Legacy of Chernobyl is neglected, activists say

By Natalya Vasilyeva
Associated Press / April 26, 2011

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MOSCOW — Former Soviet governments are failing to protect their people from the deadly legacy of the Chernobyl disaster, former cleanup workers and environmental groups charged yesterday on the eve of ceremonies commemorating the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have cut the benefits packages for sickened cleanup workers in recent years, and many workers complained directly to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as he handed them awards for their work at a ceremony in Moscow.

Officials in Bryansk, the Russian region most contaminated by the disaster, have failed to make necessary repairs at the local cancer hospital, worker Leonid Kletsov told the president.

“It’s the only place of rest for us,’’ he said. “Officials promised to renovate it, but these promises are still promises.’’

The blast on April 26, 1986, spewed a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the most heavily hit areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia.

The explosion released about 400 times more radiation than the US atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Hundreds of thousands were sickened and once-pristine forests and farmland remain contaminated.

The UN’s World Health Organization said at a Kiev conference last week that among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to radiation, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected to be eventually found.

Chernobyl has come into renewed focus since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan last month.

In Germany, thousands of people demonstrated yesterday near several nuclear power plants, demanding a speedy end to the use of atomic energy. Japan’s crisis has prompted Germany to freeze plans to extend the life of its plants, order a temporary shutdown of its seven oldest reactors, and seek a quicker transition to renewable energy.

In Austria, Chancellor Werner Faymann used an event in Vienna marking the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl to call for a nuclear-free Europe.

For many, the experiences of the people of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine present vivid examples of long-term government mishandling of a nuclear catastrophe.

The government of Belarus says natural disintegration of radioactive materials such as strontium and cesium has allowed the replanting of nearly 40,000 acres of formerly contaminated fields.

Environmentalist say the fields remain unsafe and the products grown there pose a direct threat to human health.

“Authorities are covering up the facts. Contaminated products go straight to the dinner tables of Belarusians,’’ said Irina Sukhiy, head of the environmental group Ekodom. “There are no clean territories — radiation has spread across the country.’’

Vladimir Volodin, a Green Party activist, accused Belarusian authorities of classifying the statistics of diseases in contaminated areas.

Viktor Yanukovich, president of Ukraine, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill planned to commemorate the victims of the nuclear accident with prayers and candle lighting in Kiev last night before traveling to the Chernobyl station today. Medvedev also will be visiting Chernobyl today.

A 19-mile area around the plant has been uninhabited except for occasional plant workers and several hundred local people who returned to their homes despite official warnings.

Soviet authorities initially offered a generous package of benefits to Chernobyl cleanup workers. But over time the benefits have been cut back.

About 2,000 veterans of the disaster cleanup rallied in Kiev earlier this month to protest cuts in their benefits and pensions after Ukraine’s Yanukovich said fulfilling past promises was “beyond the government’s strength’’ amid the financial downturn.

Chernobyl veterans in Belarus are facing similar cuts. top stories on Twitter

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