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Radioactive legacy

April 7, 2011

This month will mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. With Japanese authorities struggling to contain the Fukushima crisis, Chernobyl is a poignant reminder of what it's like to live with fallout.

Entrance of a house in Pripyat abandoned after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (07.04.11)
April 26, 2011 marks the 25th year since the accident at ChernobylImage: picture alliance/dpa

Although the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986 in the Ukraine, 70 percent of its fallout landed in neighboring Belarus.

Twenty-five years on, radioactivity contaminates around 150,000 square kilometers in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog.

The area stretches northward of the plant site as far as 500 kilometers and an area spanning 30 kilometers around the plant is considered an 'exclusion zone' and is essentially uninhabited.

The main road passing through the fallout zone in the Gomel region of southeastern Belarus is open for transit between Russia and the Ukraine.

Abandoned and decaying houses and farms can be seen to the left and right. Warning signs posted between trees read: "Radioactive danger. No trespassing."

It's not permitted to stay in the zone for long. In just a couple of weeks, one would be exposed to the maximum permissible dose of radiation for an entire year.

Refuse to leave

A home in Belarus
Despite being evacuated, some residents of the exclusion zone returned homeImage: DW/Makavetskaya

Wind and rain brought radioactive fallout to Yelena Muzhichenko's wooden, yellow house when Chernobyl's reactor number 4 exploded. She still lives there today.

"It was a mistake to chase the people away," she told Deutsche Welle, while feeding her ducks. "They destroyed everything: The collective farms, the factories, everything."

Muzhichenko, and her family were among the 135,000 people in Belarus forced to leave their homes two years after the catastrophe.

From their village of Bartholomevka, they were resettled in community housing in the city of Gomel, but they didn't like it and returned.

"They told us that we had to leave and chased us away," Muzhichenko said. "When we were back they told us to leave again. But I said: 'I will never leave my home.' For my part, I eat what I grow in the garden, and the mushrooms I collect in the forest."

Police patrols guarding the area now tolerate the old woman and her handful of neighbors who have also chosen to return. None has electricity or running water.

A magnified view of cancer cells
Thyroid cancer cases for children in Gomel multiplied after ChernobylImage: DW-TV

Thyroid cancer

The city of Gomel is located some 40 kilometers south of the exclusion zone, and 100 kilometers from Chernobyl. It has half a million inhabitants, making it the second-largest Belarusian city after Minsk.

Squarely in the middle of the town is its thyroid center, which claims to have treated more than 160,000 patients to date. The region's population was racked by cases of thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl catastrophe, says Maria Tulupova, the center's head physician.

"The groups that were mainly at risk include those who at the time of the accident were either inside the womb, or younger than 16 years old," she told Deutsche Welle.

"The thyroids of those patients absorbed more of the radioactive iodine that had contaminated the atmosphere and the food."

The German Otto Hug Radiation Institute in Munich has supported Gomel's thyroid center since 1993 with expertise and up-to-date medical devices.

According to statistics gathered by the German radiation experts, the number of children in Gomel suffering from thyroid cancer leapt 45 fold after Chernobyl. The number of adults jumped four-to-six fold.

"After Chernobyl, we children were sent to medical check-ups regularly, and they saw there was something wrong with me," said 26-year-old Natasha Koravaeva, who was treated as a child.

"I had my first surgery when I was three years old, and they took a part of my thyroid away. At the yearly check-up, it was decided I needed another operation and then everything was alright until 1994, when I had my third one."

Since then, Natasha has remained healthy, but she still goes to the thyroid center for regular check-ups.

Japan's nuclear crisis at its Fukushima plant brought back memories and fear, she said.

"I am not only scared for Japan, but for the whole world. Radiation is a danger for everyone. We saw that: It happened in Ukraine and we - the people of Belarus - got ill," she said.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, 50, is seen during a news conference in Minsk, Monday, Oct. 18, 2004
Lukashenko says the threat from Chernobyl is under controlImage: AP

Towing the line

Shortly after the nuclear catastrophe, a state-run institute for radiology was founded in Gomel to deal with all scientific and bureaucratic questions concerning long-term effects.

Director Viktor Averin's office is adorned with a framed photograph Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic leader of Belarus.

When it comes to the question of Chernobyl, Lukashenko likes to project the sense that everything has been brought under control. Averin agrees with him.

"Thanks to the great cooperation of our president, scientists, local government and the people, we managed to solve the problems with high efficiency," Averin said.

"We have very good medical services for the people in the affected regions. With respect to food contamination, we can say that our norms and laws are stricter than in most other countries."

Statistics from the Otto-Hug Institute in Germany, however, suggest that people still are suffering from the effects of Chernobyl.

Not only has the number of thyroid cancer cases risen in the region, but three times more people have been diagnosed with prostate cancer since 1985, and a significance rise in Leukemia and other cancer types has been observed.

On top of that, the population of the Gomel region has been decreasing faster than in other parts of Belarus. Since 1986, the mortality rate has grown and many young people have moved away.

Author: Mareike Aden (sjt)
Editor: Gerhard Schneibel