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Jeremiad for Belarus

Revisiting the accident "that could never happen here"

text and photograph by Hope Burwell

Published in the March/April 2004 issue of Orion magazine



Since Chernobyl, Belarus has seen a sharp rise in birth defects.
Since Chernobyl, Belarus has seen a sharp rise in birth defects.
Photograph | Pascal Le Segretain / CORBIS

I’VE LOST COUNT of the times I’ve driven lush, rolling Iowa hills to go to see how the local nuclear power plant responds to terrorist threats or Homeland Security’s latest “orange alert.” The front entrance has been altered since my first investigation. Now, instead of two lanes of vehicles passing easily through open gates, portable concrete medians channel traffic into a single lane. At a small wooden building in front of the open gates, a middle-aged man checks the identification of plant workers. I wonder if he ever notices me, slowly turning the car around and circling the plant on a county road edged in cornfields. I turn onto gravel, wind past small acreages of retired farmers in their new houses. I turn again, onto a lonely service road. Over and over since September 2001, I’ve been astonished to find this back entrance to the Duane Arnold Energy Center unguarded. The chain link gates blocking the road are usually padlocked. But all they do is span the road; on either side there’s nothing but a farmer’s barbed-wire fence.

Today though, construction crews are reworking the road’s surface and the gates stand wide open. I drive my rusting Taurus onto the property, twist among the working vehicles, pull over, park, and watch the men work. I stay there for an hour, and no one approaches and asks, “What’re you doing sitting alone in that car within firing distance of a nuclear reactor?”

Like most Americans, I hadn’t thought much about Chernobyl since the spring of 1986. Slowly the name “Chernobyl” became just another echo of the horrible nuclear events in recent memory, an anniversary sound bite, the subject of an occasional documentary.

Then in the fall of 2000, the Frankfurt International School, where I was teaching, asked if I’d join a delegation to Cherikov, a small town in southeastern Belarus.

“Belarus?” I asked. “What’s Belarus?”

“The country most contaminated by Chernobyl,” answered a German colleague.

“I thought that was Ukraine,” I said.

She sighed, “Most Americans seem to.”

I REMEMBERED Edward Teller’s response to the news about Chernobyl: “The chances of a real calamity at a nuclear power station are infinitesimally small,” he said on the “ABC Evening News” in late April 1986. “But should it happen, the consequences are impossible to imagine.”

Twenty-three percent of Belarus was contaminated with Chernobyl’s fallout, 32,592 square miles, more land than six eastern states combined. But it isn’t a solid swath of land, nor neat concentric circles emanating from Ukraine. On maps the contamination looks like rusty puddles and large tannin-stained lakes. Color variations denote concentration levels of the radioactive isotope mapped most clearly, cesium-137.

The average level of contamination on the polluted territories, thirty-seven curies (Ci) per square kilometer, is notated scientifically as 37Ci/km2. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) set the “safe for residency limit” at a maximum of 5Ci/km2. Eighty-eight percent of contaminated Belarus is 111 to 370 times more contaminated than that. Two million people still live on that land.

I’VE TOLD VAGUELY to “try to avoid” eating dairy products, fish, local produce, or “forest gifts.” I’ve read that when the radiological community began to study the effects of Chernobyl’s pollution on Belarus, one of the most disturbing discoveries was that grains and legumes absorb and accumulate cesium-137 much more quickly and in much greater quantities than was predicted. But I’m the guest of a schoolteacher and her truck driver husband, full-time workers earning less than $80 a month between them, and paying $2.50 a liter for uncontaminated drinking water for their six-year-old daughter, Olya. When they proudly spread a meal before me, I receive a whole paper napkin while Irene and her husband, Sasha, split one.

“It looks lovely,” I say, accepting a glass of garnet-colored wine they handle like gold. Irene translates for her Belarusan husband. The big, pale-skinned man smiles shyly.

“My husband has made it,” Irene explains. “Yesterday, all afternoon, he picked the mushrooms from the woods. Eat, please, eat.”

According to the Belarusan Ministry of Emergencies’ report, “Belarus and Chernobyl: The Second Decade,” 2,500 square miles of Belarus have plutonium levels three times higher than the IAEA considers safe for human habitation. No one argues with the fact that a particle of plutonium absorbed by the lung will eventually cause cancer. But, I reason, studying the colorful food Sasha has prepared, I’m not likely to breath plutonium from this meal. Tomorrow maybe, as we walk down the packed-dirt roads of a village on the edge of an evacuated zone, but not here, tonight.

Cesium-137 and strontium-90, on the other hand, are quite likely to be stewing in the rich brown mushrooms. The Kulbakinas and their friends live, work, and garden in a village where the level of cesium-137 is thirty-seven times above the IAEA’s maximum safe-limit. I help myself to small servings of several of the dishes, and my host’s face falls. “Can we get you something else?” Irene asks.

“No, no,” I say, “let me go slowly so I can taste everything. Tell me what I’m eating.”

