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A New Generation of Chernobyl Victims

16 years ago an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant killed 31 people and sent a thick cloud of radiation across much of Europe. Today, the skies are clear, but the fight against radiation sickness is far from over.

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The tragedy of the Chernobyl nuclear accident persists 16 years later.

On April 26, 1986 reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine exploded, spewing clouds of radioactive dust across much of East and Central Europe. It was the world’s worst civil nuclear disaster. Some 31 people died in the reactor fire, and several dozen more were injured. In the days and weeks following the accident, the instances of radiation-related sickness skyrocketed throughout the region. Today 16 years later, the aftereffects are still being felt.

Radiation specialists who work in the Ukrainian region around the plant, which was finally shut down in December 2000, say the fight against radiation-related illness is far from over. Ukrainian children born after the accident have a high level of genetic-related birth defects, and many more have been harmed by consuming radioactive food over the last several years. These children form a new generation of Chernobyl victims who could pass the accident’s tragic legacy on to the next, the specialists say.

Der Unglücksreaktor von Tschernobyl

Photo taken in November 1994 shows an exterior view of the sarcophagus around the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl, Ukraine, nuclear facility.

Children at risk

"Today, 16 years after the accident, there remain some huge problems in several regions... especially in terms of children’s health and in terms of food," Olga Bobylova, deputy secretary of Ukraine’s health service said at a news conference on the eve of the disaster’s anniversary.

"In areas surrounding Chernobyl meat and milk in the private sector have high levels of radioactivity... there are also problems with the mushrooms and berries in the forests... such food can have a profound effect on health," she said.

The health crisis is augmented by the country’s growing poverty. Some 200,000 impoverished Ukrainians have no choice but to live in areas affected by radioactive contamination from the plant, says a recent United Nations' study. To supplement their meager meals, families gather berries and mushrooms from fields and forests still contaminated by radioactive debris. Many do not even know that the food poses a health risk so long after the accident.

And the government is not in a position to provide much help. "The state tries to give children good, clean food, but it cannot because of a lack of funds", says Secretary Bobylova.

Tragic legacy

Radiation specialists meeting near the plant on Thursday urged the Ukraine and the international community not to forget Chernobyl. The Chernobyl disaster cannot slip unnoticed into history’s archives, they said. It must not become a "forgotten crisis" – a term first coined by the United Nations when it hinted that funds could run out as interest in the disaster faded.

Health officials in the Ukraine warned that the disaster was still very much a current crisis. Evgeniya Stepanova, a specialist in radiation-related illnesses, said children and adults were beginning to show new complications years after the explosion. The full extent of the radiation, she said, is only beginning to surface now.

Kein Ende der Trauer

Anna Dolgova wipes tears as she holds a portrait of her husband Vladimir who died after he helped cleanup the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, during a requiem ceremony to commemorate victims of Chernobyl tragedy at a monument to them in Ukraine's capital Kiev April 25.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that Chernobyl will cast a dark cloud over the health in the region for a long time to come. In the Ukraine, thousands of deaths and unusual illnesses are regularly blamed on Chernobyl.

"Research has shown genetic mutations in sufferers of Chernobyl, both adults and children... Those children and adults are more likely to get cancer and pass on mutations to their children," Stepanova said at a press conference on Thursday.

Even neighboring countries such as Belarus and Russia are pointing their fingers back at the accident as the cause for a significant jump in thyroid cancer among their population. And they are probably correct in doing so. According to scientists, the rate of certain types of cancers increases in areas exposed to nuclear fall out. Studies also show that there is a clear link between exposure to nuclear radiation and genetic mutation.

In the face of mounting scientific evidence, Stepanova said it was time to turn the world’s attention to those who have no choice but to suffer the consequences and those who could unwittingly become the next victims of Chernobyl.

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