Chernobyl: Political Half-life of an Ongoing Nuclear Crisis

Commentary | May 02, 2014

Reflecting on the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, EWI's Nadiya Kostyuk warns that unless Europe commits to removing the remaining radioactive materials from the Chernobyl site, it will face a second nuclear catastrophe.  

Twenty-eight years ago on May 1, 1986, tens of thousands of children marched on the main street of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in its Labor Day Parade. Unaware and unprotected, these smiling and laughing children celebrated the holiday without being told that only five days prior, a nuclear explosion took place in Chernobyl, a small city located 80 kilometers (approximately 50 miles) away. The government purposely hid the truth from the population to avoid dampening the joyous atmosphere of Den Pratsi—the biggest Soviet holiday celebrating the working class. Many of those children developed leukemia at various stages of their lives. No preventative measures were taken to ensure the public’s safety after the catastrophic Chernobyl events. If only those children had worn protective clothing–or been instructed to stay inside–their fates could have been different. 

Even though nuclear plant disasters had occurred prior to Chernobyl (such as the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania), the scale of the Chernobyl meltdown changed the world’s opinion on the use of nuclear power, and demonstrated the far-reaching effects of nuclear radiation, without respect for sovereign borders. Millions of people in Ukraine and neighboring nations, such as Belarus, western Russia, Finland and Sweden suffered significant emotional, psychological and physical injuries, which are still being felt today—28 years later. The level of radiation released from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (CNPP) was a hundred times “more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” and caused the “release of over a hundred types of radioactive material into the environment.” Some of those elements—Strontium, Cesium (both linked to leukemia and liver cancers) and Iodine (which harms the thyroid gland in children)—contaminate the environment to this day, having spread over great distances. There are still hot regions, where the level of radiation is 15 times higher than the level produced during chest x-rays. According to a 2005 UN report, long-term cancers that occurred as a result of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster (CND) will eventually kill about 4,000 people. Moreover, over 2.25 million people have been affected as a result of the widespread radiation—among them, 260 liquidators (nuclear plant cleanup workers) and a half million children

The Ukrainian government has forsaken its Chernobyl victims. The main law addressing the disaster was adopted during Soviet times and paid for by the USSR budget. When Ukraine gained independence, it did not have enough financial resources to pay the same benefits to its population. Most benefits for the Chernobiltsi are recorded in laws, but inaccessible. For instance, a 55-year old Category A liquidator, disabled due to the CND, was “forced to work during the liquidation period… otherwise [he] would be sent to prison.” He shared that, “free medicine is only on paper… most procedures effective for my treatment are expensive, as they involve special equipment.” The Ukrainian bureaucracy’s ineffective handling of the CND legacy can be attributed to the its high level of corruption, which leads to a lack of funding, and thus, to the violation of the rights to “life, adequate standard of living and the enjoyment of the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health.”

Sadly, the liquidators and other CND victims are remembered only at politically-important times, such as an election season and before the Chernobyl anniversary. The government and media talk of new remedies and upcoming changes, such as “the need to improve pensions of Chernobyl victims.” Before the 2010 election, pensions were increased by 120 hryvnias ($10.6 USD). Yet once a politician is in office, “he [or she] totally forgets about the promises made.” New problems occur and “Chernobyl is forgotten,” at least until the next anniversary or election cycle. This year, as politicians debate the situation in Eastern Ukraine, no one even has time to talk about Chernobyl. 

Lack of funding has also limited Chernobyl responses. One proposed solution—the creation of a new safety cover that would cost approximately 980 million euros, and would ensure the safety of the reactor for about a 100 years—was set to be completed by 2015 by French Novarka Consortium. However, the international financial support has been significantly reduced. Additionally, the UN action plan Vision for 2016 assumes that national budgetary support “for contaminated regions [will be] substantially reduced,” and falsely assumes that the problem is mostly solved. Foreign aid, including €110 million from the EU in April 2011, is often criticized as an effort to “alleviate the Chernobyl situation in the eyes of many commentators and decision makers.” 

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have further complicated ongoing Chernobyl cleanup projects, and the conflict could delay a $2.1 billion U.S. project—a 250-meter-wide sarcophagus to cover an existing, hastily-constructed structure next to the Belarussian-Ukrainian border—for two years. As a result, the replacement of temporary shelters, such as “Object Shelter,” originally meant for only short-term protection against radiation leakages, will be compromised. 

Ukrainian lawmaker Valerii Kalchenko doubts that Russia will continue to provide funding, as it has abandoned its G-8 obligations to lead fundraising for the sarcophagus cost overruns. Kalchenko forecasts that Ukrainians, together with the international community, have only three or four years to finish the project—time that we cannot afford to lose to the Ukrainian-Russian dispute.

Moreover, around 95 percent of the “original radioactive inventory of reactor Unit 4 remains inside the ruins of the reactor building.” It is far from hyperbole to say that without funding or adhering to containment schedules, Europe will face a second nuclear catastrophe from the same site. 

Thousands of people might be affected if Europe continues to falter at meeting already-established arrangements and fails to cooperate on this pressing issue. Even if these projects are built on time, the Chernobyl problem will not be completely solved: removing the remaining radioactive materials will be the next dangerous, costly and time-consuming task. 

Nadiya Kostyuk is a program coordinator for EWI's Worldwide Cybersecurity Initiative. She grew up in Berezne, Ukraine. 

Photo Credit: Pedro Moura Pinheiro/Flickr