Chernobyl's Aftermath: The Pompeii of the Nuclear Age

By Walter Mayr

Part 3: Part III: A Dramatic Increase in Birth Defects

Svetlana wasn't even born yet when the fuel rods in Reactor Four at the Lenin plant in Chernobyl exploded. Her parents lived in Kiev, at least until the day when her father was sent to work at the stricken reactor. In the days, months and years following the disaster, 600,000 to 800,000 so-called liquidators from throughout the Soviet Union were sent to Chernobyl to help out in the cleanup project. Svetlana's father survived the mission, but he returned home traumatized and exposed to high doses of radiation.

Svetlana herself, born a year after the reactor disaster, is 19 today and lives in a home for disabled children and adolescents in the town of Snamyanka near Kirovgrad. She was born with a brain tumor and the right side of her face was so deformed that she can only see with one eye. Today, several operations later, Svetlana is still so disfigured that she shuns contact with the outside world, preferring to express herself with her hands.

She paints, writes poetry and cares for younger inmates at the home. Despite the severity of Svetlana's case, others in the home are even worse off. Grisha, for example, who was born just a few months after Chernobyl and is now almost 20, has deformed legs and the appearance of a three-year-old.

Deformed limbs, missing ears

Doctors speculate that Grisha and other children with similar symptoms are the victims of a growth disorder caused by a genetic malfunction of the pituitary gland. Cases of this type of genetic disorder were occasionally reported in the region before the nuclear disaster.

But according to the foundation "Children for Chernobyl," in the past decade doctors have seen a dramatic increase in deformities among young patients from parts of Belarus and the Ukraine that were exposed to high levels of radiation -- including deformed limbs, missing ears, harelips and feet with up to eight toes. To draw conclusions on the possible causes of these defects, doctors must review the children's medical histories to determine where and when they were born.

Geneticist Hava Weinberg, for example, examined 100 children of Chernobyl rescue workers who had emigrated to Israel. The rate of genetic mutations among those born after the accident was 700 percent higher than among those born before 1986. In a government-funded, long-term study headed by Volodimir Vertelecki, chief geneticist at the University of Southern Alabama, an average of 14,000 newborns are examined each year in the Ukrainian provinces of Volyn and Rovno. According to one of the results of the study, there has been an almost 20-fold increase in the number of infants born with "spina bifida" (cleft vertebra).

These children with genetic defects are the second generation of Chernobyl victims. And they have fuelled a revival of the debate between scientists and doctors in rival camps -- between the IAEA and its opponents.

The first round of the debate centered on thyroid cancer. Beginning in 1990, Fred Mettler, a radiologist at the University of New Mexico and a man with years of experience on the pro-nuclear side of radiation damage assessment, began researching the consequences of the Chernobyl reactor accident for the IAEA. In a study he published in 1991, Mettler claimed that there were none, not even children with radiation-induced thyroid cancer.

"Those people from the atomic energy agency"

The next year, the British scientific journal Nature published studies showing a dramatic rise in the incidence of thyroid cancer in contaminated regions not far from Chernobyl, and it was revealed that Mettler also had access to the same data from Belarus and the Ukraine. It was clearly an embarrassing revelation for Mettler and the IAEA, but not embarrassing enough to put an end to their relationship.

In its most recent report dated September 2005, submitted to the United Nations as part of the "Chernobyl Forum," the IAEA has this to say about the issue of genetic defects: "No evidence was found whatsoever for genetic anomalies that could be attributed to radiation exposure." One of the authors of the report was none other than Fred Mettler.

Kiev Professor Igor Komissarenko can only shake his head when he talks about "those people from the atomic energy agency." "They met with us, of course, but they're not interested in new information. All they say is that it doesn't resemble the evidence from Hiroshima."

Professor Komissarenko, the doyen of Ukrainian endocrinology, is a short, energetic gentleman in his sixties. He is neither for nor against nuclear power, but he does object to thyroid cancer, and he's an expert on the issue. "Just look at the numbers," he says, pointing to a hand-drawn diagram on his office wall. "Thyroid cancer in children increased tenfold between 1986 and 1990, and is only now beginning to decline. But it's a different story with adults: 38 cases in 1990, 308 today."

Iodine 131, which causes thyroid cancer, is one of the more short-lived of the isotopes released in the Chernobyl reactor accident. Cesium 137, on the other hand, has a half-life of 30 years, while plutonium's is much longer still. According to medical experts, illnesses triggered or promoted by radiation could remain dormant for decades.

Death by radiation is quiet, odorless and invisible. The firemen, medical orderlies and helicopter pilots who helped clear the debris from the reactor building knew little of the dangers. The bodies of the first 28 of these men, who died of acute radiation poisoning, have been buried under heavy lead plates in Moscow's Mitino cemetery for the past two decades.

Demands for compensation

Some of those still alive today received radiation doses of up to eight Sievert units -- more than 16,000 percent higher than the allowable maximum yearly dose of radiation -- within extremely short time spans. But according to Ukrainian radiation expert Vladimir Usatenko, many of the documents that could serve as evidence of the suffering these men have experienced were either falsified in response to party pressure or, in the summer of 1986, stolen from a safe in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

These victims have found little support for their efforts to uncover the truth. The countries charged with their welfare -- mainly Belarus and Ukraine -- are already heavily burdened with the consequences of the accident they have shouldered, unassisted, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than 300,000 of the disaster's most serious victims have demanded compensation.

In Darniza, a Kiev neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings where many Chernobyl evacuees were resettled, residents in their mid-fifties are now dying by the dozens. But the causes of death listed on their death certificates are unlikely to make any impact on the IAEA's victim statistics. "Ninety percent of the people here are completely healthy when they die," survivors say derisively. Those still alive complain of chronic fatigue, headaches and the metallic taste on their tongues that radiation exposure leaves behind as a lasting souvenir.

