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Europe

Opinion: Chernobyl -- an Insidious Legacy

The events of April 26, 1986, in then-Soviet ruled Ukraine were catastrophic, but they also set off important political changes ranging from the environmental movement to the collapse of communism.

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Praskoviya Nezhyvova holds a portrait of her son who died in the Chernobyl nuclear explosion

Chernobyl was a catalyst which unleashed forces of historical dimensions. Those Soviet functionaries who used time-honored Communist methods to respond to the accident -- lying to the population then covering up the aftermath -- helped bring that about, even if they didn't intend to. Even the secretary general of the communist party, Mikhail Gorbachev, only found out gradually what the true magnitude of the disaster was -- and it changed his relationship with the communist party apparatus.

From then on Gorbachev mistrusted the political system that had put him in power. He tried to reform it, instituted policies of transparency -- glasnost -- and structural reforms -- perestroika. A few years later the Cold War came to an end and the Iron Curtain fell. Chernobyl played a role in all of it.

This worst-case scenario changed the energy policies of many nations. People recognized the lethal dangers that accompany nuclear energy. Parties that demanded a withdrawal from nuclear energy programs, which they considered uncontrollable, won seats in the European Parliament. "Green" politicians took on positions of power in government. Since then, at least in western Europe, the development of alternative energy technologies has been strongly supported. Germany has excelled in this area and should be -- rightly -- proud. It can also take pride in the dozens of citizens' initiatives which have supported victims of Chernobyl in Belarus and Ukraine with money and medicine.

Tschernobyl verlassenes Haus in der Sperrzone

A dilapidated house is seen in the so-called exclusion zone, a highly contaminated area surrounding the Chernobyl plant

For 20 years now, citizens' initiatives, parties and governments have tried to overcome problems that are, right now anyway, simply unmanageable. The radioactive fallout from Chernobyl had a contaminating force 400 times greater than that from the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and large areas around Chernobyl will remain contaminated for the foreseeable future.

For tens of thousands of people, financial realities keep them tied to the region and living amid the radiation. Governments in Minsk and Kiev lack the means to effectively address the consequences of the catastrophe.

Dangerous decay

Now Ukraine's badly functioning bureaucracy is further complicating the situation. The hastily built "sarcophagus" that was built over the damaged reactor has deteriorated, becoming fragile and brittle. Visible cracks have formed through which radioactivity escapes into the environment. It appears to only be a matter of time before the protective cover collapses under its own weight. The West has provided money for an even larger hull, but progress on its construction has been slow.

And now, even 20 years after the accident, its long-term consequences are still unknown. The number of birth defects in the area around the affected zone has increased substantially. Hundreds of thousands of so-called liquidators -- people who directly after the accident risked their lives trying to protect themselves from worse, often with their bare hands -- are aging unusually rapidly and many have cancer. Hardly anyone gives a damn about them, often due to money, or better said, the lack thereof. Chernobyl has left an insidious legacy. We can't simply leave people in Ukraine and Belarus to fend for themselves. This difficult burden, if it can be managed at all, has to be managed together, by both East and West.

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