Minsk, Belarus (openDemocracy) – Although Chernobyl is actually in northern Ukraine, neighbouring Belarus is the country that has suffered most from the disaster. After all, Svetlana Aleksievich’s Chernobyl Prayer was known around the world long before its author received the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Today, Belarus’s official attitude to the legacy of Chernobyl is rather ambiguous. On the one hand, it recognises its persistence and allocates funding to continuing clean-up operations, but on the other it withholds information from the public, encourages people to return to contaminated areas and is building a new nuclear power plant in the area.
What has changed over the last 30 years? Have the enormous sums of money thrown at the problem been able to save lives? Has Belarus been successful in overcoming the impact of this horrific catastrophe, and what do Belarusians themselves think?
Belarus – a terra incognita
For many experts and scientists examining the impact of the Chernobyl disaster, Belarus is still an undiscovered country. Greenpeace International’s recent report, “Nuclear Scars: The lasting legacy of Chernobyl and Fukushima”, which exposes the continuing impact of these nuclear accidents on the lives of millions of people, doesn’t even mention it.
Over a million Belarusians live in areas of the country affected by high-level radioactive contamination
Greenpeace studied the situation in Russia’s Bryansk Region and Ukraine’s Rivne and Kyiv Regions, but ignored Belarus. It is not easy to get first hand evidence of the impact of Chernobyl, as the government controls not only practically all research on the subject on its territory, but also all the institutions and organisations involved in it. No primary information on radioactive contamination or epidemiological data are available. There are insufficient radiation monitoring points where members of the public can take food products for checking – they all require licensing. Where they exist at large farmers’ markets, people wishing to check produce for eating, rather than selling, have to pay for the service, although in the capital, Minsk, they can do it for free at the city’s Hygiene and Epidemiological Centre. Likewise, there is no information about these services on the sites of any other organisations responsible for radiation monitoring.
Chernobyl is a taboo subject in Belarus. This is both the result and the intention of a totalitarian system of government that is well aware of Chernobyl’s role as the spark for the implosion of the Soviet Empire. Soviet citizens learned about Chernobyl from Western media, sparking a wave of protests all over the country. The Belarusian government is still paranoid about disclosing any information about it, afraid this might lead to a coup or, as they would put it, an Orange Revolution.
Under the carpet
Belarus’s official policy on Chernobyl is aimed at persuading ordinary people to think about it as little as possible, and getting international organisations to allocate as much funding as possible to cleanup operations. Minsk spends billions on “making life safe” in the contaminated zone, though independent experts believe that it would be cheaper and safer to simply resettle people.
Over 26bn Belarusian roubles (about US$1.3m), 25.5bn (US$1.26m) from public funds, have been allocated to the clean-up between now and 2020 – a considerable sum for Belarus, whose total annual budget is about US$9bn.
Minsk is paranoid about disclosing any information, afraid this might lead to a coup or revolution
This policy, which officials claim will leave a minimal but permanent radiation level in both foodstuffs and the environment, has drawn criticism from experts on the subject. Dr Yuri Voronezhtsev, who in his time was executive secretary of the USSR Supreme Soviet Committee which examined the reasons for the nuclear accident, told me that the original safety strategy envisaged the complete resettlement of people from the contaminated areas, as in his opinion, agricultural produce from these areas would be both unsafe to eat and several times more expensive to produce than in uncontaminated areas.
Other specialists, such as corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Aleksei Yablokov, Belarusian medical specialist Professor Yuri Bandazhevsky and British epidemiologist Chris Busby agree that long-term exposure to small doses of radiation, including radioactive isotopes such as Caesium-137 and Strontium-90 which can be found in food, is no less dangerous to health than large doses.
According to the Greenpeace report, 1.1m people live in contaminated areas in Belarus, 1.6m in Russia and 2.3m in Ukraine, and are therefore being subjected to unsafe levels of radiation in both their food and their environments.
