In Ukraine

By Ania Tsoukanova, AFP,  April 17, 2016

Further below is reporting on the more than 24,000 Ukrainian children victims of the Chernobyl disaster who have received medical treatment in Cuba. For reporting on the current situation in and around Chernobyl, see these reports posted on New Cold from 2014 and 2015.

KYIV – Ukraine is preparing to mark 30 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident whose death toll remains a mystery and which continues to jeopardise the local population’s health.

The destroyed fourth power block of Chernobyl's nuclear power plant shown a few days after the catastrophe in April 1986 (Vladimir Repik, AFP)More than 200 tonnes of uranium remain inside the reactor that exploded three decades ago, on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, raising fears there could be more radioactive leaks if the ageing concrete structure covering the stricken reactor collapses. International donors are meeting on April 25 to discuss a funding plan for the installation of a more modern and safe sarcophagus that could last a century and keep generations from living in fear.

But despite the international community’s commitment to funding the project, it remains unclear who will pay for the new dome’s operations and upkeep after 2017, when it is scheduled to become operational.

The disaster

Close up of the destroyed fourth power block of Chernobyl's nuclear power plant (unidentified photo)

Close up of the destroyed fourth power block of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant (unidentified photo)

At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986, reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, located about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Kiev, exploded during a safety test. For ten terrifying days, the nuclear fuel kept burning, spewing clouds of poisonous radiation that contaminated up to three-quarters of Europe, with Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus and Russia hit especially hard.

As the horror unfolded, authorities in the Soviet Union said nothing publicly, in keeping with a tradition of preventing people from learning of tragedies that could tarnish the image of the Cold War-era superpower. They evacuated the 48,000 inhabitants of the town of Pripyat, located just three kilometres from the plant, only the following afternoon.

The first alarm was raised on April 28 by Sweden, which detected an unexplained rise in its own radiation levels.

Only in his second year on the job, Communist Party Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev — winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democratic and economic reforms — did not publicly admit the disaster until May 14.

With the scale of what had happened now out in the open, the authorities in 1986 relocated 116,000 people from the 30-kilometre exclusion zone that surrounds the now-dormant plant. Subsequent years saw 230,000 others experience the same fate. Yet five million Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians still live in areas where radiation levels are high.

Some 600,000 people who became known as “liquidators” — comprised mostly of the military, police, firefighters and state employees — were dispatched by Moscow with little or no protective gear to help put out the toxic fire.

They were also responsible for erecting a concrete sarcophagus over the remains of the damaged reactor to prevent further radiation leaks, and for cleaning up the surrounding area.

Disputed toll

Thirty years later, the number of people who died in those chilling days and subsequent years from radiation poisoning remains a matter of intense dispute.

A controversial UN report published in 2005 estimated that “up to 4,000” could eventually die in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus from the after effects of the reactor’s meltdown. Yet a year later, Greenpeace environmental protection group estimated the number of deaths already caused by radiation poisoning at a staggering 100,000.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation officially recognised around 30 deaths among those urgently sent to fight and contain the disaster in the days following the blast.

Somewhat extraordinarily, Chernobyl continued producing electricity until December 2000, when an independent Ukraine was pressured by the West to shut down the last active reactor for good.

Monster cage

With the concrete structure hastily erected around the devastated site cracking and in danger of collapsing, work begun in 2010 on a 25,000-tonne steel protective barrier.

Protective cover over the damaged nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine (AFP photo)

Protective cover over the damaged nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine (AFP photo)

About twice the area of a football pitch and soaring 110 metres (360 feet) above ground, the structure is slightly taller than Big Ben in London and weighs three times more than the Eiffel Tower.

The funding for the 2.1-billion-euro ($2.4 billion) monster cage has come from more than 40 countries and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and 165 million euros more are expected from the G7 group of world powers and the European Commission. But a 100-million-euro funding gap for storing the spent nuclear fuel remains.

Even if that money comes through, it remains unclear who will foot the bill for the new dome’s operations after it is installed.

With most of the main work now completed, the structure is being fitted out with high-tech equipment that, if everything goes according to plan, will be able to decontaminate the hazardous material inside.

Chernobyl kids keep arriving in Cuba

By Patricia Grogg, Inter Press Service, May 7, 2009

HAVANA – Thousands of kilometres from Ukraine, where the worst nuclear accident in history occurred 23 years ago, the sun and fresh air of a Cuban beach provide therapy for Ukrainian children, who continue to be born with problems stemming from the disaster.

One of the 24,000 Ukrainian child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident receiving treatment at the pediatric hospital in Tarara, Cuba, outside Havana (photo by Desmond Boylan, Reuters, March 23, 2010)

One of the 24,000 Ukrainian child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident receiving treatment at the pediatric hospital in Tarara, Cuba, outside Havana (photo by Desmond Boylan, Reuters, March 23, 2010)

The day was just beginning on Apr. 26, 1986, when Reactor 4 exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. According to witnesses, the explosion sent the temperature up to a searing 2,500 degrees, melting everything nearby. A cloud of radioactive dust spread over much of Europe.