Scientists do not dispute that once ingested, long-lived radionuclides, and many of the chemical progeny produced as they decay, remain in the body, irradiating tissues they’ve nestled into. (Nor does the irradiation stop when the host dies.)

Some radionuclides find their way from soil to plant to herbivore and carnivore. They accumulate in particular organs. Thousands of Belarusan autopsies already show that cesium settles in heart and optical muscles, speeding their degeneration. Strontium-90 likes teeth and snuggles into bone marrow, irradiating the stem cells responsible for our blood and immune systems.

I eat Sasha’s mushrooms. The deep brown forest gifts taste only of the autumn forest floor.

TEN MINUTES FROM CHERIKOV, a thousand-square-mile “alienation zone” is posted with large white billboards warning the trespasser in Russian that she’ll be fined ten months’ salary if caught inside. The zone isn’t fenced. For miles it looks like a normal coniferous forest opening onto green pastures that flow into ancient orchards. But there are freshly cut tree stumps, wet and golden in the weak sunlight. On the edge of the timber a crane loads tree trunks onto a flatbed lumber truck.

“Milling wood doesn’t prevent it from emitting radioactivity, does it?” I ask our van driver and translator, Mikhail Koslovski, a representative of With Hope for the Future, one of the many projects that have stepped into the post-Soviet funding vacuum to aid victims of Chernobyl.

“No,” he answers, meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Then what are they doing?”

“Belarus is poor, Hope,” he says. “It goes to Minsk to be made into furniture.”

I want to make sure I’ve understood him. “People in Minsk make furniture out of radioactive trees and then sell it to unsuspecting buyers?”

“Da,” he says quietly.

We move from the forest to an enormous open prairie, so flat, the uninterrupted grasses so tall, that I can’t see the road anywhere on the horizon. The van slows and makes a right-angle turn. At first I’m puzzled, and then I realize that the road’s precise geometry is all that speaks of a settlement. After the accident that “could never happen here,” Belarusan conscripts dug holes and buried the village that once stood in this spot. They did the same with over a hundred other settlements. To prevent surface contamination from leaching into groundwater, they backed cement trucks up to village wells and filled them to the brim with concrete.

Still, under a clump of trees in the distance, houses hunker behind wooden fences. When we get closer, I see a man, his chapped hands ungloved, his feet wrapped in pig hide tied below his knees, standing beside an ancient wooden wagon to which he has harnessed a lean Holstein milk cow.

Samosely?” I ask Mikhail, using the term for the old people who have returned without permission to their confiscated homes.

Refusniks,” he replies. “The old women said, ‘We survived starvation and Hitler and starvation and Stalin, and now you tell us something invisible will kill us? We will die here.’”

Watching the huddle of houses recede, I connect the sweet odor of the village with smoke from a chimney. “Is it peat they’re burning?” I ask, imagining the plutonium coming out of that chimney. “Peat dug here in the alienation zone?”

“Da,” he says again.

More miles of undulating prairie, and then swamps with trees burned from the top down. “The Swedes said 3,000 curies here,” Mikhail explains. “It is not safe for more than five minutes.” We’re 150 miles from Chernobyl. I don’t want to know 3,000 curies of what; I want him to keep driving.

Ten miles later, he slows down. On our right is an empty, long-weathered village. “This village is relocated,” Mikhail says, irony overriding the Russian accent in his German. “The village is relocated there.” He points to a set of five-story apartment buildings on our left, nearly new, and abandoned, curtains blowing through broken windows. “When Lukashenko [president of Belarus since 1994] had to show that he was doing something, this he did. Television cameras showed people moving into their new homes. They did not turn around to show that the people came only across the field.”

“It took years,” he explains, backing the van around, “to know what the contamination levels were, and more to know what is uninhabitable. Now the people are relocated again, and dying.”

I ponder the impossibility of resettling two million people. I begin to understand what Ivan Kenik, Belarus’s Minister for Extraordinary Situations and Protection of the Population from the Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe, was trying to convey. In March 1995 in the magazine Sovetskaya Belorussiya, he warned that the cost of his country’s Chernobyl mitigation would amount to thirty-two times his country’s annual budget through 2015. No one from any government or international organization contested his claim.

But there were Chernobyl-related arguments going on in the nuclear and radiological communities, as Western authorities refused to believe reports of illnesses appearing in Belarus much earlier than anyone had predicted. Among the first radionuclide assaults after a nuclear explosion is iodine-131, which our thyroids mistake for stable iodine and readily absorb. During the week after what Belarusans have come to call simply “the catastrophe,” all ten million citizens were exposed to untold amounts of it.

Western predictions of Chernobyl’s consequences were based on Hiroshima-Nagasaki data, and on the then-current belief that iodine-131 had a low carcinogenic potential. But within a year after the accident, Belarusan scientists reported an increase in a rare childhood thyroid cancer to 5,000 times its spontaneous occurrence in “clean” countries.