TORCH-2016, an independent examination of the impact of the Chernobyl accident’s impact on people’s health conducted by British scientist Ian Fairlie at the instigation of the Austrian environmental organisation Global 2000, concluded that five million people, including one million in Belarus, are living in areas of high-level contamination. A further 400 million living in areas of low-level contamination across the whole of Europe.
The Belarusian government is, however, determined to limit its costs associated with Chernobyl, and each year reduces the area of the zones defined as contaminated or dangerous, using as justification the natural decay of isotopes such as Caesium-137 and Strontium-90.
In January this year the government removed 203 towns and villages, with a total population of 31,000, from its list of contaminated areas. These people have now lost their previous rights under the law providing for compensatory benefits for people affected by the Chernobyl disaster and other nuclear accidents. The independent website Naviny.by quotes Anatoly Zagorodsky, a senior official at the Belarusian Ministry for Emergency Situations, as saying that this cut will save the country’s Exchequer 30bn roubles (US$1.5m) a year.
Each year Belarus’s government shrinks the contaminated zone, in order to save on compensating the inhabitants
The Belarusian government is in fact not only cutting back on measures to protect its citizens, but attempting to develop business activities in the contaminated areas. Timber from the forest around Chernobyl is being actively exploited, for example, as deputy Forestry Minister Aleksandr Kulik announced at a press conference on 24 March. “Work in these areas has not stopped”, he told the BelPAN news agency, “it is simply a question of how long people can stay there safely”. In the Chernobyl zone, he said, timber was being felled in three areas, with a contamination level for Caesium-137 of 1-5 curies/km2, with 0.15-0.5 curies/km2 for Strontium-90 and 0.01-0.02 for Plutonium.
Is blindness a blessing?
A recent poll by journalists from the independent Belsat TV channel on the streets of the city of Mogilev produced pretty clear responses to the question of whether the average Belarusian had any memory of Chernobyl. Answers such as “it was 30 years ago; the effects have disappeared by now” or “nobody has talked about it for a long time” reflect official propaganda.
Limited access to information, as well as public belief in “strict regulations” and a strict level of monitoring for radioactivity have led to Belarusians increasingly ignoring the “Chernobyl Factor”.
Experience shows that the average member of the public trusts official announcements over the conclusions of independent experts. In spring, forest fires in the 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the plant can lift and carry dangerous isotopes across hundreds of kilometres, yet people still go there for picnics, ignoring the advice of the experts. Yuri Voronezhtsev, who lives in the contaminated Gomel Region, thinks that government propaganda makes people behave more and more irresponsibly in contaminated areas, eating and even trading food from these areas – wild mushrooms and berries, milk and meat. With more areas being removed from the officially monitored zone, this behaviour is increasing.
He sees the general public as basically ignorant of the effects of radiation on health, which they fail to connect to the rise in the incidence of cancer in the contaminated zone.
Due to decaying isotopes, some areas will stay contaminated for 4330 years
At the same time, the effects of continual exposure to low levels of radiation in the area around Chernobyl were not immediately clear, and have only become visible over the decades, so people don’t tend to link increasing cancer rates to radioactive contamination. The emergency fatigue syndrome that was already prevalent in the first years after the disaster, when people didn’t want to hear about possible long term effects, only exacerbates the problem.
Despite the 30 years that have passed since the nuclear accident, experts stress that Chernobyl is still a threat to human life.
Scientists believe that soils contaminated by radioactive isotopes from the Chernobyl area will remain dangerous for not one, but 10 half-lives of these isotopes – for Strontium-90 this comes to 290 years, for Caesium-137, 300 years and for isotopes of Uranium, Plutonium and Iodine-190 (which medical experts consider toxic and carcinogenic), it’s even longer. The half life of Uranium-238 is 4.5 billion years; of plutonium-239, 24,000 years and for Iodine-129, 15 million years.