The radiation released during the disaster caused a wide range of ills among the population, like cancer and birth defects.

Four years later, children and teenagers from the disaster area began arriving in Cuba. The first 139 were the beginning of a vast aid project that has now benefited more than 24,000 people. According to Cuban authorities, this help will continue as long as Ukraine needs it.

Cuba’s Chernobyl children’s programme – which until 1992 also received patients from Russia and Belarus – is centred in Tarará, some 20 km east of the capital, and includes a small hospital, a school with Ukrainian teachers and several dozen comfortable housing units.

“From here they move through our entire health system, depending on their needs,” said director Julio Medina. That was his explanation for not making dollar estimates of the assistance that Cuba provides free of cost.
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“The important thing is to provide all the medical attention that these children and young people need,” he said.

Medical center in Tarara, Cuba, near Havana, where more than 24,000 children victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster have received treatment

Medical center in Tarara, Cuba, near Havana, where more than 24,000 children victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster have received treatment

The project operates through an agreement between the two countries’ health ministries. Medina also mentioned the participation of the International Fund for Chernobyl, a Ukraine-based non-governmental organisation that estimates Cuba’s expenditures to be 350 million dollars in medications alone.

Ukraine covers transportation, while room and board and medical services provided in Cuba are covered by the host country.

The patients themselves are aware of the costs. “In my country, the treatment that my son receives would cost 80,000 euros (105,362 dollars),” said Natalia Kisilova, mother of Mikhail Kisilov, a 15-year-old boy who was born with one outer ear and auditory canal missing.

Doctors involved with the programme that work in Ukraine assessed his case and sent him here two years ago. Cuban professionals immediately began treatment to correct the deformity.

“We lived in the accident zone and in the last few years at least four babies have been born with similar problems to my son’s… I have no doubt that it is a consequence of the accident,” said Kisilova, who believes this medical programme “is the most humanitarian in the world.”

But Medina and paediatrician Arístides Cintra agree that they can’t always be scientifically sure that the problems they are treating were caused by the nuclear disaster, because they present in the same way as they would for people who were never exposed to radiation.

“In any case, the recovery rate is more than 90 percent,” said Medina.

The most frequent problems are thyroid cancer, leukaemia, muscular dystrophy, psychological and neurological ailments, as well as skin diseases that are not cured in Ukraine, such as vitiligo, psoriasis and hair loss.

The reactor explosion released, among other radioactive substances, cesium-137, which remains active much longer than other types. “People exposed to cesium-137 are at risk of contracting illnesses, which is why we assess even apparently healthy children who live in contaminated areas,” explained Cintra.

The Chernobyl plant was finally shut down in 2000, with an international commitment for financial aid to Ukraine to complete efforts to confine radioactive material and build more modern reactors to make up for the electricity shortage. The budget for a steel shell to cover the radioactive core is about 1.4 billion dollars.

That same year, Cuba stopped work on construction of a nuclear power plant begun during the era when the USSR was the island’s main ally. The plant would have produced the equivalent of energy from 700,000 tonnes of petroleum. Cuba opted for “more efficient and less costly” solutions, such as gas derivatives from domestically drilled crude.

The energy strategy promoted in that decade was based on the search for petroleum, the more efficient use of existing sources and development of renewable energy sources. If the plant had been built, Cuba would have been just the fourth Latin American country with nuclear energy, after Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.

Despite the Chernobyl accident, nuclear “is a profitable, safe and supremely economic source,” said Ukraine business attaché Oleksandr Khrypunov in an interview. Ukraine currently has 15 nuclear plants, which provide 30 percent of the electricity consumed, and is building two more, according to the World Nuclear Association. An Association report counts 436 nuclear power plants in operation in 30 countries, and another 44 under construction. Of the total, 104 belong to the United States (a staunch opponent of the Cuban project to build reactors using Soviet technology), 59 to France, 51 to Japan and 31 to Russia.

According to Khrypunov, between 1987 and 2004, just over a half-million people died from the effects of radiation. In Ukraine alone, an additional 2.3 million people suffered damages to their health, including about a half-million children. “Most of those who go to Tarará are victims of that disaster,” he said.

The economic losses from the accident continue to accrue, but the risks to the population have been considerably reduced, and young people rarely talk about it anymore, said Khrypunov. “Chernobyl has passed to second or third place on the scale of people’s worries,” he said.


1995 photo essay of the treatment of Ukrainian children at Tarara, Cuba, by photographer Laura Kleinhenz

Associated Press video report (three minutes), on the medical center in Tarara, Cuba where Ukrainian children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are treated (go to weblink or click on screen)


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