One man who lives in the neighborhood, a former head of engineering in Reactor One at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant who was on duty on the night of the accident, remains optimistic. In October, doctors amputated both of his legs from the thighs down, but their diagnosis -- "arteriosclerosis" -- makes no mention whatsoever of Chernobyl. Now he is learning to walk again, using a walker built for him by former metal workers from the power plant. His prosthetic limbs were intended for invalids wounded in the war in Afghanistan.

Sergei Parashin was working the night shift when the fuel rods exploded in Reactor Four. He was the senior party secretary for operations at Chernobyl -- an extension of the party in the Soviet Union's laboratory of the future.

Following the explosion, the area around the reactor erupted into chaos. The director of the power plant, who arrived an hour late, refused to believe radiation readings that were already indicating radiation levels of up to two Sieverts outside the reactor. He refused to comply with the civil safety regulations that would have required him to issue a catastrophe alert.

"No cause for concern"

The plant's desperate engineers hurried to see party secretary Parashin: "Sergei Konstantinovich, the director seems mentally confused. You must speak with him!" But Parashin refused to comply, saying: "Why should I speak with him? After all, I'm no radiation expert."

Unlike many of his colleagues, the party's man on the ground at Chernobyl survived that night unharmed. He was subsequently named director of the nuclear power plant, whose remaining three reactors were kept running for another 14 years. In the end, he became director of the State Office for Resettlement and Evacuation Issues -- the unchallenged ruler of the 30-kilometer death zone.

In this position, Parashin continues to this day to represent Ukraine at international conferences. Accompanied by Volodimir Holosha, his former deputy Communist Party secretary and today a deputy minister in the country's disaster ministry, Parashin was present on Sept. 6, 2005 when the IAEA released a 600-plus-page report on the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster two decades after the fact. The report was issued by the UN's Chernobyl Forum, a group led by the IAEA and including representatives of World Health Organization, five other UN organizations, the World Bank and the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

In addition to arriving at the seemingly favorable conclusion that the disaster has claimed all of 56 lives to date, the expert panel also issues a broader all-clear when it comes to nuclear mishaps. WHO representative Michael Repacholi expresses the group's message in a way that even the uninitiated can understand: "The Chernobyl Forum's main message is this: no cause for concern." The East-West partnership, nourished over the decades, between the elite of the Soviet nuclear research community and their counterparts in the West has apparently borne fruit.

Building a new Chernobyl coffin

Hans Blix served as a willing figurehead for this conference of the like-minded from the very beginning. The Swedish career diplomat with the academic demeanor was named head of the IAEA in 1981. On May 8, 1986, Blix was the first Western eyewitness to fly over the remains of the Chernobyl reactor. The words he used to express his impressions earned him the Soviet leadership's lasting appreciation. Blix's message to the world was benign: "We were able to see people working in the fields, livestock in the pastures and cars driving in the streets." He said that the area surrounding the reactor didn't look nearly that bad: "The Russians are confident that they will be able to clean up the area. It will be available for agriculture once again." To this day, the Kiev Institute of Radiation Medicine displays a plaque with which the government of the Soviet Union paid tribute to Hans Blix for his role in managing the catastrophe of Chernobyl.

Although Blix resigned as IAEA director in 1997, he remains connected to Chernobyl. He now heads the group of donor countries that, under the leadership of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, plans to raise €1 billion to build a new coffin for the Chernobyl reactor.

Germany, with direct and EU-channelled contributions amounting to €127 million, is the group's largest contributor. Despite adequate funding though, the project advanced little during the past eight years. The delay is not due to the individual studies submitted to the group that conclude that a new, expensive protective shell is unnecessary because hardly any radioactive material remains within the reactor.

Instead, the construction project's tortuous progress can be more accurately attributed to behind-the-scenes claims by former Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko. In April 2005, he denounced the consulting and expert fees paid to Ukrainian government officials and representatives of international organizations as the misuse of "incredibly large sums of money." In fact, the Ukrainian people have a term for the business of turning a profit from Chernobyl. They call it "Chernobyliski bisnes."

It's a business that reflects taxpayers' fears of radioactive waste, and there are two parties fighting over the spoils.

Profiting from disaster

On the one hand, major corporations in donor countries are hoping to garner contracts for the contaminated 30-kilometer zone: Germany's RWE-Nukem Group, French construction firms Bouygues and Vinci and, at the head of the pack, US firm CH2M Hill.

On the other hand are the parties representing the interests of Ukraine. The problems involved with Chernobyl's nuclear waste guarantee thousands of jobs at the reactor site, along with healthy profits for consultants. And international nuclear power corporations' construction projects promise long-term employment for the region.

Under the leadership of Orange revolutionary Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine has placed its bets on nuclear power to accelerate its path into the future. The Ukrainian president has announced that the country plans to build eleven new nuclear power plants. The government's potentially profitable plan to import spent nuclear fuel from abroad for final storage in the Chernobyl death zone was temporarily put on ice in the face of massive popular protests against the idea.

And the 30-kilometer restricted zone around the defunct reactor? As far as nuclear energy experts and scientists are concerned, the government's supreme overseer of the zone, former party secretary Parashin, is in charge of nothing short of a gem -- the ideal site for genetic experiments, botanical field tests and research projects on radiation safety.

Plans are underway for a giant open-air laboratory within a 10-kilometer perimeter of the disaster site. An "International Test Site for Radiation Safety Research," shielded from the outside world, is already in development.

There are even plans to develop a tourist attraction in the space between the research site and the checkpoint where police officers with automatic pistols and Geiger counters still block access to the zone. The plans include a national park, complete with wild animals and rare plants.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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