Some Chernobyl isotopes also decay into other unstable and toxic elements, among them Plutonium-241, which becomes Americium-241, a substance that the Belarusian Ministry of Emergency Situations has discovered around Chernobyl and whose effects on humans are similar to those of radioactive isotopes. According to official figures, the quantity of Americium-241 produced by the decay of Plutonium-241 from Chernobyl will increase by 2.4 times over the next century. In other words, these areas will be unsafe for 4330 years – ten times the half life of this element.
The fact that Belarus is now beginning to build its own nuclear power plant, on the same Soviet model as Chernobyl, shows how little it has learned from the last 30 years. There is no rational explanation for the construction of this “New Chernobyl”, since the site chosen for it is in one of the country’s least industrialised and polluted areas, an idyllic rural spot where Belarusians go for rest and recreation. According to a feasibility study produced by the Committee for Public Environmental Assessments, Belarus has no need for additional power stations since its demand for electricity is low and it already has surplus capacity. The government plans to generate 20-30% of demand through nuclear power, but the committee believes this will endanger its energy system as a whole.
There are various reasons for the committee’s concerns about the safety of the nuclear power plant: its chosen site near the city of Astrovets has been insufficiently explored and the yet untested Russian “AES-2006” project has numerous legal and technical flaws. Also, reactor construction began on 21 May 2012, on the same day as the plant’s architectural plans were commissioned, about a year before they were complete and two years before the expert feasibility study and the issue of a certificate of authorisation.
Since 2008, anti-nuclear activists have been harassed by the authorities in a wave of arrests
The decision to build the plant was taken in 2008 by Belarus’ Security Council, chaired by the country’s president Aleksandr Lukashenka, without taking any account of public opinion and in the face of public opposition. It did not follow the correct procedures on public participation in decision-making laid down in the Aarhus Convention, carrying these out when construction work had already started and flouting many of the convention’s provisions.
Belarus’s neighbour Lithuania has also been concerned about the possible risks, since the plant is sited just 20km from its border and 50km from its capital Vilnius. In 2014 it approached the Espoo Convention Compliance Committee asking for an assessment of its cross-border environmental impact. The committee recognised a number of infringements of the convention and asked Belarus to reconsider its choice of site. Belarus has failed to observe any of the committee’s recommendations and construction on the site continues.
Finding a voice
Although the long decades of propaganda have affected Belarusian public opinion, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people trust the nuclear industry.
A poll conducted in 2010 by the Vybor [Rn: Choice] talk show revealed that 87% of its 13,000 respondents did not believe that modern nuclear power plants were safe. After Chernobyl, Belarusians were not prepared to take further radiation risks and came out against the new plant. In 2006 there were public protests against its construction and in 2008 its opponents formed the Belarusian Anti-Nuclear Campaign, which publicised the legal and technical infringements taking place at the site not only in Belarus but beyond its borders.
This opposition triggered a crackdown from the government. From 2008, anti-nuclear campaigners were harassed by the authorities in a wave of arrests, searches and deportations.
These measures are all being documented and examined in the course of a new legal case brought by the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee. One of the most scandalous examples of Minsk’s strong-arm tactics was the arrest of Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Ozharovsky when he was invited by the anti-nuclear campaigners to take part in the public assessment of the nuclear project. He was deported from Belarus for ten years following ten days’ detention on charges of petty hooliganism — standard police practice in Belarus, where people are routinely arrested for political activities.
Despite the crackdown, Belarusians are continuing to ask questions about the construction of the new plant. This was the theme of Minsk’s Chernobyl Week, organised by the local environmental NGOs Ekadom [Rn: Ecohome] and Green Network. This year’s Chernobyl Road, an annual street event in memory of the victims of Chernobyl that has for the last few years called for a halt to the building of the plant, will also highlight the need to resettle the population of the contaminated zone and stop all business activity there.
This event, which has official permission, generally draws only about 2,000-4,000 people – a result of the harassment, intimidation and arrests of its participants. This year, however, it will benefit from considerable moral support – for 2015 Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich is chairing its organising committee. She is known, of course, for her Chernobyl Prayer.
This report prepared byfor openDemocracy.