On a sidewalk in Cherikov, I watch a crying woman plead with Svetlana Vladimirovna, the director of the local kindergarten. The woman wants the nonexistent orphanage opened—now! Fourteen parentless children have been waiting for months. She’s just discovered five more, siblings, the oldest age twelve, in a barn on the edge of town, feeding themselves on stolen eggs and radioactive apples. “Their parents?” I ask.

Lovely Svetlana looks at me sadly. “Dead,” she says, “dying.”

“Why?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Chernobyl. Vodka. Chernobyl.”

NUTRITIONAL DEFICIENCIES are legion in Belarus, and of course they compound the deleterious effects of constant exposure to radiation. Post-Chernobyl demographics make plain trends that are hard to dismiss.

According to the 2000 report on Minsk’s United Nations Development Program (UNDP), life expectancy in Belarus in the 1960s was almost level with that in Western Europe. By 1999, thirteen years after Chernobyl, it had fallen 12 to 14 years for men and 7 to 9 years for women. A baby boy born in rural Belarus today can expect to live 59 years.

But they may be very hard years. Nearly half of Belarus’s teenagers have serious health problems. Forty-five to 47 percent of those graduating from high school have physical disorders like gastro-intestinal anomalies, weakened hearts, and cataracts; 40 percent of them have chronic “blood disorders” and malfunctioning thyroids. The number of handicapped adolescents has trebled in the last decade.

On my first trip, in November 2000, I spent three days touring schools in Cherikov and the even more contaminated areas of the Mogilev district. Then we traveled to children’s hospitals in Minsk. What I saw there still shows up in nightmares: children with eyes in the sides of their heads, and children with no eyes at all, children with fingers that look like toes, and children whose genitals are so poorly formed one can’t determine their sex. Those nightmares are audible with infant wails like the cries of wounded wild animals.

STILL, IT’S NOT THAT BELARUS HASN’T TRIED to take care of its own. According to the Ministry of Emergencies, they decontaminated 500 settlements. Sixty percent of those they decontaminated two or three times. They removed 7,300,000 cubic meters of topsoil and buried it, but could either find or afford only 1,570,000 cubic meters to replace it. They asphalted dirt roads, streets, and sidewalks so that radioactive particles were not sent swirling in dust that would find its way into human lungs. They dismantled objects, removed roofs, and buried them. They shattered contaminated stones and bricks into powder so that no one could carry them away to use again.

But eventually the ministry admitted defeat, declaring, “it proved unreal [sic] to fully decontaminate settlements, agricultural and industrial facilities with a view to creating normal living and working conditions, since needs significantly exceed opportunities and resources.”

Before giving up their efforts to mitigate Chernobyl’s pollution, conscripts entirely demolished 110 settlements, some of which had thousands of residents. They buried 3,200 farms, and abandoned to weeds and decay 14,500 others they knew they should have buried. They decontaminated 1,300 pieces of industrial equipment and 529 ventilation systems in twenty-three enterprises. And then they had to contend with the nuclear waste. Bury it? Burn it? Store it in metal containers on the acres covered with abandoned clean-up vehicles around the Chernobyl plant itself? They did all this and more.

But by 1998, twelve years after the catastrophe, the Belarusans had resettled only 260,000 of the 2.2 million people living on contaminated land. They had built schools with places for 33,700 students (130,000 had been displaced), preschools with 11,500 places, hospitals with 3,500 beds, and dozens of outpatient health clinics for treating a population that develops more radiation-related illnesses each day. In many places, they provided electricity, water, sewage, heat, natural gas, roads, and transportation systems, but not in all. They just couldn’t afford it.

“COULD IT HAPPEN HERE?” I asked a nuclear engineer in Iowa shortly after September 11, 2001.

“Depends upon what you mean by ‘it,’” he said. “It wouldn’t be exactly like Chernobyl. But if you mean, would a disaster at an American plant something like the explosion at Chernobyl contaminate as much land, contaminate it with the same kinds of radioactivity—yeah, it could happen here.”

“Let’s say,” I postulated, “that I disconnect the moderating rods from the source of electricity and blow up the back-up generators?”

He looked at me for a quiet moment. “Yeah,” he said, “you could make it happen here.”

At home, I get out an atlas and look at my country. Mentally, I draw 155-mile-radius circles around some of the 104 nuclear reactors sprinkled around the map. I consider the prevailing wind directions and imagine the inhabitants who would be living under those air currents. I wonder how the wealthiest nation on the face of the Earth would ever cope with such a disaster, not why the Belarusans can’t.

Recently a letter came from Irene. “We have been informed that now, suddenly, we live on a clean territory,” she wrote. “Can you imagine such a thing? We are not paid for radiation anymore, and all government aid stops.”

The radiation counter that stood in the middle of Cherikov like some nightmare version of a time and temperature clock disappeared the day after the announcement. Would that the radionuclides buried in the bones and muscles of Irene and Sasha and their children could so easily be removed.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

HOPE BURWELL, who made her career as an organic farmer before becoming a writer and teacher, wrote a book about the plight of Belarus. She is the founder of Strong Like a Willow: A Belarus Relief Project, a member organization of the Orion Grassroots Network.

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