympathise but these people have psychological difficulties!’ they say.

“Even worse, is the way that invalidity categories are misused [Category 1 invalidity is the most serious form of invalidity, usually experienced by those directly involved in the Chernobyl accident or living nearby]. If you have the money it’s very easy to buy this category now, and many do because as a result you are supposed to get free housing etc. And yet those of us who did suffer are left struggling. They have been promising me a flat for years. Maybe next year, they now say. But who knows? One of my mates was a welder working on the roof of Chernobyl at the time of the explosion. Eventually he got a flat but he only lived there for 6 months, he ended up in hospital having part of his stomach [and] part of a lung removed. Now he is unemployed, living on one kidney – but as he has ‘been cured’ [so] he has had his invalidity removed!

“And yet everywhere you go, you see people pulling strings. Just the other day I was in the compensation office. I met a bloke and asked him where he had been at the time of the accident. When he said ‘Chernobyl’, I suspected him. Only those actually involved [in the accident] know that the station [which exploded] and local residents [directly effected] were in Pripyat. He probably hadn’t even heard of the place. And yet we are facing these humiliations everyday.

“We lost everything”

“Even today, when I close my eyes, I can see the helicopters flying over the plant. My parents had gone to work and we children were playing in the yard. You can imagine what we felt when we heard many would not be coming home. It was over a day later when we were rounded up, told to get our passports and a change of clothes. They put us in a bus and drove us out. In one day we lost everything – our parents, friends, childhood and home. Some people who, whether it was sensible or not, managed to get back to the town some days later to collect their things, reported that all the homes had been stripped bare by someone. Now the authorities are arranging tourist trips by Westerners but they still refuse to allow us back for fear we will ask where our stuff has gone.

“Anyone left living in the ‘clean zone’ can only get by robbing and, even worse, killing. The Chernobyl ‘pension’ is miserly, and hasn’t been increased since 1996! Even the scandalously low ‘normal’ pension has increased ten times since then. People just don’t have enough to live. No-one can even think of going to the cinema, theatre. There’s not enough money for food and even less for medicines.

The Ukrainian government is cynically refusing to implement even its own laws. For example, according to the law on the provision of social support to victims of the Chernobyl accident, at least Category One invalids should get an annual trip to a sanatorium. But, in reality, they only allocate 30 dollars a person, when the absolute minimum cost of even a bad sanatorium is about 230 dollars. And there’s another example. According to that law, Category Three invalids should get a subsidy for medicines annually equivalent to five times the minimum wage. But the minimum wage in the Ukraine is only 70 dollars a month – and the price of medicines goes up and up. It is things such, as these, that have contributed to the deaths of the 60,000 Ukrainian victims of Chernobyl in the past ten years.

“There are over 50,000 families in the housing queue. Our new president [Viktor Yuschenko] doesn’t think this is a problem. He has already demonstrated that if there is no money to pay back the wage arrears of those in work, employers only have to pay the current wage. And a large part of the debt problems were accumulated during his time as premier. But at least wages are wages. The Ukraine is far from generous with the compensation it pays to the Chernobyltsi. It pays three dollars a month! It didn’t even come up with enough money to solve the consequences of the latest accident at Chernobyl [There was another accident in 2004]. The government then only came up with 2.5 billion grivna [Ukraine currency] – 16% of what was needed. And there’s an irony – until recently, there were still three blocks working at Chernobyl but they still rationed our electricity!

“Rulers live on such problems”

“To me, a person far removed from politics, it seems that our rulers live on such problems. They have profited by millions from the catastrophe. They have got used to travelling the world to seek aid. But they are not doing so to help the people. They haven’t got enough for themselves yet. And so far, holding out the begging bowl has been profitable for them. The person responsible for organising the distribution of the first humanitarian aid is now living comfortably in the US. On other occasions, we have seen truckloads of equipment arrive in the city only to be taken back out through the back door by the authorities. Some opposition politicians claim that the politicians and their hangers on have robbed the people of 12 billion dollars in such a way – but, who knows, maybe they are afraid to give the real figure. But what is worse, they don’t work themselves and don’t give us work.

“And nothing has changed since the ‘Orange revolution’ [2004-2005 mass street protests that saw the coming to power of the pro-Western Yushenko government]. There were many chernobyltsi amongst the protesters. We just lived in hope something would change. But even in the little time that has since passed they haven’t even bothered to look at our problems. If we couldn’t influence things before, we have even less success now. The first sign was when Yushenko published his ‘10 steps to meet the people’ programme… at the same time this new ‘peoples’ president’ kicked the health ministry out of its building to house his new secretariat. Not that the health bureaucrats are any better. Then in turn took over a children’s clinic that has treated over 55,000 young patients in the past ten years. Despite the promises to hand over the former secretariat’s building for a TB clinic, this, of course, has not happened.

“The country is in shock. Even the most stable and determined people are left staggering. Nobody believed that this new ‘boss’ would treat us so callously. But this will always be, as long as we learn not to be a nation begging from others but build our own economy, our own lives.

“Uranium a merciless enemy”

“Now they are talking of the Ukraine earning money from treating other people’s nuclear waste. But uranium is a merciless enemy. It has no heart, no eyes. Don’t believe anyone who tells you it is not frightening. The Chernobyl catastrophe is not only thousands of destroyed lives but thousands of kilometres of destroyed, infertile land. It is thousands of young sheep dying from leukaemia. It is the child’s cries of pain at night and people grown old from suffering. Uranium is a monster. But our rotten Ukrainian capitalism looks on it as a means of getting rich.”

After the interviews, as Svetlana left the office of the ‘Chernobyltsi’, she caught her breath. People are down, they’re pessimistic. You can see on the faces of the passers by the problems weighing them down. You can see the difficulties they have with their health. This is the cost of life in the new capitalism.

But, as Svetlana says, it could all be so different….

The Chernobyl nightmare – a crime under Stalinism and compounded under the ‘new capitalism’ – is, for CWI supporters, a spur to fight for real change in Ukraine and throughout the CIS, for a genuine socialist society.

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April 2011