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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Radioactive Contamination

<<< Other Republics of the Former Soviet Union | Environmental Problems Index | The Mayak Facility in the Southern Urals >>>

Contaminated Regions Resulting from the Chernobyl Accident

Chernobyl is the nuclear contamination area most familiar to people outside the FSU. The April 1986 explosion at Chernobyl Unit 4 and its catastrophic consequences have been widely described (Shabad, 1986; IAEA, 1990; Marples, 1992; Health Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident, 1995; Chernobyl: Ten Years On, 1995; One Decade after Chernobyl, 1996).

The explosion caused radiation to be released into the atmosphere over a nine-day period, with prevailing winds sending the plume generally in a north to northeasterly direction. The initial northerly plume eventually curved westward over Europe, resulting in significant fallout of radiation (associated with precipitation events) in such countries as Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden (Chernobyl: Ten Years On, 1995). High levels of radioactive deposition were also reported in Italy and Britain. Indeed, the first announcement of the disaster came from Sweden, not the USSR.

The areas in the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation that received high levels of radioactive contamination have been mapped in some detail (Figure 19.2). Among the lingering concerns are health problems of people exposed to Chernobyl's radiation, long-term contamination of land and water, and the structural safety of the concrete 'sarcophagus' that was hastily built over the destroyed reactor. The sarcophagus covers about 180 tonnes of nuclear fuel, which produces high temperatures and radiation levels within the ruined reactor building (Nucleonics Week, 30 April 1992). Fission products may be leaching from the reactor and fuel debris buried within it. The structural stability of the sarcophagus is very questionable. There is widespread belief that it is deteriorating and will have to be rebuilt, at a huge cost beyond the Ukraine's means. At the 1997 economic 'summit' meeting, the major world powers pledged a further US$300 million to assist in the construction of a second concrete shell.

Areas of the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation that received high levels of radiation from the Chernobyl accident

Fig. 19.2 Areas of the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation that received high levels of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. After the International Chernobyl Project (1991)

Soil and water pollution from the accident is extensive, having been recorded in 22 oblasts (as well as several foreign countries). In these areas, radionuclides have been measured in the soil to depths up to 25 cm. This quarter-metre represents the vertical zone in which crop cultivation takes place. As a result, in northern Ukraine, over 100 000 ha of agricultural land containing some of the world's richest soils has had to be abandoned (Savchenko, 1995). Also, about 14 000 curies of strontium-90 (which has a half-life of 28 years) are believed to be imbedded in the banks of the Pripyat, which flows into the Dnieper (Nucleonics Week, 7 May 1992). Bank collapse and shore line erosion are chronic problems in this zone.

This leads to the question of public health. Several million people who live between Kiev and the Black Sea utilize water from the Dnieper, and therefore are potentially exposed to radionuclides moving through it. More serious are the thousands of people that have developed radiation sickness, or have died, from exposure to Chernobyl's radiation. Although the official figure is still around thirty-two deaths, the actual number of Chernobyl fatalities is widely accepted to be in the hundreds of casualties (Feshbach and Friendly, 1992, 146; Marples, 1993b). A senior Russian environmental official has stated that 'official [Chernobyl] statistics are incomplete and irreversibly falsified' (Yablokov, 1996).

Another element of the human tragedy are the vast numbers of persons who have had to be relocated, totalling around 107 000 in Belarus alone, plus around 50 000 each in Russia and the Ukraine (One Decade after Chernobyl, 1996). Often, it was necessary to move them quickly to places with inadequate housing, social services, and employment. Worse still, thousands of people were not moved from areas of high radiation readings until years after the accident occurred.

Belarus, as is well known today, received more radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident than did the Ukraine. Between one-half and two-thirds of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl fell on Belarussian territory. Twenty per cent of the country's agricultural land (totalling, according to Savchenko, 1995, over a quarter million hectares), and 15 per cent of the forests, are no longer usable. But apparently they have been nonetheless used. Pravda reported that 784 000 tonnes of contaminated meat was produced in Belarus in 1990, and distributed around the country (Marples, 1992). Whether it was intercepted before consumption was not indicated.

The human toll in Belarus has been, if anything, even higher than in the Ukraine. As noted, over 100 000 people have had to be relocated, almost all of them from the Gomel (Homyel) and Mogilev (Mahilyow) oblasts. The city of Gomel (population: half a million) registered the highest increase in background radiation of any major city in the former Soviet Union. Tragically, the incidence of thyroid cancer in children has risen sharply since 1989 in all three republics, as shown in Table 19.4 (Marples, 1993b; Health Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident, 1995). Marples in the same publication also suggests that over 1000 people have perished in Belarus alone as a result of Chernobyl. A significant percentage of the national budget of Belarus must annually be devoted to dealing with the consequences of Chernobyl.

Childhood thyroid cancer (1986-94) in Belarus, the Russian Federation (Bryansk and Kaluga oblasts), and the Ukraine

Table 19.4 Childhood thyroid cancer (1986-94) in Belarus, the Russian Federation (Bryansk and Kaluga oblasts), and the Ukraine

Within the adjacent portion of the Russian Federation, the region with the most serious radiation problems resulting from Chernobyl are portions of those oblasts situated closest to the Ukrainian border. The most extensive contaminated areas are located within the Bryansk and Orel oblasts, with the western Bryansk oblast (immediately adjacent to Belarus) having the highest readings. Smaller portions of the neighbouring Kaluga and Tula oblasts also received fallout, as well as isolated areas in the Ryazan and Leningrad oblasts. None of the capital cities of these oblasts were in the region of highest fallout, but the large city of Orel was right on its border (IAEA, 1990). In contrast to the figure of 50 000 cited above, one more recent work states that over 84 000 people were relocated within the Russian republic (Savchenko, 1995).

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